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Ohanian: Senate must reject Shumlin’s power play

Ohanian Comment: I thought it was funny the way they put my name in BIG bold letters in the headline.

I've written TONS on Reid Lyon's very outrageous January appearance, and maybe someday I'll post some of it. But for the general public it sounded like something they could dismiss as the Reading Wars, so here I was quite brief in my venom.

by Susan Ohanian

Once upon a time, policymakers in Montpelier asked local communities what they wanted from their schools. In 1968, the historic "Vermont Design for Education," which inspired thousands of educators from across the country, to apply for teaching jobs in Vermont, was the result of people in every community talking about their schools and setting local goals. Local decisions.

Enlisting the tremendous power and support of the local citizenry, we celebrated the richness of our system and studentsâ high marks on national and international tests were outward signs of our success.

How things have changed!

In a power move sheepishly endorsed by the House of Representativesâ landslide passage of H.44, a bill that guts the state board of education, Gov. Shumlin is halfway home toward grabbing control of education policy. What may look like an obscure political move is critical. It signals a shift away from local democracy to top-down state mandates. This is even more troubling when we consider Vermont state governmentâs passive acquiescence of the federal test-based and punitive NCLB model of education reform.

This should scare anybody who values local control or who values a rich, broad and comprehensive education.

In recent months the governor has been outspoken about his education plans. In January, at a Montpelier event titled âRolling Out the Vermont Blueprint to Close the Achievement Gap,â Shumlin was front man for the evangelical scientism hawked by the keynote speaker, discredited Reading First architect Reid Lyon.

Nationally, Reid Lyon was buried by the disaster of the U.S. Inspector Generalâs report on the cronyism of the Reading First program mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind act and by another report issued by the U.S. Department of Educationâs own research arm finding that âThe $1 billion-a-year Reading First program has had no measurable effect on studentsâ reading comprehension. â¦â

But never mind, a press release from the Stern Center tagged the Roll Out event as âa seminal initiative developed to help Vermontâs struggling readers.â Gov. Shumlin did the introductory speech and blessing for the arisen Reid Lyon who announced that no teacher in Vermont knows how to teach reading and that âall poor kidsâ should get the reading method specified in his own 32-page PowerPoint presentation.

Two months later, in March, Gov. Shumlin again asked for a new mandate for education. At a press conference he proposed making algebra, geometry and algebra II a requirement for a high school diploma.

As professor Steven Gross observed, this exact same solution was proffered by the famous Committee of Ten report â written in 1892. Never mind that the prestigious Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce reports that less than 5 percent of Vermont jobs in 2018 will require this level of math training. The Kellogg project tells us that the skills we need for the 21st century include those found in the arts and social sciences. We need to foster creativity, community, responsibility, team-work, negotiations and flexibility.

Like many politicians, Shumlin referred to anecdotes from business executives who say they have jobs but they go unfilled because of the lack of qualified people. Such anecdotes have reached mythic levels. But, as the eminent MIT labor economist Frank Levy notes, the real shortage is in non-technical skills. There are three math- and science-qualified candidates for every job provided by U.S. businesses. While whining about training, our corporations are off-shoring jobs where engineers are bought for pennies on the dollar.

Thus, the governor and Commissioner Vilaseca are pushing for a math plan that does not solve our jobs problem, generates a surplus of unhappy unemployed youth with college debt, will alienate a substantial portion of our youth, and dictates what our local schools should teach all children in every grade. If anyone actually looked at the Vermont data, the high schools with the fewest math requirements score equal or higher on mathematics than those schools with more math requirements.

Our governor talks to other governors and to business leaders who, by and large, have adopted a rigid test-based model of education. (Both the Governorsâ Association and the Chief State School Officers groups have accepted significant federal and business money to push this education agenda).

Letâs keep politics and government-by-personal-anecdote out of education policy. As well-intentioned as these impulses may be, it is vital that we strengthen our checks and balances â not cast them aside. We need the leavening effect of a diverse and even stronger state board of education whose members bring experiences and knowledge from every corner of the state. We need to demand that education policy proposals be carefully examined and not be the dayâs whim of the governor or commissioner. We must also reclaim our schools â take them back so they address the specific needs of individual children. Todayâs educational crisis is not the failure of our local schools; it is 20 years of scrambling to cope with inept federal and state meddling.

Editorâs note: This op-ed is by Susan Ohanian of Charlotte, a longtime teacher and author of 25 books on education policy and practice. Her website is at www.susanohanian.org.

— Susan Ohanian
Vermont Digger





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