Year 2000 Monograph Series
Dr. Kathleen Kesson, Director
John Dewey Project on Progressive Education
"What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely. Acted upon, it destroys our democracy."
The South Hero School/Community meeting in 1987 was not the Focus Forum that began standards-based reform in Vermont, but it was among the first of many community meetings that set directions for school improvement in Vermont that have lasted until today. Ken Hood, Associate Dean at UVM’s College of Education and Social Services and inveterate change artist, had gathered with a large group in St. Albans the night before we gathered teachers and citizens of South Hero to sketch an outline for a local school reform agenda. Ken Hood had also been helping Chittenden South Supervisory Union gather its community to define clear purposes for local schools during the preceding year. The focus forums that generated Vermont's Core Curriculum in 1992 were designed to make local schools more accountable to their communities, giving students, teachers and citizens a steady target for school improvement and inviting broad participation in school improvement.
Ideas from the focus forums in St. Albans, Hinesburg, South Hero and many other communities formed the foundation of a school reform effort in Vermont that has lasted more than ten years, but the work of school improvement is now based largely on test scores designed to determine which schools are improving and which are not. These tests do not reflect the purposes Vermont citizens set for their schools in Focus Forums a decade ago. Instead, they represent the belief of a small but influential group of Vermont's citizens that all students should master the same set of subject area skills and knowledge, now defined by the ‘Fields of Knowledge’ in Vermont's Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities. "The Vital Results" derived directly from the focus forums remain part of Vermont's Standards, but they are widely neglected -- largely because they cannot be tested in ways that support school comparisons, the heart of state-level accountability systems. The statewide assessment system now treats all students as if they were identical in their hopes and talents -- as if each has value only when meeting subject-area requirements that bear little relation to the broad goals developed in focus forums. Because I have lived it -- with so many others -- I will tell this story as I saw it happen and wait for others to remember differently.
Focusing on Shared Hopes
The South Hero School/Community Retreat was the first Focus Forum I helped facilitate, followed by similar meetings in Cabot and Salisbury. Between 1988 and 1992, people gathered in school gymnasiums and cafeterias across Vermont, expressing their hopes for the children and their schools. This process eventually became the standards movement as we know it today. The "standards movement" as it began in Vermont did not set out to reform educational processes so that each individual learner could pursue unique purposes -- any more than it set out to measure all students on the same standardized tests. It set out to describe the general skills adults would need in the coming century. A uniform process of testing is a poor measure of the purposes we set ten years ago. If we continue forcing students to see learning as results on tests alone, the negative effects will be enormous. It's time to return to the idea that began this reform initiative. Kids first. What do they need? Their needs are different because each is unique.
After the gatherings in St. Albans, South Hero and Hinesburg, the pattern of focus forums gradually became as familiar and reliable as a favorite recipe. To begin a focus forum on school development, local school administrators would invite a group of students, parents, teachers and concerned citizens to begin setting directions for school "restructuring", as it was then known. Facilitators, people like me, would break the large group of a hundred or more into smaller groups of 7-8, introduce the purpose and introduce questions that organized a consensus building process:
1) How do we want our school to be?
2) What are we doing now that would take us in that direction?
3) What additional steps might take us toward our goals?
4) What steps should we start right away?
When Ken Hood first organized Focus Forums, these questions could consume two full days of deliberation and evolve into detailed planning for a school community. Within a year, experienced facilitators could complete the whole set and obtain general consensus in three hours, leaving details and direction to local educators and school boards. By that time, the results of deliberation formed a pattern that would become as familiar as the questions themselves.
What does a Vermont community want for its children? The answer proved to be four-fold wherever people gathered to talk about their schools:
1) Communication: Vermont communities wanted their children to learn to communicate with others effectively, so they could begin participating as adults in work and community affairs;
2) Problem-solving: Vermont communities wanted their children to learn to solve the complex problems they were bound to face in a democratic society in which individuals assume responsibility for their own well-being and the health of their community;
3) Personal responsibility: Vermont communities wanted their children to learn how to make decisions that would support their independence for a lifetime;
4) Social responsibility: Vermont communities wanted their kids to assume important roles in managing the growth of the community, through work and civic involvement.
