Glass Half Full

Vermont has released the results for the “Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium” test our students took during the 2016-2017 school year. This was the third year that Vermont students took part in the “Smarter Balanced” program.

All Vermont public school students in grades three through eight plus grade 11 take the tests in English and math. The state reports the percentage of students who perform at or above grade level.

Let’s look at what the state and some of the media tell us.

The SBAC test results show that fourth graders in the Town of Franklin are doing great! 82.4% of them perform at or above grade level in math and 70.6% do the same in English.

Pretty good, eh?

Everyone loves it when a percentage — sometimes a large percentage — of students perform at or above grade level.

But wait. The reports help us lose track of the fact that a growing number of students are still found below grade level and only a scant few are doing better.

• The Town of Highgate has generally the lowest numbers in the County; Oopsonly 36.6% of fifth graders performed at or above grade level in English and only 19.5% did that in math. It gets worse in high school. At Missisquoi Valley Union High School, just 26.9% of eleventh graders performed at or above grade level in English and only 4.5% did it in math.

• Student performance has also declined from the 2015-2016 school year but the reports don’t show that up front.

• “The Agency of Education initially reported 59% of fourth grade students were proficient in English… The correct number is 49%.”

School results like this are worrisome, particularly when the Agency of Education apparently can’t do the arithmetic.

The reports help us lose track of the fact that a growing number of kids are still found below grade level.

At MVUHS (simple arithmetic here) 95.5% of 11th graders scored below grade level in math! 95.5%. Even in the Town of Franklin, almost a third, 29.4%, scored below grade level in English.

I’ve been thinking about schools and learning and creativity for decades. I have taught high school kids and college courses. I have studied teaching thanks to Vermont Colleges and “workshopped” in the hot ticket for teaching techniques (for the record, I prefer Mastery Learning). I have worked with school administrators and superintendents. And I was School Moderator for our Town.

In real life, I’m an engineer so I live for data but, above all, I know the statistics hide the kids.

The Bard remains a fixture in high school English classes so I asked 11th grader Jimmy Lombard what “wherefore” means in the phrase “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” As an aside, the Washington Post posited that teachers should not assign Romeo and Juliet.

“It means ‘Where did you go, Romeo’,” Jimmy said. “He was off in the bushes.”


Juliet’s opening question in that romantically philosophic speech,

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo
Deny thy father and refuse thy name
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”

means that Juliet is agonized that Romeo is a Montague and wishes him to have been born to some other family. Any other tribe. It fits with “a rose by any other name…”

Sorry, Jimmy. Mr. Shakespear had Juliet poetically ask, “O Romeo, Romeo, why are you Romeo Capulet, dammit?”

Meanwhile, 4th grader Karen Rocque was doing some homework and didn’t have her calculator so she asked me, “What’s 12 times 9.”

(It’s 108.)

Kids are supposed to “fluently” multiply and divide numbers up to 100 by the third grade. Many education experts today won’t even teach the multiplication tables.

In another county, Burlington, Vermont’s teachers just settled a four-day strike. They wanted more money, of course, but mostly they wanted less time with the kids. A major disagreement in the contract negotiations was simple: the teachers demanded to be excused from interacting with the kids for 20 minutes during lunch and recess.

The average Burlington teacher’s salary for the past school year was $70,878; the state average salary was $59,154. The average Burlington student performs below grade level.

Imagine that. Professionals want more money and less time on the job to turn in poorer and poorer results.

One of the strikers carried a sign. “Quality Teachers Deserve Respect.”

I agree.

“Students Deserve Quality Teachers,” too.

Is the glass half empty? My question remains, should we stop assigning Shakespear and multiplication tables because they are hard or should we buckle down and learn to teach Jimmy and Karen and all our other kids?


Arts in Education

Join area artists and arts councils to celebrate National Arts In Education Week. It begins today and continues through September 17.

You can take part. Take just a couple of minutes to write a Letter to the Editor of the Courier, Free Press, the Messenger or your own hometown paper. Tell your story of why the arts in education matter to you.

The Drawing Class

Designated by Congress in 2010, House Resolution 275 names the week beginning with the second Sunday in September as National Arts in Education Week. During this week, the field of arts education and its supporters join together in communities across the country to tell the story of the transformative power of the arts in education.

In 2016, it is a particularly important time to celebrate arts education, as we usher in a new chapter of American educational policy with the new “Every Student Succeeds” Act and its many arts-friendly provisions. In the new law, the arts remain a well-rounded subject and are empowered to be central to a child’s education in our public schools. More importantly, music helps kids learn math. Art helps kids learn language. Reading helps kids learn to write.

Our municipal, school, and state leaders need to know about the impact the arts have on young peoples’ lives and that they must support the arts in every district and every school in America.

