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William Marvel: Booster Blindness


One of the more discouraging aspects of the municipal budget season, for me, was the realization that some of our administrators cannot be relied on for an objective view of their departments. That shortcoming seemed most evident in discussion of the school budget, and especially during the debate over credit requirements at Kennett, which exceeds the 20-credit state standard by five credits. The school board has asked Principal Neal Moylan to estimate the savings of reducing Kennett's requirements to 23, but Moylan — who later admitted that he opposes any credit reduction — responded with a slanted presentation that raises considerable doubt whether he will report objectively on the subject.

At the school board on Jan. 3, and at the budget committee on Jan. 23, Moylan began his spiel with the same list of Kennett's real and imagined accomplishments, all of which he regurgitates now whenever anyone suggests changes at the high school. Some of those claims had nothing to do with credit requirements, like the near-zero dropout rate that is largely attributable to a new state law raising the dropout age. Kennett has two National Merit Scholarship finalists, he pointed out, as though we had never had one before. Kennett finally has a couple of alumni in prestigious universities again, he added, apparently taking full credit for some very bright students who enjoy extraordinary family support.

What troubled me more than such Babbitt-like boosterism was Moylan's jaundiced presentation on credit requirements at other schools, in which he seemed to misrepresent Kennett as behind the curve. He named at least six New Hampshire schools that require more credits than Kennett, including Laconia High, and two that required 24 credits, as though they were the lowest. In fact, of the 30 high schools that Syndi White and I looked into independently of each other, two-thirds offer diplomas for fewer credits than Kennett, and nine of them require only 20—including Hanover, which may be the most education-conscious district in this state. Oyster River in Durham probably rivals Hanover in its focus on education, and it requires only 22. Laconia (which Moylan told us was a 26-credit school) informed Syndi that they require only 20.5 credits.

Several New Hampshire schools offer standard diplomas at 20 credits, with advanced diplomas available at higher credit levels. That makes sense, but demanding 25 credits from every graduate can hamper students who, though perfectly intelligent, may be slow readers. Worse still, excessive expansion of the number of credits inevitably dilutes the classroom time that can be devoted to any single course. That probably causes the complaint over "black-and-white" scheduling, in which a significant proportion of instructional time is lost.

The demand for higher credits for all students may be nothing more than a backhanded effort to create job security for teachers in an age of declining enrollments: the more credits a school demands, the more sections or courses can be added, and the more teachers will be needed. An effort to artificially increase demand seemed particularly probable in the case of Kennett's relatively new career-tech requirement, which was imposed under Moylan's management of that department. Teacher-union pressure for higher credit requirements raises further suspicion about the real motive: after a newspaper article on my exchange with Neal over reducing credits, the only person who presented me with arguments against it was a prominent member of the Conway Education Association.

Higher credit requirements drive budgets higher. According to the N.H. Department of Education, Conway's per-student cost now runs 9.9 percent higher than the state average, primarily because of overstaffing. We have 10.2 percent more teachers per 100 students than the state average, 18.1 percent more "specialists," 12.5 percent more overall staff, and — most conspicuously — 31.6 percent more administration. Our "administrative support," as the state calls it, is 19 percent higher than in Berlin, 35 percent higher than in Littleton, and more than 100 percent higher than in Concord, with its 20-credit graduation requirement.

Nor does that excess staffing and extravagant administration necessarily translate into academic superiority. Concord's NECAP scores beat Conway in most areas, and Littleton beats us in many, despite its 47.7-percent handicap in the free-and-reduced lunch that measures poverty. Our 11th-graders are particularly deficient in writing skills, and are surpassed by juniors even in Berlin — where a majority of students are eligible for free-and-reduced lunch. Administrators who sugarcoat such facts, and elected officials gullible enough to trust them, will never lead us to either efficiency or excellence.

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