Collective responses to the first 19 focus forums in Vermont became the basis of our Core Curriculum, published by the State Department of Education in 1992.
The magic of the "Core Curriculum", if magic played a role in any of those gymnasiums and cafeterias, was that townspeople invariably discovered shared hopes for their kids that far outweighed differences they had come to expect at their Town Meetings, for example. People accustomed to struggling mightily about whether to buy a new fire truck or rehabilitate the 1972 Seagrave easily accepted the idea that communication, problem-solving, social responsibility and personal responsibility should guide the learning of kids in the town, and guide us all as we worked together to redevelop our schools. With regard to these four goals, all could agree -- and all could see ways to help realize our shared hopes. The standards movement had begun in Vermont.
The early Focus Forums produced general aims to which citizens, parents and professional teachers could contribute. I remember distinctly that the four goals, now called "Vital Results," were deemed suitable for ALL students in a town's schools, not just the few who learn by reading and sitting in classes. Exceptionally high performance for ALL students, "no exceptions, no excuses" became the mantra of the Education Commissioner who set us on the path toward standards-based reform. The Core Curriculum that the State Department of Education published in 1992 was designed in ways that let different students meet the same four goals in different ways. (State Department of Education, 1992) The "Core Curriculum," distributed statewide, encouraged local schools to discover how to direct local educational programs toward general outcomes in ways that fit local desires, customs -- and people.
As soon as the Core Curriculum was published in 1992, the State's largest newspaper immediately attacked the new Core Curriculum as "fluff." Conservative editorial writers and business interests wanted the schools to serve narrow purposes related to the conventional subject areas. The curriculum enforced by statewide testing is based not on the four common goals developed in Focus Forums, but on the same subject area divisions that have kept the school curriculum frozen in place since the 19th century: math & science; English and language arts, history and social sciences -- the "Fields of Knowledge." Not all Vermont students see subject area knowledge as important to their lives. These students fail to meet standards on uniform tests.
Responding to similar forces on a national level, the Federal Department of Education has now weighed in with a requirement that schools attain a pre-specified level of "acceptable yearly progress" on the tests administered by the State Department of Education. The Feds plan to leverage their meager contribution to school funding in Vermont to enforce the requirement that schools make steady progress on paper and pencil tests that have yet to prove either reliable or valid in any setting. In short, the Feds withhold funding from Title I, a program that is supposed to help students-at-risk-of-failure attain academic success, from schools that do not show "acceptable yearly progress" on subject-based tests. Poorer towns, those inhabited by kids who have little reason to believe that education will help them succeed as adults, will lose funding if they do not subscribe to the tests that are being used to certify their failure.
Though these tests are termed "standards-based, "scores on those tests now fall into the pattern made famous by the standardized tests that they were meant to replace -- a normal curve that directly mirrors economic background and social class. A few students score well. A somewhat larger group achieves acceptable scores -- and half the students fail to meet specific "subject area" standards. By subterfuge or chance, the school reform movement now applauds the favored, while labeling the poor or skeptical as "not meeting standards." In zesty front-page headlines, the State's largest newspaper reports the unequal results of this unequal contest across the state, fueling useless school comparisons and leaving the kids out-of-focus altogether.
In this phase, the standards movement in Vermont has betrayed the expressed belief of her citizens that the public schools should teach all students to develop skills and knowledge that will let them manage their own lives in a complex world. Promising initiatives such as portfolio assessment, interdisciplinary instruction, service learning, work-based learning, public exhibitions of performance and school report nights have been crowded out by uniform tests of "basic" skills and knowledge and the need to show "acceptable yearly progress." Newspapers have made comparing schools a ritual as steady as sports scores or Sunday championships, though they have no expertise whatsoever in analyzing statistical scores and no understanding of how individuals learn.