After sending in your letter to the editor, you can join the movement of thousands of arts education advocates celebrating National Arts in Education Week. Contribute to the visibility campaign on social media during the week of September 11-17, 2016 by using the hashtag, #BecauseOfArtsEd. People from all walks of life can share their story of the transformative power of the arts in their own education and the impact the arts have had on their work and life.

Here are some ways to participate:

• Write a letter. Take two minutes to write a Letter to the Editor of the Courier, Free Press, or Messenger. Tell why the arts in education matter to you.

• Post on Facebook. Tell the world your #BecauseOfArtsEd story on Facebook. Describe what you are doing now in work and life and how arts education has a positive impact with a photo! Be sure to use #ArtsEdWeek, too.

• Send a tweet. Share your quick #BecauseOfArtsEd story on Twitter. Be sure to include an image or video along with #ArtsEdWeek.

• Share a photo. Post your favorite arts education photo on Instagram along with your #BecauseOfArtsEd story about the impact of arts education on your life. Be sure to use #ArtsEdWeek.

And be sure to send your letter or tweets to your school board and to our representatives in Montpelier and in Washington.


Supporting Parents?

Back in the 80s (that would be the 1980s for those in school now), our local high school had more than a few problems. Test scores were down. Graduation rates were down. “Post-secondary attainment” was down. Teacher salaries were down. Community involvement was down. School morale was down. We fixed it.

“A college education has spoiled many a good garbage collector.”

Our solution was to bring together a bunch of parents of middle school age kids to form what ended called the “Parent Support Group.” I always thought it sounded like a warm and fuzzy safety net encounter group but I was the first chair of this gang and got outvoted.

These were the Go-Go 80s. No, not the heady, speculative 1880s when real estate prices went berserk and steam trains rumbled west. As Tom Brokaw said, “Money was flowing out of Wall Street for Bacchanalia.”

It wasn’t flowing to Vermont.

I thought Management by Wandering Around could have. Maybe a little Theory Y. And some old-fashioned MBO. For building rapport in a team or a community, it sure beat hiding behind closed doors.

7th grader Jimmy Kominsky set a goal to do his homework every day.

Missisquoi Valley Union High School was about a decade old, then, a “new” school for the area. It had Florida architecture with circular brick pod-like turrets clustered to face out toward the invading hordes. It was a district school with three feeder towns, rather than the very local Town K-12 school with the schoolmarm living above your neighbor’s garage. The enrollment averaged about 1,050-1,100 students in the mid-80s. My memory pegs the annual budget at around $2 million then (the Inflation Calculator tells us that $2 million in 1985 dollars would be $4.4 million today).

The school board and the school administration were sequestered in this fort and the community stayed away. Educational changes were in the wind and the community stayed away. Budgets climbed and the community stayed away.

8th Grader Jenny Laroche set a goal to birth a foal.

Part of our charter as the Parent Support Group was to be a Booster Club to bring the community back in. MVUHS has a stunningly excellent theater; our arts council started there with the Franco Voyageurs, the Ketch dance troupe, McGill Jazz, Vermont Symphony performances, and more. Good arts and good sports bring people into the building and enrich the kids. They can even improve school revenues.

Part of our charter as the Parent Support Group was to give the then-new “Middle School” its own identity. Somebody had decided kids in 7th and 8th were too young to mingle with the older high school students and the idea of a “junior high” was demeaning.


Oh, I understand all the buzzwords, that middle school is student- not subject-oriented and “emphasizes affective development” and that “teachers and students work together in interdisciplinary teams” with experiential learning and teamwork and that the awful junior high was subject- and teaching-centered with nothing but traditional instruction for hours and hours per day. Junior high kids have to suffer through study halls and homerooms.


8th grader Brown Connery set a goal to skateboard in the snow.

You’d think it was impossible to do any of the neat, new wave, high tech schooling in the Junior High building. Moreover, I still wonder why kids in middle school today have lower achievement than kids in junior high did a generation ago.

Back to the story.

The school pulled the 7th and 8th graders out of gen pop and gave them a pod of their own. Teachers shuffled around so a dedicated group shepherded these kids for those couple of school years. And we parents supported all that with in- and after-school activities.

We had music and art. We had trips. We had clubs including a goal-setting club. I don’t remember if there was a fishing club but I do remember math and cooking and tutoring and shop. Come to think of it, I don’t think we had a rocket club. Missed the boat there, we did.

Jimmy Kominsky’s goal to do his homework, no matter how tired he was after school, was because he was bored. “It’s so boring to sit there wasting your time,” he told me, “but it’s better than learning to flip your eyelids inside out.”

Jenny Laroche had some trouble finding a horse to foal. This is dairy country and there were fewer horses around even in the 80s than ever before. Benoit Laroche (no relation) let her stop every day after school. Benoit milked about 100 head, a fairly large farm for the day, and had six Morgan horses he used for sugaring.

