Andrew Stein: Let’s not discount Vermont schools with cheap shots

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Andrew Stein, who is Vermont’s deputy state auditor and a director of the board of Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools. This commentary reflects his personal views and not the views of these two institutions.

If you ask 10 people about the purpose of primary and secondary education, you may well receive 10 different answers. Among those purposes frequently cited are: preparing students for college and a career, learning to engage in our democracy, improving social justice and equity, and establishing healthy habits. Priorities for education vary across and within communities.

As a professional evaluator of public programs and someone serving my community as a school board director, I’m always searching for different measures to evaluate the performance of programs and institutions. 

So, when I read Art Woolf’s recent commentary, “Vermont schools: High cost, average quality,” I was concerned that a shallow analysis built on a false premise and racial assumptions concluded that: “The bottom line is that Vermont’s schools do not do an excellent job of educating our children.”

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, assesses students from grades 4 and 8 across the U.S. on reading and math. Woolf’s conclusion hinges on the argument that the NAEP “is just about the only way we can compare how well Vermont students perform compared to students in all other states, which means how well our educational system serves Vermont’s students, parents, and taxpayers.”

But the NAEP is not the only way to compare how well Vermont’s students and schools perform with other states, and it’s certainly not the only way to gauge their value. 

Using the limited scope of state-by-state rankings, there are other opportunities for comparisons. For example, U.S. News and World Reports scores pre-K to 12 education by state using five main factors, which include NAEP scores. Vermont recently ranked fourth in the country when using this methodology. Education Week uses a three-index approach to compare the quality of K-12 education by state, and Vermont ranked seventh in the country, with an average score of B- and no state scoring higher than B+. The personal finance company WalletHub used a blended methodology focused on quality and safety to compare education systems by state, and that team ranked Vermont fifth in the country.

To fairly evaluate Vermont schools, we need to have an honest and comprehensive accounting of measures that reflect our priorities. Some Vermont schools are making progress on this front, and the Agency of Education recently released an online dashboard of education indicators. The success of our schools is not based solely on test results of fourth and eighth graders, but how well these public institutions address the needs, goals, and interests of Vermont’s children and communities.

One of those goals is equity, and Woolf does not acknowledge this. His racial rhetoric centers on an assumption that Vermont students should excel on the NAEP simply because they are overwhelmingly white. His analysis reinforces existing racial power structures and fails to acknowledge the social, cultural, and economic value of diverse communities. 

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It’s not only the white students and their families that we should pay attention to. Rather than silo these populations and paint diversity as a drag on an education system, we should acknowledge the value that people from different demographics provide to communities. The evidence is right in front of us — not just in the NAEP scores but in a range of community development research. And, Woolf misses this, asserting that two top achievers on the NAEP did so in spite of their diversity rather than because of it.

“Massachusetts, despite having a relatively large percentage of minority students, consistently ranks at or near the top of the states in performance,” Woolf wrote. “The big surprise is the U.S. Department of Defense school system … Those students’ demographic profile is similar to the U.S. student body — less than 50% are white, 12% are black and 20% are Hispanic.”

These results should not surprise us. They are prime examples of the achievement potential of all students — not just the white kids. 

The U.S. Department of Education, which organizes the NAEP, also acknowledges the power of diversity in our education system. 

“A growing body of research shows that diversity in schools and communities can be a powerful lever leading to positive outcomes in school and in life. Racial and socioeconomic diversity benefits communities, schools, and children from all backgrounds. Today’s students need to be prepared to succeed with a more diverse and more global workforce than ever before. Research has shown that more diverse organizations make better decisions with better results.” 

It is important for schools to identify inequities. It is then equally important to identify strategies and invest resources to ensure that disadvantaged students are not further disadvantaged by a myopic focus on the privileged. We should strive for an education system that rights the wrongs of the past by providing historically disadvantaged populations with equal access to opportunities and education, even if that requires more resources than those needed by the already-advantaged. 

No doubt there are many opportunities in Vermont to improve the quality of education and achieve greater efficiencies and value. But we don’t do that by relying on one metric of education outcomes, and we don’t do that by abandoning our public education system. Education is empirically proven to be a beneficial investment in communities, and it can add value that reading and math tests don’t quantify. 


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