Incremental Distortion of Hope
How did a distortion of this magnitude occur in a state smaller than a medium sized city? More than 15 years ago, A Nation at Risk (Center for Education and the Economy, 1983) declared international competitiveness as the purpose of public education, making success on uniform tests the central operational measure of school performance:
Since 1996, momentum in the Vermont reform effort shifted to support public accountability at the expense of individual responsiveness to the kids we teach. Ironically the "Vital Results" were pushed to the side when a ten-year-old named Amanda Brigham won her suit against the State, arguing that she had been deprived of equal educational opportunity by being born and schooled in a poor, rural community, rather than a rich ski-town. In conception, Act 60 in Vermont redistributed school funding across district lines at the same time it set the new Framework of Standards as the measure both of quality and equality in education. The law did not substantially increase the resources available to Vermont Schools, but it did shift the locus of control from Vermont's towns to State Government, which has made "equity" a quantifiable outcome defined by scores on content area tests. Although the law aimed to reduce inequity, Act 60 is forcing all schools to cap their aspirations and focus on the narrow aspirations represented by uniform tests of dubious validity. In law, at least, Vermont's Framework of Standards now focuses public attention on increasing scores for all students, rather than on cultivating the unique performance of each student and leading each toward personal power over their own learning and their own future lives.
New Standards Reference Exams in Language Arts, mathematics and science make up the core of the testing program, promising somewhat reliable comparisons of subject-area achievement across the population -- and allowing the State Department of Education to force low achieving schools -- all schools - toward compliance with a subject area curriculum. Testing all students against uniform standards has since developed rapidly in the State's strategy for systemic reform. Panels of "experts" in the subject areas have added further layers of specific facts and skills to the existing standards for "Fields of Knowledge," making testing easier and allowing the State to identify low-achieving schools -- forcing them to accept "special assistance" and promising them "help" from government consultants who understand how to improve test scores.
Uniform testing has forced teachers to put aside their work with mathematics and writing portfolios, once used extensively to assess and support individual learning. It is forcing teachers to suspend their efforts to better understand and respond to individual differences among the kids. Such promising educational initiatives as "Individual Learning Plans," "multi-age" classrooms, and interdisciplinary teaching still exist here and there in Vermont, but testing has begun to absorb an increasing share of local time and money. Portfolios, exhibitions and individualized learning have fallen into the background, to the consternation of the teachers and students who had invested time and energy in their development. We cannot improve learning for all Vermont kids unless we respond to the needs and talents of each one.
In earlier times, a fierce tradition of local autonomy in Vermont would have allowed teachers, administrators and school boards to continue working on locally sponsored projects -- and do whatever they believed right for their kids. Since the Brigham decision declares equity as a State responsibility, however, the State has increased its control over resources schools use to grow and adapt. "Action planning," required by Act 60, has forced local schools to "align" their improvement initiatives with the central agenda for improved test scores. Aligning the "system" to increase test results discriminates against students and their families who have no tradition of success through the educational system and little reason to trust that their schools will work in behalf of their own children by recognizing their differences and developing their special talents.
Teaching All by Teaching Each
Kids are different. They learn differently. They have their own dreams, as well as their own problems to solve. They yearn for the freedom to grow in directions they determine for themselves, not those determined by mandate. Nevertheless, teaching that changes test scores has gained ascendancy over local programs designed to meet the individual needs of students who grow increasingly unique and increasingly rebellious as they enter high school -- and increasingly willing to dismiss the many tests they take each spring as an intrusion in their personal lives.
In 1999, more than 35 students dropped out of Mt. Abraham Union High School, the school where I now work with teachers, interns and kids -- in teacher preparation, on new building construction and -- during five years -- as a school board member. The year prior to that, a similar number dropped out. Procedures for reporting dropout rates against the whole school population grades 7-12, allow us to claim that our dropout rate is 2-5% each year, but the numbers look appalling when one considers that each Mt. Abe graduating class contains only a few more than 100 students and most kids drop out after the age of 16. The dropouts have a familiar look: they are male more than female, poor rather than rich -- and angry rather than satisfied with the education they are forced to receive by law.
Most critically, these dropouts are bored. Males underscore females on virtually all the tests administered for the state by Mt. Abe High School. Males underscore females across Vermont. The same trend can be observed across the country. "An unnerving finding in the national assessment (NAEP in writing) is that there is a serious gender difference that widens over the grades. By the twelfth grade the median score for males is at the 32 percentile of the female distribution." (Joyce, 1994, p.28)
Who are these dropouts? The are not the ignorant or the hopeless. They are not disabled kids or kids forced to work to support their families. No. They are the non-compliant. They are the disenfranchised. They are disengaged. They cannot see the connection between the things they are forced to endure in school and the prospective choices they recognize clearly in the media that daily pervades their consciousness. They are young men. When one of these young men shows up on the news holding a rifle in one hand and a pipe bomb in the other, we recognize him not by his demographics or test scores, but by his anger.