Brown Connery failed at skateboarding in the snow but he learned enough to skateboard on it. That wasn’t magic, but common sense. He and his dad cleared out some space to set up a small skateboard yard with flatbottom, a nice downslope, and hard, grindable edges. It was winter-ready because he had a really big shovel.

Jimmy is 43 this year. He never did learn to flip his eyelids but he did learn to swallow swords. I ran into him again this spring in Key West. He works the slack wire in Mallory Square most evenings. He owns a house and has two kids in the Horace O’Bryant School there.

Jenny is 44 this year. She went to UVM and then Cornell and is a large animal vet in Alaska.

Brownie never did invent the perfect skateboard but he moved halfway down the Banana Belt, that part of far western Vermont where temperatures are more clement. He drives a truck over the road and serves on the school board in Bridport, I think.

Overall, the Parent Support Group was a success.

Those early middle schoolers set goals for their own enjoyment. They saw rising test scores right through graduation. Commencement rates came back up. More than half went on to some form of higher education. Neighbors as well as parents attended the musical and sports and shows there. School morale came up.

[Years passed]

Things have changed at schools in 30 years. The 2015-16 enrollment at MVU is 930 students with a student-teacher ratio down to an amazing 10:1. The 2015-16 budget is $15,231,150. USNews reports the College Readiness Index at 23.5, the mathematics proficiency at 1.7, and the reading proficiency at 2.8. In the New England Common Assessment Program, 16% of Missisquoi Valley Union 11th graders are now Substantially Below Proficient in reading and 51% are now Substantially Below Proficient in math (that’s more than half the kids for those in that category). If you add up the bottom two categories, one-third of MVU 11th graders are now NOT Proficient in reading and 80% are NOT Proficient in math overall.

There must be a lesson in there somewhere but it’s up to you young parents to solve. See, I have a different emergency. I ran out of cookies.

Next up, what Vermont’s governor and I were joking about on stage in 1984.


From the You Can’t Make this S..t Up Department

Few things get people more riled up than the state of our schools; and few people have recently riled up a school more than Texas A&M Instructional Associate Professor Irwin Horwitz. An Instructional Associate Professor means he’s one of the good guys in college: he actually teaches classes and has for more than 20 years.

The prof made the news by flunking his entire class in Strategic Management. Every last one of them.

Even better, he did it by email, calling his students “a disgrace to the school” and said he had reached a “breaking point.” Mr. Horwitz says the students weren’t slacking off academically and were disruptive, rude, and dishonest in class.

“Since teaching this course, I have caught and seen cheating, been told to ‘chill out,’ ‘get out of my space,’ ‘go back and teach,’ [been] called a ‘fucking moron’ to my face, [had] one student cheat by signing in for another, one student not showing up but claiming they did, listened to many hurtful and untrue rumors about myself and others, been caught between fights between students…
“None of you … deserve to pass, or graduate to become an Aggie, as you do not in any way embody the honor that the university holds graduates should have within their personal character.


And all he wanted was for students to be respectful, do the classwork, and pass tests.

• The university views class attendance as an individual student responsibility. Students are expected to attend class and to complete all assignments.
• … Exams, laboratory assignments, field student work, projects, papers, homework, class attendance and participation and other graded activities [are used] in the calculation of the course grade.

Mr. Horwitz said that the failing students simply hadn’t done any academic work. Most, he said, couldn’t even do a break-even analysis (that tells you how much you need to sell in order to cover your fixed and variable costs of producing a widget).

Back in the touchy-feely 90s, some Vermont colleges decided tests were bad and grades worse.

Back in the 90s, I spent a few years as the lowest of the low, academically, as an itinerant instructor for Vermont Colleges. I taught mostly computer courses as well as a couple of units of manufacturing engineering.

My students liked me, perhaps for a few reasons. Since I subscribe to Boppa’s First Principle of Teaching, I usually knew what I was talking about and because I made sure my students did, too. That and the fact that I called my classes youse guys.

I gave tests, something few educators did (I was a teacher, not an educator). And I gave actual grades.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing a student can delude him- or herself over more than how well they are doing in a class. Tests and grades are positive feedback. They showed me where we all needed to do more work; they showed my students where they individually needed to do more work.

Things are different in academia today. Now the pressure has switched from coddling to inflation. Where we once couldn’t “hurt our students’ self-esteem” by showing them their actual performance, now we can’t “hurt our students’ prospects” by showing them their actual performance. We have to inflate those grades.

Back to the Aggies. Stunned students were seriously shell shocked. One senior called the allegations “ridiculous”; he was worried that failing the class would “mess up the job he has lined up for after graduation.”

Oddly, the Aggies won’t be backing up their professor’s actions.

