At Large: Are we getting the eduation job done?

Here are some important back to school 2012 numbers. Martha’s Vineyard taxpayers spend generously on education, this year approximately $44,911,170 to support seven schools with a total enrollment of 2,267 students. That means a smidge less than $20,000 per student.

We’re awfully glad our numbers are not these numbers. Three hundred fifty thousand students without schools to go to. Twenty-six thousand teachers striking. Average salaries at $71,000 and certain to rise when the deal is done. A current $700 million budget shortfall estimated to be $1 billion next year and $3 billion, five years hence. That’s a tottering town.

You say, but that’s a silly comparison, and it is, in many more ways than it is instructive. But, in one way, these two circumstances, placed in juxtaposition and examined generously, hint at how to, and how not to, get things done.

There, the bargaining unit for teachers, an affiliate of a national union that organizes public school teachers, finds itself on the defensive, attacked for poor student performance, high costs, a dedication to job security rather than teaching, and an unwillingness to join up with efforts to make American schools better.

Here, the small size of the system and of the community means that the teachers know the kids and their parents. The parents know the professional school leaders too, as well as the elected school committee members. The madcap, federalized — as opposed to regionalized — school organization chart, means that decision making is disbursed among seven schools and the close to the bone constituencies for each. It makes for a delicate community comity and close working relationships between teachers, students, and parents.

And, of course, we’re in luck because half the money we spend comes from people who pay real estate taxes here, but don’t require school services for their children, and have no voting say over how high we pile our school budgets.

Just as important, school leaders here have embraced modern techniques to measure educational success and diagnose disappointments. I mean standardized testing, for one, and the new state-ordered system for evaluating teacher performance. Teacher evaluations influenced by student test performance is a deal-challenging issue for teachers in Chicago and in school systems elsewhere in the country. Here, led by Jim Weiss, the adroit, consensus-building superintendent, administrators and teachers have turned the testing tools to their advantage and found ways to deal fairly with one another under a new performance standard.

What matter most are good teachers, not school committee members, administrators, iPads, the latest digital learning software, the size of the class, and not even the amount of money spent per student in any school system. It’s all about the teachers and their ability to transform the children in front of them into committed learners. It’s a gift whose rewards are immense for successful teachers, though not financially — largely because too many pennies of every dollar a community like this one spends to educate about 2,200 kids get spent on all the things that don’t matter so much.

The new evaluation system imposed by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) will link student learning and teacher practice to performance ratings for administrators, from superintendents to principals, and to teachers. Mr. Weiss has pressed for a better evaluation system, “focused upon helping teachers become better at their craft.”

” … what it does,” Mr. Weiss says, “is look at the craft of teaching, the art of teaching, having the right skills, and connects that with student learning, as demonstrated by various kinds of data or test scores, so it directly connects the act of teaching with student learning.”

Ultimately, the quality of that connection is something that parents, voters, and taxpayers must measure. Certainly, we spend enough to expect excellent outcomes. Standardized testing, MCAS scores, and soon the more highly developed matrix to define teacher performance will contribute to a smart judgment about this Island’s education performance. But deciding whether Island education is successful and economically efficient cannot be merely self-referential. That judgment requires an extended and objective matrix, to answer these questions.

Is the school system efficiently spending the enormous sums it receives? Could we do better with the same dollars, or could we do better with less?

MCAS tests are sound, necessary measures of student and, to some extent, teacher and system performance. But, they are hardly sufficient. Would a well-crafted survey that tracked student performance over time, from entry into middle school grades to life after high school and after college confirm our largely unsupported sense of satisfaction? If we measured the success and satisfaction of this school system’s most important products would the result trace favorably to the assumptions that guide our education decisions? Are students successful and happy out in the world, post-secondary school? Would the results of such a survey suggest some changes that might lead to better outcomes? What other objective measures might we try to see if we’re doing well or might do better?

Assurances of teachers, administrators, and school committee members are comforting, but not sufficient. After all, most of them are professionally interested in the quality judgment, and some of them are elected lay volunteers, earnest and tireless but not prepared by training and experience to test outcomes.

This school system, in concert with Island finance committees, should subject itself to the scrutiny of private, professional outsiders, whose report will both comfort and encourage taxpayers and parents. Educating children is a big and vital challenge. We ought to spend wisely and test outcomes vigorously, but we don’t.