These young men are angry. (Young women are angry too, but they seem more able to comply and wait). When they reach 16, dropping out is the one legal means they have to express that anger. In a pattern as old as Romeo and Juliet or Tristan & Isolde, they feel helpless to control their own lives and they grow increasingly furious as they approach their maturity. As their tests scores proclaim, schools belong to someone else, someone different, -- someone better endowed by fate with the idea that learning leads to success. Recognizing that the schools will not help them learn how to manage their lives in the adult world, they preserve their fragile dignity by deciding to go on their own. They drop out, entering the adult world both angry and unprepared.
These young men, and all the kids who reject requirements that do not respond to their way of seeing their own lives, further disable themselves by rebelling. They waste the opportunity to develop skills in communication, problem-solving, social responsibility and personal responsibility that would let them, indeed, direct their own lives as independent adults. Rendered helpless by youth and inexperience, they turn their frustration on themselves. Suicide. Drugs. Fast cars. Easy sex. All convey the illusion of personal power, but actually diminish their ability to engage a world that seems determined to ignore their questioning. That world is nicely represented by a testing system that refuses to accept their individuality or help them understand the world they will soon enter.
What do these kids need? They need what all of us need, a chance to exercise our minds in pursuit of answers to the questions that WE think important, not questions that lead to "acceptable" answers on uniform tests. If we want these kids to learn, the best thing we can give them is a real problem to solve:
If we show kids how they can begin solving them, they will find themselves meeting the standards Vermonters set for their kids between 1988 and 1992: the "Vital Results." They will learn how real problems occur and how cooperation and persistent inquiry create solutions that actually work in reducing the problems the students see as important. They will practice communicating, not only with each other, but with the adults who fill important roles in the community. They will begin to recognize their social responsibility, to work together solving problems that no individual can solve in isolation. They will see how to shape their own decisions and actions -- becoming individually responsible for managing their own minds and their own lives.
John H. Clarke
|John Clarke teaches critical thinking, learning theory, and curriculum design in the secondary education program at the University of Vermont and works with high schools throughout the state on school reform. In 1994, he received the Kroepse-Maurice Award for excellence in teaching from the University of Vermont. He has described a basic approach to critical thinking instruction in two books: Patterns of Thinking: (Allyn and Bacon, 1990) and Teaching Critical Thinking, with Arthur Biddle: (Prentice Hall, 1993). With more than 35 teachers and administrators in Vermont Schools, he helped write Field Guide to School Restructuring (Holistic Education Press, 1994). With Russ Agne he wrote Interdisciplinary High School Teaching (Allyn & Bacon, 1997). Real Questions, Real Answers (ASCD, 1997) describes a team approach to school improvement. Dynamic Change in High School Teaching, a study of five innovative high schools, will appear in 2000. His writing also appears in Phi Delta Kappan, NASSP Bulletin and other periodicals devoted to high school reform.|
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To the New Commissioner:
Welcome to your new job and thank you for your willingness to take it on. I'm sure I'm not the only Vermonter who would like to offer you counsel about how to help Vermont education. I am a teacher educator and have been so for thirty years. I don't see my self as an old-timer though I recognize others may place me in that category.
I'm a progressive educator and that's where I'm coming from in these remarks. I judge school reform efforts by their effect on learning and I take my lead from my sense of what is meaningful and of interest to the learner. Learning propelled by confidence in a successful pursuit and value in the enterprise is what we should be directed towards. I think that is probably as true for you as a new Commissioner as it is for any learner in any Vermont classroom. I'm unsure the combination of reform initiatives we have established this past half-decade is enabling this kind of learning to happen. I'd like to tell you why and offer some advice that might help us figure out how to get back on track.
My image of the current educational landscape in Vermont looks something like this. Vermont's teachers, administrators, and all the other people who go to school every day to work to make learning happen for children and youth are represented by a roughly circular farm pond. Around the edge of the pond are clusters of other people, some in suits, some in denim pants and flannel work shirts, some in polyester, each representing a facet of the educational policy apparatus in Vermont. Legislators form a cluster, the state board another, another the supreme court, another the governor and his advisors. Beyond each cluster are other groups who support them by votes, the provision of information, doing policy research, or providing ample portions of personal opinion.
