School test results are in and again this year, not one of our five public schools made “Adequate Yearly Progress” under the federal definition of that term. To make matters worse, all five, including Oak Grove Elementary, which was only in the Improvement phase last year, are in some form of corrective action. For perspective, ours were among the 73% of other Vermont schools in the same boat, roughly the same as last year. What is going on?
In an effort to get a handle on both the Brattleboro public school system and public education generally, it was necessary to view the problem from all angles. It all starts with a change in federal education policy via the Bush-era education act, No Child Left Behind, which mandated frequent testing of school age children and something called “teacher accountability.” Obama’s Race To The Top program builds on No Child by adding incentives (some would call them bribes) to teachers whose students perform well on standardized tests. There’s also federal education funding at stake, in the form of grants, that are distributed through the program to winning applicants.
In education, numbers are everything, and both federal education laws rely on them to evaluate success and distribute money. Schools that are less successful in getting their students to pass the exams are punished with less money. Schools that succeed in this regard are rewarded with more funding. Some argue that the system is backwards, but it remains in place today.
Here in Brattleboro, our schools are to an extent at the mercy of federal education policy. Our success as a school system is measured by federal standards which can change, and which, in the end, dictate what and how our children will be taught. They also dictate how much money we will get and to a large measure, how that will be spent.
For those who do not have children in the public schools, here is a very brief snapshot of our public schools. It is necessarily incomplete to save readers from numerical overload.
A Snapshot of Brattleboro Public Schools
To begin with, what does our local system look like? In 2012, a little over 1,900 kids passed through the Brattleboro Public School system. There are fewer than 900 students at Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS), about 250 at the Brattleboro Area Middle School (BAMS), and around 750 between the three elementary schools, Academy, Green Street, and Oak Grove. Overall, enrollment has been trending downward in the last few years.
More than 50% of our elementary school students qualify for free or reduced lunch, ranging from 55% at Academy to 62% at Oak Grove. 33% of our middle and high school students fall into this category.
Our schools boast average student-teacher ratios of 12-1 and under. For people raised in the days of 30-1, these numbers seem almost shocking until you realize how many paraprofessionals the school system employs -- over 80 of them at BAMS and BUHS alone. Part of the rise in the numbers of paras has to do with the mainstreaming of special education students. Students with special needs may be in mainstream classrooms but have a “one-on-one” para-educator to stay with them all day to help them with their school work. That said, Brattleboro has a low percentage of students who qualify as special needs. (see BUHS District #6 Annual Report 2013)
The cost per “equalized” pupil at BUHS is $14,701 per year. The cost per pupil in the other four schools is $15,245 per year. Our cost per pupil (and that of Vermont generally) is among the highest in the country. Only states such as New York, Alaska, and the District of Columbia spend more.
Through this year, our standardized test has been the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) but that will soon be changing as Vermont transitions to the new, national Common Core Curriculum. This year, Brattleboro’s school budget contained line items for new text books which we were told were necessary to bring the school’s teaching materials in line with Common Core.
As noted above, none of Brattleboro’s schools were able to eke out sufficient annual improvement last year to qualify as having made AYP. Moreover, all five of our schools are in some stage of corrective action.
And yet, although our local schools seem lackluster when viewed through the lens of No Child/Race To The Top, they aren’t actually bad at all compared to schools in many other states. Vermont consistently places among the top school systems nationally according to organizations such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and Education Week.
For a much more detailed picture of the Brattleboro public schools, see the WSESU School Report 2012-2013.
The Bigger Picture: Federal Education Policy
The mandate set by the federal government through George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and reinforced by Barack Obama’s Race To The Top program requires that all children attending American public schools be “proficient” in reading and math by the end of the 2013-2014 school year, as measured by standardized tests. The proficiency requirement does not differ from student to student -- everyone, including non-English speaking, low income, and special needs students, has to make the same grade.
This is part of the problem. Although not all kids start at the same place in the race for educational achievement, they’re all required to get to the same finish line at the same time.
Even some architects of the plan knew the goal of 100% profiency would be difficult to achieve. Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan, a strong supporter of the testing doctrine, has made impassioned speeches over the last couple years to the effect that if No Child Left Behind isn’t “fixed,” (and it hasn’t been) a majority of American public schools could be deemed failing by 2014.
There is reason for concern. On paper, at least, the consequences of failure are fairly dire:
- Schools that do not make AYP for two consecutive years must be publicly labeled "In Need of Improvement" and required to put together a two-year improvement plan for each area in which students are not performing to the required level. Students must be given the option to transfer to a better school in the school district, if there is one.
