EDITORIAL: The Quest for Adequate Public Education, Part One

How does one achieve adequacy, within an education system?

Not adequacy in the sense of “run-of-the-mill” or “mediocre” — but rather, in the sense of “providing what is needed?”

When I arrived — late — to the work session at the Pagosa Springs Middle School Library, on Tuesday evening December 12, Middle School Principal Chris Hinger was in the midst of discussing the following Powerpoint slide:

As we see from the chart Mr. Hinger was referencing, and from the title of the slide show presentation — “What Do You Need?” — the staff of the Middle School hoped to help the Archuleta School District (ASD) Board members understand how, and why, some of the ASD staff has become involved in state politics, around the subject of “better education.”

It’s a good question. What does a school district in Colorado need, in order to be adequate? Especially, what does a school district in a small, rural town with a challenging housing market, low average wages, and no higher education or vocational training opportunities, need?

The chart showed Colorado middle schools at “18th place” on terms of average 8th grade NAEP Reading scores — National Assessment of Educational Progress, “The Nation’s Report Card” — with essentially the same reading score as Nebraska, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Maine, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Kentucky, Oregon, Washington, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Virginia, Illinois and Kansas.

All of those 17 states fielded 8th graders who scored — on average, on the NAEP Reading assessment — between 267 and 269. That’s a difference of about 0.3 percent, across the education systems in 17 (presumably independently governed) U.S. states.

On average.

All of those states, plus another 17, scored “slightly above average” compared to the overall score of 8th graders nationally which was 264. According to Mr. Hinger’s chart, a total of 34 states were ranked (by someone?) to have “reading scores higher that the Nation” as a whole.

The Nation includes about 50 million public school students, so perhaps 3.8 million of those kids were in 8th grade at the time of the above-quoted test.

I understand that our education system feels a pressing need to measure things, and to come up with “above average” and “below average” scores. But I wonder if our Daily Post readers can think of many real-life situations where a 0.3 percent difference is truly significant? When measuring “adequacy”?

In this editorial, we’re going to be discussing the idea of “average” as well as “adequacy” because the next slide Principal Hinger discussed was this one:

Pagosa Springs Middle School Principal Chris HInger, during a work session presentation for the Archuleta School Board, December 12, 2017.

“I want to be AVERAGE.” With a Colorado flag.

This slide was delivered with a measure of humor, because none of us really wants to be “average.” (Even though most of us are, merely by the definition of the word.)

But it was also serious, because what Mr. Hinger was attempting to highlight was the importance of another chart he’d shared, which indicated that the state of Colorado ranks 40th in the amount of taxpayer money spent on public school students — measured per student. According to the U.S. Census:

Some educators in Colorado believe that a state that scores “above average” on reading assessments ought to score at least average on teacher salaries.

But this begs the question (if we are open-minded about these kinds of things.) How does Colorado achieve above-average reading scores (compared to other U.S. states) when we spend relatively less on public education than 39 other states?

As we can see the the chart above, the amounts of tax revenues spent in U.S. states, per public school student, varies quite a bit more more than the reading scores measured by NAEP. The state of Utah spends around $6,500 per student, on average. The state of New York spends about $21,000 per student. That’s a difference of 300 percent.

Yet the 8th graders in Utah scored somewhat better on the NAEP Reading assessment than did the 8th graders in New York.

Is anyone looking at how Utah managed such a feat?

The question of money spent — and teacher salaries — relates closely to another ongoing national issue, of course: a serious shortage of public school teachers all across this great land of ours.

From an August 2017 article in the Washington Post, written by columnist Valerie Strauss:

The 2017-18 school year has started in many places across the country, and federal data shows that every state is dealing with shortages of teachers in key subject areas. Some are having trouble finding substitute teachers, too.

The annual nationwide listing of areas with teacher shortages, compiled by the U.S. Education Department, shows many districts struggling to fill positions in subjects such as math, the traditional sciences, foreign language and special education, but also in reading and English language arts, history, art, music, elementary education, middle school education, career and technical education, health, and computer science. That is not an exhaustive list…

According to a 2016 report by the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute, teacher education enrollment dropped from 691,000 to 451,000, a 35 percent reduction, between 2009 and 2014, the latest year for which there is data. And there are high levels of attrition, with nearly 8 percent of the teaching workforce leaving every year, the majority before retirement age…

Shortages in pretty much every subject area, in other words.  Teachers leaving the profession in droves.  And falling enrollment in teacher education programs, in colleges everywhere.

Not 0.3 percent.  But 35 percent.

Different states are approaching the teacher shortage with different strategies. The Arizona legislature, for example, passed new regulations this year allowing public schools to hire people never trained as teachers to go into schools and teach, so long as they have a bachelor’s degree… or five years of experience in fields “relevant” to the subject.

What happened?

Read Part Two…


Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.