How do we test our complicated, expensive education system?


Educating 2,200 or so Vineyard youngsters is expensive. Island taxpayers provide funds sufficient to make the per-pupil costs here equal to similar expenditures in the very richest communities in the Commonwealth. By dollar standards — which are certainly not the only standards that should be used to measure the quality of the effort made by the school system, or its efficiency — Vineyard kids get the best that public education can provide. But, do they?

Calculating how much we spend may contribute something to the analysis of how well we educate the community’s young people. Standardized testing, MCAS scores, and soon a more highly developed matrix that will employ those scores with other refined measurements to define teacher performance will also contribute to a judgment about this Island’s education performance.

But numbers — including a global budget of more than $40 million or more, when you add up public and private dollars — and test scores will not answer the question that needs asking and answering: Is Island education successful and economically efficient?

In contrast with larger mainland school systems, Vineyard public education is a bit unusual, in a couple of respects. For one thing, with the exception of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, whose services are directed at a self-selected, small — about five percent of the total Island school enrollment — part of the school-age demographic, the school system’s job is to deal with the needs of the widest possible range of children. The differences within this range extend from students in high-income, highly educated households to those from less exalted circumstances. The range includes the college bound and those whose courses lead toward the trades, the hospitality industry, or technical occupations. There are no schools for the arts, or music, or dance, no regional vocational high schools, no Boston Latin Schools here. The schools and the teachers have to make meaningful sense of a variety of learners from a variety of backgrounds, many wholesome and education-minded, many not. It’s a tough job, and the Vineyard school system does it well, we suspect.

Then, there is the odd fact that while the bottom line — for argument purposes expressed as the per-pupil cost — is huge, the impact on Island resident taxpayers who send children to the schools is moderated because the majority of tax dollars used to pay school bills are contributed by seasonal property owners whose children, if they have children, go to mainland schools. Not to mention the healthy share of tax dollars extracted from former seasonal residents, now retired to their former summer homes, and no longer raising a crop of school-age youngsters to clog Vineyard classrooms.

So, the big bite becomes a much smaller bite on the year-round Vineyard families who are taxpayers and child rearers. In part, as a result of this unusual but favorable, two-tier pool of taxpayers, the school system and the students have rarely been denied. We’ve had new schools, new additions, and new programs added during years of national economic recessions, when schools elsewhere in the country were canceling new construction, cutting music and art programs, and asking parents to pay bus and sports fees.

But, here are the questions. Are we getting the educational bang we want for these immense bucks? 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? Would the results 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. These are big dollars. Educating children is a big and vital challenge. We ought spend wisely and test outcomes vigorously.