- Schools that don’t make AYP for three straight years must offer free tutoring and other supplemental education services to students who need them.
- Schools that don’t make AYP for four consecutive years, are labelled in need of "Corrective Action," which could involve replacing administrators and staff, introducing a new curriculum, or extending student class time.
- After five years of failing to make AYP, the school must make plans to restructure the school.
- After six years of failing to make AYP, the restructuring plan is implemented. Restructuring options include: closing the school, turning the school into a charter school, privatizing the school (at taxpayer expense), or turning the school over to be run by the State.
Here in Brattleboro, Academy School is in its fifth year of corrective action while BAMS and Green Street are in their third year. However, according to Paul Smith, Curriculum Coordinator at Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU), Vermont schools which do not make AYP are not closed or privatized. When asked if teachers had been fired due to federal policies, he said unequivocably “no.”
In general, Vermont has not embraced the federal education programs with a great deal of vigor, partly to avoid having to fire teachers and administrators of schools that don’t make Adequate Yearly Progress and partly due to the narrowness of the testing agenda itself. Vermont tried to opt out of No Child Left Behind testing requirements in 2011 but changed its mind in 2012 and withdrew the request, saying that the “flexibility” offered by the waiver was not as great as they’d hoped.
Vermont was not alone in seeking relief from No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top -- dozens of states have opted out of one or both programs.
However, even in Vermont, changes have been made. All schools now hire education specialists, test specialists, and academic support personnel. More is spent on tutoring and other forms of specialized academic attention. And in 2010, the Vermont state legislature voted to adopt the “Common Core Curriculum,” a national curriculum funded in large part by over $250 million in grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which is expected to standardize education across state lines. Adoption of this curriculum is required in order to compete for federal Race To The Top funding.
Troubles With Testing
As those who follow education probably know, there are issues with using standardized test results as the arbiter of everything, from teacher salaries to whether or not a school stays open.
Some critics say that today’s winner-take-all test system provides incentive for schools to cheat on the tests, an allegation that’s cropped up every year since Race To The Top was implemented in 2008. This has not happened in Vermont, fortunately.
The complaint has also been raised that teachers are encouraged to “teach to the test.” It’s hard to find school administrators who will admit to that or, for that matter, employed teachers. But recently unemployed teachers across the country have had a lot to say about the stultifying effect of test-teaching on what many of them think of as real education, and highlights the disconnect between educating children and making them “proficient” as measured by the number of ovals they manage to fill in correctly on standardized tests. Even some employed teachers have joined the crusade through activist groups such as Bad Ass Teachers.
With Common Core, there is a new reason to be concerned -- a national curriculum flies in the face of states’ rights and regional education, while putting all the nation’s children at the mercy of a single curriculum and test provider. There are concerns about the test itself, too. In the results just out, only 31% of New York State students passed the Common Core test, which was administered for the first time this year, compared to 55% (reading) and 65% (math) last year.
If the devastating results for New York State’s first experience with Common Core are any indication, many students will struggle with this latest innovation and test results will suffer, leading to more cuts and corrective action.
2014 is make or break year for No Child and Race To The Top, and as we approach that arbitrary date, concern mounts that most schools have already gotten as close to the top as they’re going to get, and that it’s not going to be good enough.
Citizens’ Movements: Opting Out and Speaking Up
In the last year, parents and teachers alike have begun to push back on education “reform.”
Parents around the country have pulled their children out of standardized tests, some in protest at what the testing mandate has done to education, and some out of concern for what it’s doing to their children.
In Chicago, where Obama and Race To The Top got their start, teachers and parents took to the streets multiple times in the last couple years to protest a school board proposal to close over 40 schools. That battle was lost in Chicago and there is the fear that the same scenario could play out across the country as one by one, schools fail and are forced to face whatever consequences are imposed.
Finally, taxpayers have noticed the size of education budgets and in many places, including Brattleboro, they are growing skeptical about the costs.
Because what we’re starting to learn, as the 2014 Proficiency deadline approaches, is that there may be a ceiling to the levels of achievement that Bush and Obama imagined possible. In other words, we may be approaching a point of diminishing returns with education beyond which more money yields almost no result.
The Finance Committee has suggested that Brattleboro residents consider a level funded school budget next year. One can imagine the howling even now. But if it’s true that the federal mandate can’t be met, then no amount of money is going to get us there. Maybe a break from costly and seemingly unproductive innovation would allow local schools and the taxpayers who fund them to take a hard look at what we’re doing as well as what we’re actually getting for our money.