Roper: Vermont public schools are failing most vulnerable students

By Rob Roper

The latest standardized test results are out, and the results are pretty disappointing. Overall, scores dropped a bit from where they were last year, and, as Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcomb stated, “The achievement gaps between our vulnerable youth and students with greater privilege remain, and in some cases were narrowed, but this was largely a result of score declines for more privileged groups.”

Achievement gaps remain….

Rob Roper is the president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Here’s what Holcomb said a year ago at this time: “Our children from more prosperous families continue to rank near the top nationally. Our most vulnerable youth- those living in poverty, with disabilities, from marginalized populations and who speak English as a second – continue to have test scores that are on average lower than our general population.”

And, here’s what Secretary Holcomb’s predecessor, Armando Vilaseca said when he left office in 2013: “I am particularly concerned that we still have not made major progress in closing the achievement gap for students living in poverty (Armando Vilaseca, 11/26/13).

Indeed, virtually identical versions of this paragraph have been cut and pasted into the official press release every year for decades. The education gap between wealthier students, poorer students, and those with special need is a major problem, but the public education system as it is currently structured does nothing to fix it.

Vermont public schools do a pretty good job with mainstream kids. However, this year’s statistics show that only 1.67% of special needs students in the 11th grade are proficient in math! Really? Out of 2420 11th graders with special needs only 40 are proficient in math. Are these kids truly uneducable? Or is the system simply failing them?

A legislative summer study committee is currently debating the fate of Vermont’s Independent schools, a major complaint of the public school bureaucracy being that independent schools are somehow unfair to poor and special needs students by not following the same guidelines and practices that public schools do. This — mandating a failed system on schools that are in many cases doing a better job with lower income and special needs students on their own — is beyond Einstein’s definition of insanity. Perhaps a better idea would be to see how many low income and special needs kids we can get out of the public school system and into classrooms that better suit their needs.

For a look at the breakdown of the achievement gap based on this year’s test results, check out the chart below. (FRL means Free and Reduced Lunch)

For a look at the breakdown of the achievement gap based on this year’s test results, check out the chart below. (FRL means Free and Reduced Lunch)

Status Proficiency % # Of Students
Third Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 61.18% 3302
FRL 34.99% 2792
No Special Ed 55.51% 5206
Special Ed 12.05% 888
Not FRL 65.20% 2460.0
FRL 37.33% 2410.2
No Special Ed 58.84% 2450.7
Special Ed 14.53% 2357.2
Fourth Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 59.92% 3530
FRL 34.86% 2576
No Special Ed 55.88% 5240
Special Ed 9.82% 866
Not FRL 58.09% 2496.4
FRL 32.37% 2447.6
No Special Ed 52.97% 2489.8
Special Ed 12.53% 2390.7
Fifth Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 68.45% 2536.8
FRL 37.44% 2469.2
No Special Ed 63.32% 2527.9
Special Ed 13.14% 2403.8
All Students 42.43% 2504.6
Not FRL 54.47% 2529.8
FRL 26.00% 2470.2
No Special Ed 48.86% 2521.2
Special Ed 8.32% 2417.0
Sixth Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 62.54% 2553.2
FRL 37.43% 2499.5
No Special Ed 60.56% 2550.6
Special Ed 10.66% 2433.4
Not FRL 48.09% 2541.4
FRL 25.63% 2485.0
Special Ed 6.12% 2414.8
No Special Ed 45.43% 2538.9
Seventh Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 66.22% 2578.6
FRL 38.79% 2517.8
No Special Ed 64.26% 2576.5
Special Ed 9.51% 2441.2
Not FRL 53.69% 2565.9
FRL 28.75% 2503.9
No Special Ed 51.24% 2565.1
Special Ed 5.42% 2418.8
Eighth Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 64.74% 2592.6
FRL 38.88% 2533.0
No Special Ed 63.42% 2591.6
Special Ed 9.10% 2453.4
Not FRL 50.99% 2582.1
FRL 25.71% 2511.7
No Special Ed 48.19% 2579.4
Special Ed 4.33% 2425.0
All Students 41.26% 2555.0
Eleventh Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 66.51% 2621.7
FRL 39.76% 2546.0
No Special Ed 64.83% 2617.3
Special Ed 11.19% 2462.9
Not FRL 44.79% 2602.9
FRL 17.19% 2511.7
No Special Ed 41.13% 2596.1
Special Ed 1.67% 2419.6

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

10 thoughts on “Roper: Vermont public schools are failing most vulnerable students

  1. If “Vermont public schools do a pretty good job with mainstream kids”, why are about half of Vermont’s graduating seniors consistently, over the years, not meeting minimum standards in Reading, Writing, Math and Science? Surely all of these kids (some 45,000 or so) aren’t low income, Special Needs, ELL (English as a 2nd language) students.

