On Point In Education: Good to great

As we watch the political and emotional wheels turn before the start of our next legislative session, a familiar reality is emerging on the key educational issues we are facing. Proponents and opponents are lining up on both sides, decrying the data that are surfacing. Similar to the trajectory of the H.883 governance conversation last year, there are challenges ahead as we look to engage in bipartisan dialogue about Vermont’s next steps in education on a solid foundation of common ground.
There are numerous attempts at play to establish this common ground, including legislative workgroups, Vermont School Board initiatives, and local and state committees working to construct an accurate picture of both the current educational reality and a sense of its necessary direction. These groups are drawing on countless data sources to build a narrative for Vermont.
Recently, the New England Secondary School Consortium Common Data Project was released, which outlines educational data gathered from state departments of education across all New England states except Massachusetts. This report provides longitudinal data to states in order to provide metrics to gauge educational services and programs. The findings are startling, given what we usually hear regarding student achievement data in Vermont and our placing on national and international assessments. Furthermore, the report breaks down the data by specific subgroups, such as English Language Learners or Students with Disabilities, to capture greater detail into the aggregate that we tend to report. There are four indicators covered by the report: graduation rate, dropout rate, college enrollment, and college persistence.
As an example, in 2013, Vermont had the highest dropout rate at 9.6 percent across all subgroups among the New England Secondary School Consortium. When this percentage is broken down further, we see the achievement gap widen, with 18 percent of our Economically Disadvantaged students, 15.7 percent of our English Language Learners, and 19.2 percent of our Students with Disabilities dropping out. In addition, Vermont also had the lowest college enrollment rate at 52 percent, with Connecticut up at 66.9 percent, with similar disparities across subgroups in this category. Graduation rates were highest in Vermont for our non-Economically Disadvantaged students at 94.6 percent, but not for our other subgroups.
While these percentages are singular indicators, they are important for us to consider if our goal is to create a world class educational system in Vermont that supports and accelerates student learning. These are the data that we should be bringing to this legislative session, to consider how our educational systems are working to bridge the opportunity gap, to analyze how responsive we are to students at every point of the learning continuum, and to work together to make the necessary changes to our recalcitrant educational issues that hinder our ability to reach every student.
There is a propensity to shape data and make summarial prognostications about them in the heat of debate. This is true across political realities, and it has been a challenge in moving forward on key educational issues. It will certainly be a major part of this legislative session as funding and governance emerge as the two issues at the fore. As we pursue change, we need to look at all data to inform critical decisions that affect our students and avoid anecdotes that provide an inadequate platform for change.
Peter Burrows, D.Ed., is superintendent of the Addison Central Supervisory Union and has more than two decades of experience in education.

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