Each policy cluster has a small pile of stones passed on to them by their supporters. Each clusters task is to throw stones into the pond in such a way as to create ripples so that a kind of maximum ripple effect is achieved: tall smooth concentric waves that work in concert with each other and originate from a just right point of central impact. Each group knows what the goal is and each group knows its way to achieve the goal. Each group throws their stones while watching other groups chuck theirs, each trying to time their toss just right so as to create the smoothest kind of wave pattern in the pond, the pond that is Vermont education.
Throwing stones in concert and expecting a common point of impact is a tough goal to accomplish, no matter how closely the groups watch each other. What happens, of course, is the stones land in a variety of places. The resulting water surface is anything but smooth. Perhaps a spot or two on the pond shows predictable patterns for a few moments but most of the water surface is chaotic. Waves troughs of varying size and volume and power clash and battle each other in their moments of collision.
To be small and on the inside of such an interaction of forces is to be assaulted from all sides. To be there in a boat would mean you were at the mercy of unpredictable forces. Survival is accomplished by paddling as hard as you can just to stay in place, while simultaneously scanning the horizon to get ready for the next oncoming wave. Your brain processes these survival questions: "Where is it coming from?", "How big is it?", and "How ready can we be to meet it?".
The only other choice in this situation of panic is to give up. You aren't in control of the waves or the forces making them. You cant get to shore, you cant make the clusters work together, you can't issue a cease and desist order. The only other option is to let go of the oars, swing broadside to the onslaught, and await the inevitable wave front that will drive you under, hoping against hope the onslaught abates before the wave front arrives.
I contend this metaphor is much like the contemporary scene in Vermont schools. A variety of policy making groups try to make education better. Each has an eye on each other and each thinks they work for the common good, yet each chucks stones separately, when they want, where they want, for their own good reasons. Many Vermont districts experience the resulting chaos.
Reasoned policy initiatives, initiatives that appears rational and complimentary to the policy makers, often end up as actions that are irrational and contradictory. This is especially true for the classroom teacher, after being filtered through multiple interpretations, suspect decision making processes, and local political spins. What you see isn't necessarily what you get.
Vermont's apparently rational step by step reform process - the portfolio assessment systems, the Vermont Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities, the statewide assessment system, Act 60, all seemingly good policy initiatives in their own right - in fact create chaos in the day to day teaching and learning that goes on throughout Vermont's classrooms. Policy makers stand safely on the shore pitching their reform agendas and teachers, through whom every agenda is enacted, hold on for dear life in the storm tossed seas that are a fact of life at some level in every Vermont classroom.
Take for example, math portfolios. What started as an informative and unique form of local problem solving assessment was turned into a statewide test. Now, the portfolio process is increasingly minimalized in the time and space of a teachers daily work life. Mandated math curricula have pushed portfolios to the back burner of the reform agenda. These curricula are imperfect venues for complex problem solving but have been deemed necessary to our reform effort. They have been judged standards based and will prepare students for statewide assessments, the form and content of which imperfectly align with math portfolios. Good teachers are stymied, told they need to reach two separate goals, each of which is uncomplimentary to the other.
Another example, multiage classrooms. What has long been a creative, complex, and progressive response to addressing the needs of an increasingly diversified student population in Vermont classrooms, has become nearly impossible to carry out in the face of numerous adoptions of graded standards based curricula. Developmental practice centered on the educational needs of learners has suffered under the mandates of the statewide assessment system. Issues of time and learning and continuity of placement have been de-emphasized as Vermont has turned its focus to doing better on tests. For teachers who have always had a eye on Children's interests as a key component to meaningful learning, the reform agenda has not been a happy event. I would dare say the single group most frustrated with the chaos of the reform agenda as experienced on the front lines have been Vermont's most effective, progressive teachers.