The vice president of Academic affairs, Dr. Patrick Louchouarn, said they respect Professor Horwitz, but his grades would not stand.

We can’t “hurt our students’ prospect” by showing them their actual performance. We have to inflate those grades.

Tomorrow is the last day of Spring semester classes at A&M so the newly assigned instructor, the Department Head tasked to pass all the students, doesn’t have much time to whip the class into shape.

And Professor Horwitz will likely lose his job.

Boppa’s First Principle of Teaching
My grandfather, whom I called Boppa and whom most everyone else knew as “Dr. Dunning,” was a Professor of Chemistry at Temple University for most of his working career. He was one of the good guys in college, too: he taught classes for more than 40 years.
“You don’t have to know everything. You just have to stay a chapter ahead of your class.”


The Perfect Game

I attended an Inclusive League baseball game on Saturday.

Because all North Puffin children are equally good players, tall and strong, the kids from 6-17 all play hardball together in Inclusive League games. Baseball is a great game, especially here where our League team started up just a couple of years ago. The kids have uniforms, thanks to a Town grant, and a new regulation field next to the hockey rink.

I don’t usually go to games or even watch baseball on TV but I like the game. My dad and I listened to Birds games when we were on the boat. I even attended a Diamondbacks game a couple of years ago. I loved the Ken Burns series but I had mostly stopped watching games back when my friend Jon Matlack was pitching for the Mets. He won a lot of games, but he never won any when I watched. Since pro ball is steeped in superstition, I quit watching and he started winning again. You’re welcome, Jon. Still, Google delivered 1,080,000 results about “baseball musings” in .34 seconds.

North Puffin Red Sox Home UniformWe were there because Bobby, my friend Lido “Lee” Bruhl’s grandson, was starting in his first game as shortstop for the North Puffin Red Sox which is named for the Boston team. There are no Yankees fans in North Puffin.

Bobby is a great kid but he’s not a very good athlete. He is a little overweight and a little under-coordinated and is often not quite sure how his feet fit. Pretty much the same as 90% of the kids I know.

His mom is an elementary school educator and knows that Bobby’s self-esteem is his armor against the challenges of the world and she knows, absolutely knows that the way to improve his self-esteem is to praise his every activity.

“I teach compassion. Feeling good about yourself is crucial to every other facet of life,” she said.

Bobby had four at bats. He whiffed all three times his first time at the plate.

“Good job, Bobby,” his mom called from the fence line.

Second at bat. He got just little piece of the ball almost by accident and sent a little dribbler back toward the mound. Bobby isn’t a very fast runner and was maybe half way down the base line when the pitcher drilled the ball over to first.

“Great job, Bobby,” his mom called from the fence line.

Third at bat. Bobby asked me not to write about that one.

“You’re doing great, Bobby,” his mom called from the fence line.

Fourth at bat.

The first pitch kind of meandered toward the plate. Swing and a miss. Strike one.

The second throw got away from the pitcher and was high and outside. Ball one.

The third pitch really got away and was high and way outside. The opponents had a terrific catcher. Ball two.

Fourth pitch. Fastball right down the middle. Strike two.

Bobby has trouble with fast balls. Inclusive League pitchers aren’t supposed to throw curves; parents of young pitchers have decried curveballs because contorting elbows that way strains the young joint more than arms can handle. It turns out that a major study showed curveballs pose no greater risk to young arms and elbows than any other pitches. In fact, several other studies say the real problem is throwing too many pitches of any kind, not just curveballs.

Doesn’t matter. Bobby can’t hit a curve anyway.

The pitcher felt confident. He had been practicing his curve and knew he could get Bobby to chase it. Except the ball didn’t get anywhere near the plate and Bobby wasn’t ready anyway. Ball three.

This was the eighth inning. The Red Sox were down one with runners on first and third.

Bobby stood there, waiting. He was calm, his bat on his shoulder.

Final pitch. Fastball right down the middle. It was a perfect pitch. Bobby reared up and swung for the stars. And missed the ball by about a foot. Strike three.

“You did terrific, Bobby,” his mom called from the fence line.

Kids understand a lot more than adults give them credit for. A kid knows, for example, when he or she excels in a sport. And when he or she sucks at it.

When I was a kid, if I struck out or just dribbled the ball down to the pitcher, some coach would have taken me aside and show me how to hit a little better. Then he’d make me drop and give him 20 and spend an extra half hour in the batter’s cage. I could never have hit one of Matlack’s fastballs, but I did learn to do a lot of pushups. And once I grew into my feet, I diverted my desire to be a jock into swimming and racing cars, instead of sports where I might be adequate but never good.

Telling Bobby “good job” will activate his BS meter.

Telling Bobby “terrific job” will peg the meter.

I don’t understand why Liberals like Bobby’s mom insist on making cynics of Bobby and all the rest of our children.