    If half of Vermont’s public school population ARE part of this group, what system on earth could possibly create this level of dysfunction?

    Answer: The public school monopoly.

  2. How can a student be expected to learn to read intelligently when what’s available to read in the classroom differs so widely from the “Garbagelish” both spoken and heard daily outside of the classroom environment?

    The English language has become so corrupted with gutter slang that it has become the norm. Seems to me that more than curricula needs attention.

    • Math skills? Don’t get me started on that.
      It defies credibility how any understanding of the basic concepts of mathematics can come from teaching kids the “new math” that makes simple computations so complex.

  3. I know that what I’m going to say isn’t “politically correct”, but____I have never agreed with mainstreaming, and still don’t. My reasoning is not only for the overall school system, BUT also on behalf of the disabled students, esp. those with sig. learning disabilities. Most of those students are happier, and perform better, in an environment that is more compatible with their level of learning. I witnessed this with a family member many years ago when Brandon school was still open. My cousin had fairly moderate disabilities due to birth related complications, and he was in the public school system for about 4 years, but it was difficult for everyone in the room, incl. him. When his parents ultimately made the decision to enroll him at Brandon, it was difficult, esp. as he would be living a long distance from them. It turned out to be the best thing for everyone, incl. him, as he was in a comfortable school environment, and one where he was able to excel. He was ultimately able to leave Brandon-on his own-and live independently, under the sponsorship of one of his brothers. All this being said- I have also witnessed, as a sub teacher, how some “disadvantaged” students sometimes make a negative impact on the entire classroom-in one way or another.

  4. “Our children from more prosperous families continue to rank near the top nationally. Our most vulnerable youth- those living in poverty, with disabilities, from marginalized populations and who speak English as a second – continue to have test scores that are on average lower than our general population.” Did it ever occur that maybe those ‘prosperous families’ are prosperous because they learned? They functioned? They studied? And they achieved the American dream? And maybe, just maybe, they are smart? And maybe, just maybe, those who continue to live in poverty and have low test scores are not as intellectually astute as the ‘prosperous’? That maybe we all can’t reach a certain potential? So quite agonizing over it. Smarter, functioning people will always rank higher to the top than those who don’t…simply because they are smarter. It’s the DNA.

    • We are not all created equal (equal under the law, yes, but not much else). Simple as that. Recognize it in the classroom, in life, and move on.

      • Unfortunately, Abbey, we can’t move on. We’re still required, through an over-bearing taxation system, to support the one-size-fits-all public school monopoly at the expense of being able to afford the alternatives we know will serve us better. Equality doesn’t mean we’re equal. Ostensibly, it means we have ‘equal access’ to a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE). As it is now, only the wealthy few have that access. At some point in time Vermonters will understand that School Choice is a right we should all have.

        • “….Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE)”
          APPROPRIATE. Key word, that. I’d just love to see your own definition.

          I also doubt it would much coincide with an original libertarian’s own views. You probably know of him; he was one of those Old Dead White Guys.

          BTW, ain’t nothin’ “free”; never was, including home schooling for which the parents get a double whack. Interesting how that never enters into your lengthy rants.

  5. This problem is not that hard to fix IF educators actually want to fix it. Our education system has become computerized and too assessment oriented. As a result, actual learning has disappeared, especially for those students who most desperately need good basic education. ( literacy skills) I work with ESL writers worldwide all the time, and I’ve taught writing and reading with great success to students from elementary through graduate level. Indeed, the last time I taught, I discovered I was the FIRST teacher ever to award students with learning disabilities academic awards at the yearly academic awards assembly at that high school. Years ago I tutored literacy at home and taught a young boy who couldn’t read, but was getting B+ in reading, how to read when his school couldn’t be bothered. He ended up valedictorian of a large high school where I live and received a 6-year college scholarship in Physics at an excellent university. IT CAN BE DONE. I still remember being in a one-room schoolhouse in Northfield Center VT for half of 1st grade, 2d grade and 3rd grade. Our teacher taught all 8 grades beautifully, and she only had 2 years of teacher’s college as I remember. IT CAN BE DONE. YOU JUST HAVE TO WANT TO DO IT. I consult and write on educational issues all the time. So let’s do the job that needs to be done and that all our students need to be done and do it right.

    • Good for you. Years ago I was on an intercity high school advisory council. The number one complaint from teachers on the council was the student’s can’t read when they came into middle and high school. Elementary school is the best place to teach them to read and no social promotions because you don’t want to hurt their self esteem. Best to hurt it at the elementary level than to wait until they get in middle or high school. If you can’t read, you will have a hard time doing anything else.

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