Years ago, the Canadian Film Board produced an engaging film entitled, What They Want To Produce, Not What I Want To Become. I think "not what I want to become" describes teachers in the boat who are ready to let go of their oars. So much chaotic ambivalence relative to the right course of action has been engendered by a not quite haphazard reform effort that a select group of Vermont teachers are ready to let go or bail out. I'm talking about the really fine teachers in Vermont, the teachers who know their kids, care about their kids, who take their work home at night and show up the next day thoroughly prepared to go the distance for each child in their classroom.
Vermont cannot afford to lose these teachers. You, the new Commissioner, cannot afford to lose these teachers. These teachers are the ones who will give you the most honest appraisal of what's going on locally as the initiatives rush upon them in their schools.
You need to know what this constituency thinks and you need to advocate for reform efforts that represent their point of view. You have a bully pulpit, although not as bully as you would probably like. Use the pulpit, use your persuasive influence, use the political clout that you have to make these teachers feel competent once again by calming to storm of conflicting demands surrounding them thereby enabling their efforts. Many of them feel disabled by the very policies that distant clusters make supposedly in their best interests.
These are their questions. They should anchor your position as well. They are filters through which the classroom impact of reform initiatives should be judged:
Where is it coming from? Does it make sense with what is already going on in my classroom or will it take me in a new direction, away from what it is I know my children need? Will it fit with what we know works in my school or will it take us somewhere we don't need to be right now in our development?
How big is it? Will it make me a
stronger teacher given the limitations of time each day imposes or will
it weaken my instructional impact by particlizing what I do?
Will it enable my peers and I to work together towards common ends or will it make each classroom in my school a separate place for each group of students who pass through?
How ready can I be to meet it? Will there be time to learn what it is I will have to do or will I be expected, as in most new ventures, to learn it as I go along in an environment of public scrutiny, accountability, and criticism? Will it make my community more informed, thereby strengthening my community's schools?
Your beginning efforts as Commissioner should be to ameliorate the panic felt by the good teachers in this state, the teachers who have been successful, who want to continue their professional learning, who are proud of being a Vermont teacher, and who know how to make learning experiences that are at once interesting and challenging for every child in their classroom most of the time. These teachers need your support. If you lose them, you lose the heart of Vermont education. Lest we forget it, they are Vermont's front line educators, and every policy maker should serve to magnify their good efforts.
How do you begin to achieve these ends? Anchor the reform effort in a common set of questions, as suggested. Then, stabilize it. Teachers need to know the essential pieces are in place and that the system isn't going to change substantively in the next five to ten years. Those rocking boats have got to find calm waters or very little forward motion is going to occur. Tell people flat out that some parts of the current reform scene are going to stay pretty much the way they are now.
Keep the standards. As a whole, the standards are a good thing. Imperfect though they are, they do create a structure around which localities can build curriculum. Declare a moratorium on revision for ten years to allow time for the standards, curriculum development, professional training, and the assessment structure to stabilize and take hold.
Keep statewide assessment. Keep the assessment system but call it what it is - an experiment. Ever since we started diddling with portfolios, trying to make them a statewide measure of math achievement, we've transformed classroom instruction away from authentic learning towards disconnected achievement measures. I'd back off from the high stakes nature of the statewide tests, add no new assessments, and place resources at the local level that ensures two things: each school has the capacity to measure its progress relative to statewide and national norms, and every parent has the opportunity to know where their child stands with a comparable group of children locally, around the state, and across the nation. Every student and parent in Vermont has the right to know how their children are doing, and by inference, how their schools are doing.
Strengthen local action planning. The collaboration among community, school and state relative to grounded local initiatives ought to be focused in the action plans. Keeping the data closest to where it does the most good and creating plans for progress based on local collaborations can create the cohesion among schools and their communities that encourages collaboration within schools towards common ends. Done well, action plans can snap curriculum development, learning assessments, and professional education into their proper place with each other.
Highlight school report nights. The open communication of where a community stands relative to its schools goals and mission is a good thing. As we move down the road on this one, communities can see that change is more of a process and that overnight fixes don't work. As local assessment efforts take on more importance in the overall assessment picture, the information shared on these evenings will become part of a community's developing assessment culture and parents and citizens will be better able to see the parts of a schools work connecting with the future that's being created.
This is a beginning. To make it happen, other stability supports are required. I suggest this is where you need to be very active across all the layers of bureaucracy and political influence you encounter by the very nature of your job. There's no magic to my list. I'm sure there are others. But these are the supports I think must be in place if anything permanent is really going to happen in Vermont.
