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To the Northeast Kingdom: Stop Governor Shumlin’s power grab over schools

NOTE: I'm trying to tailor these op-eds to news in the region of the paper to which I'm submitting. I now subscribe to more Vermont newspapers than I can count. I spent half a day reading last week's issue of The Chronicle the weekly journal in the Northeast Kingdom, a place as anyone who knows anything about Vermont, is very special.

The editor called me, saying she was impressed that I'd read the paper so closely. She said she'd run my piece--"If we don't get too many letters. We have to give precedence to local people."

That's the Northeast Kingdom: 80 miles away and you're definitely an outsider.

I'm convinced that we must put our global concerns into what's happening locally. That's what I tried to do here.

by Susan Ohanian

I read the March 28 edition of the Chronicle in
light of Governor Peter Shumlinâs power grab to
take control of Vermontâs education policy. He says
an IBM executive tells him algebra I, geometry,
and algebra II should be requirements for a high
school diploma.

Has the Governor talked to people in the
Northeast Kingdom about curriculum? Once upon
a time, policymakers in Montpelier did ask local
communities what they wanted from their schools.
In 1968, the historic Vermont Design for Education
was the result of such conversations about local
goals. Our studentsâ high marks on national and
international tests were outward signs of the
success of these local decisions.

Now, Governor Shumlinâs grab for control of
education policy signals a shift away from local
democracy to top-down state mandates. This is
even more troubling when we consider Vermont
state governmentâs passive acceptance of the
federal test-based and punitive NCLB (No Child
Left Behind) model of education reform. How
many parents and teachers were asked about
the highly politicized curriculum and testing
onslaught of the Common Core State [sic]
Standards signed onto by Governor Shumlin?

How many parents and teachers were asked
about the Governorâs push to make algebra,
geometry, and algebra II requirements for a high
school diploma?

As Professor Steven Gross observed, this exact
same math solution was proffered by the famous
Committee of Ten report â written in 1892.

Studying employment stories in the Chronicle, I
note that Ethan Allen Interiors, which builds
furniture in Orleans and Beecher Falls, is opening a
164,000-square-foot plant in Honduras and that MSA,
the company once known as Mine Safety Appliances,
has decided to get out of the military helmet business.

I also note that Makaio Maher of Green Timber
Works in Glover is teaching students in Tom
Rooneyâs building and trades class at the North
Country Career Center about timber frame joinery,
using trees cut and milled for the project by Fern
Fontaineâs timber harvesting class and that
elementary students around Orleans County will
make pegs with draw knives and other old hand
tools. Nobody is saying these students should grow
up to make hand-made pegs, but they will learn
about traditional Vermont architecture and in
rebuilding a barn at the Old Stone House, they will
participate in something useful while
learning about Vermont history.

Looking at employment ads in the paper, I saw
a number of high school positions and one RN
opening, but most jobs require neither algebra nor
a college degree: office administrative assistant,
dental assistant, receptionist pediatric office, sales
representative, cook with experience in volume
cooking, excavation and concrete laborers,
excavation project manager, truck drivers, a few
good men to help with spring seedling harvest.

As I read the list of 132 area businesses
highlighted in the âWhoâs Who In Business?â
section, I did not see firms likely to be calling out
for algebra I. To repeat the advice of an eminent
researcher, the late Gerald Bracey, âWe should be
very careful about letting ourselves get algebra

This is in line with the prestigious Georgetown
Center on Education and the Workforce reports
that less than 5 percent of Vermont jobs in 2018
will require the level of math training mandated by
Shumlin. The Kellogg project tells us that the
skills we need for the twenty-first century include
those found in the arts and social sciences, those
that foster creativity, community, responsibility,
teamwork, and flexibility.

Like many politicians, Shumlin draws on
anecdotes from business executives who say jobs 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 nontechnical 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 skilled labor
is cheap.

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.
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.

Susan Ohanian of Charlotte is a longtime
teacher. Her activist website received the National
Council of Teachers of English George Orwell
Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty
and Clarity in Public Language. www.susanohanian.org.

— Susan Ohanian
The Chronicle: Weekly Journal of Orleans County





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