1) Regularly meet with an advisory counsel of expert teachers, respected teachers who know how to create inclusive classroom learning communities where every child feels known and respected for something s/he can contribute to the classroom group. These are teachers who can give you feedback on the impact reform implementation has had on the deep learning they strive for in their classrooms. These are teachers who see beyond test scores. These are teachers who know what has to be in place for learning to occur, who know how to do it, and who are respected in their communities for their efforts. Please note: these are not necessarily the most popular teachers in their settings, or teachers who have won outstanding awards. These are teachers who are driven by their respect for children and youth and who year in and year out are the teachers sought after by parents who want the best for their children. This group should be neither defenders nor detractors of the reforms. Their vision is on learning and they judge the reforms by how they have either enhanced their capacity to provide or gotten in the way of what they know is good practice.
2) Develop a set of visions of what good standards based practice looks like that is inclusive, equity informed, and learner centered. The absence of any one picture of what this kind of practice looks like holistically, day to day, week to week, month to month, especially at the elementary level, borders on malpractice. If the only vision your office has of good education is alignment, then we have failed to capture what this work is really all about. More testing doesn't equate with better learning. Neither does higher achievement. We have lost the center - what good teaching and learning looks like - in our haste to achieve high standards of achievement no exceptions. This is a dangerous omission.
3) Take on the task of creating a new school calendar. If Vermont is really serious about its equity driven commitment to high standards for all Vermont's learners, then old professional education structures have got to go. Professional development initiatives require observation, follow-up, and adjustment if it is effectiveness that we seek. Professional development has to be continuous, ongoing, action oriented and built into the school day. The practice it implies and the change it seeks must be continually studied as a regular part of teaching. The only way this can happen is by altering the school calendar so that time occurs regularly throughout the year for the support of learning based teaching. Perhaps there are some teachers who don't care. But there are many more who do, and more would join them if time to work on new initiatives actually followed to demand to do so.
4) And finally, stabilize local leadership. Lasting change won't happen in schools and communities if their superintendencies and principalships continue to be revolving doors. Without leadership continuity, teachers are at the whim of the next leaders good ideas. If there is one reason why the reform effort in Vermont is moving more slowly that it should, it is this one. Until leaders and teachers and communities commit to each other for the common good, and agree to work with each other to make integrated change happen over a significant period of time, waves of conflicting initiatives will continue to disrupt meaningful, directed local progress. Find out what needs to happen to achieve this stability, and work to accomplish this end. Without it, all else is fluff. People will merely hunker down just to keep their battered boat afloat.
Good luck! You are in a state that has been honored in many ways over for its progressive tradition of pushing the edges of educational reform. You begin a tenure of service whose biggest challenge is to find ways to make the reform work. I would hope when all is said and done, that you are known as the Commissioner who did so by reconnecting the learner to the reform agenda.
With all best wishes,
Charles Rathbone, Ph.D.
Department of Education
University of Vermont
|Charles Rathbone is an Associate Professor of Education at UVM. He lives in Burlington, Vermont, with his wife Ann, and his son and daughter, Justin and Kyla. He started teaching at UVM in 1970, after teaching Junior High mathematics in Syracuse, New York, and earning his doctorate at Syracuse University. His professional interests include developmentally based mathematics, equity pedagogies, and multiage classrooms.|
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One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards
By Susan Ohanian * 1999, Heinemann Publishers
Reviewed by Dr. Carol Spencer
In discussions with teachers about standards, questions about the ambiguity of what standards actually are and how they are supposed to work in the classroom for each child come up a lot. Teachers ask, if standards are for all students, and all students are supposed to achieve them or demonstrate them, then how can that happen if each student doesn't get the time and individual support she or he needs to work on the standards? And, what happens if standards required in one grade do not match a child's developmental readiness to perform that standard? Standards these days pose a conundrum embedded with much political rhetoric about raising the bar and about smarter kids, while not changing schools or schooling at all. The puzzle of the standards movement is imbued with the efforts of many sincere educators trying to make sense of the accelerating changes required for curriculum to match standards, in the absence of a communal consensus about what that curriculum should be. And, the standards puzzle shows up in the glassy eyed stares of kids as they try to tunnel through discrete subject after subject, with an almost mind numbing array of worksheets and projects as the tools designed to help them to learn what is quickly becoming, at least in the minds of their teachers, how to ‘do well on standardized tests.’
Susan Ohanian’s new book, ONE SIZE FITS FEW, takes on the standards conundrum and some of its authors, with an eye towards untangling some of the truths and misconceptions that make up the puzzle. In the early part of the book, she states her premise: "A one-size-fits-all curriculum ends up fitting nobody. To accept the Standardistos’ lists and timetables is to accept a gloomy and stagnant, deterministic view of culture and of children." In the pages that follow, she launches a volley of in-depth, anecdotal grenades into the orderly, national marching rows of the people she calls "Standardistos." These are the writers of standards, their cheerleaders, legislators, publishers, editors and business groups across the country who have endorsed the standards movement. Their agenda to install standards into every public school is one she believes ‘ignores the needs of children and sells teachers short’ (p. 139) With blunt editorial force, Ohanian lays out her platform against standards:
Operating on the premise that teachers will be forced to get in line once the national tests are in place, Standardistos move ahead with the education reform plans dreamed up in corporate board rooms and conservative think tanks.Looking through the lens of equity for every child, Ohanian shares with us the classroom stories that have ‘illuminated and informed’ her own life, as a way of disagreeing with just about every aspect of the current movement whose purpose and result, she believes, is to standardize American classrooms. Her stories are passionate and humbling. They are about the real children who show up in our classrooms, and about her struggle to make sense of the learning world for them, and to make sense of their vast learning differences. She believes that children need to learn to love to read by reading a lot, and by reading books they choose.
Her words are uncompromised. She writes: "Always, always, we must consider the children, remembering that each one of them is more important than any speeded-up notion of excellence." This simple idea, of having time to read silently in school, is dying a martyr's death at the hands of the jampacked daily curriculum schedule required by grade level mandated standards in states such as California. And so, she concludes,
in the name of the Fortune 500, Standardistos deliver a swarm of standards that have everything to do with discrete bits of information that aren't going to ‘stick’ to this generation of learners any better than they did for my generation. Because the facts we teach are so ephemeral and so fleeting, because our society is increasingly out of joint, it is crucial that we ignore the content standards and continue to nurture the children in our care. (p. 147)She makes her case repeatedly, through stories of children's vast array of differences and variability in learning, and through the lens of teachers’ artfulness at knowing what children should learn, and when and how they are ready to learn it. She writes in plain talk for teachers whom she describes as "tired of being pursued like horse thieves, tired of being blamed for society's ills, (who) have circled the wagons and taken cover rather than speak out about how meaningless the standards are."
ONE SIZE FITS FEW is a strongly worded polemic which decries every aspect of the current standards movement. The style is candid and has the feel of a speech delivered with passion and anger. If anything, the chapter titles and sub-headings within the chapters, meant to help divide up the essay, seem superfluous, interrupting the otherwise intense and relentless dissection of the economic and socio-political motives for having standards, the reasoning in the documents themselves, the language of the documents, and the effects they are having in classrooms and districts across the country.
Throughout the book, Susan Ohanian
offers us pieces of her own vision for public education: skills taught
in natural contexts are more powerful than skills taught in isolation;
that there is an inexorable magic in the craft of good teachers and what
they do; that poorer districts need money to build equitable facilities
and programs; and the ‘dirtiest’ secret of all, ‘kids don't necessarily
learn what teachers teach.’ Closing the book, one is left with a powerful
and passionate plea made by Susan Ohanian in ONE SIZE FITS FEW, to keep
children, their learning and their teachers at the heart of the public
schools in America.
|Dr. Spencer has had twenty years of experience in pre-K-12 education. She has worked as a classroom teacher in Spanish and bi-lingual education, a district principal, an adjunct professor, and as a private consultant. She is the recipient of awards from the New England League of Middle Schools and from the University of Vermont for her work in middle level school development and leadership. Dr. Spencer's consulting experience had included numerous areas: all aspects of middle school philosophy and development, heterogeneous grouping, multi-age and multi-year relationships for teaching and learning k-8, adult team building and middle school team development, leadership, change, and schooling for the 21st century.|
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