Vermont submits to federal stranglehold
By Dr. Alis Headlam
"Education in Vermont, if it is to move forward, must have a goal toward which to move, a basic philosophy which combines the best which is known about learning, children development, and human relations with the unique and general needs and desires of Vermont communities." The Vermont Design of Education issued by the office of the commissioner, state Department of Education in 1968.
In "A Roadblock in Vermont's Design for Education," a publication by the Vermont Society for the Study of Education (February 2007), Susan Ohanian, a longtime teacher and writer, takes the reader back to the origins of the Vermont Design and then fast-forwards to the impact of No Child Left Behind's Reading First grants on education in Vermont. The contrast is dramatic. It is appalling to see how far Vermont education has strayed since the inauguration of the Vermont Design.
The course for our schools set out in the Vermont Design was focused on building community strengths and reflecting the values of our history and people. Under Reading First mandates, the state Education Department bowed to the pressures from the federal government for "proven methods" and ignored the strengths that come out of our individualism and localized professionalism. The U.S. inspector general recently declared these "proven methods" based on "scientifically based research" as corrupted by an insider clique.
According to Susan Ohanian, in acquiescing to federal demands the state Education Department has succeeded in "squash(ing) all discussion about pedagogy, philosophy and practice." It has eliminated respect for the professionalism and expertise of teachers with vast experience. It discounts those beginning teachers who have studied current theory in the area of reading who offer updated knowledge in the field.
A rigidity in approach and curriculum has resulted, based on Vermont's own application for funds that states, "Only programs fully aligned with scientifically based reading research (SBRR) will be eligible for funding through Reading First." Since the federal government narrowly defines what scientific research it will validate, much of the current research in reading has arbitrarily been omitted. The selection of programs is so limited that there is no accommodation to meet diverse needs.
In this articulate and challenging monograph, Ohanian looks at how we have been mislead by NCLB into thinking that the federal government supports our schools. In order to receive Reading First money the Vermont Department of Education has adopted the same rhetoric that all other states use. It means that we have lost our identity. In its place we have heralded in an era where educators are mandated to use methods and materials dictated by the U.S. Department of Education. Schools are required to opt for scripted, inflexible curriculum that controls how children are taught.
What a change from the Vermont Design when children came first and curriculum was adapted to fit the school, not the other way around.
Surely, Vermonters need to look at the question "Who's in charge of our education?" with a critical eye, for we have relinquished control of programs such as reading to a national decision-making body that does not include reading experts and classroom teachers. Ohanian observes, "A large percentage of members of the Reading First panel of experts who pass out edicts on reading definitions and materials received their degrees in psychology with emphasis on learning disabilities." Why have we so easily relinquished responsibility for our children without questioning the motives and knowledge of those to whom we have now given this power? Why have the commissioner and the Vermont Department of Education folded so quickly to pressures from the federal government? Why didn't a single media representative attend the press conference when this important publication was announced?
Susan Ohanian and the Vermont Society for the Study of Education have consistently and ardently worked to expose the myths of NCLB. As they continue in their efforts, the rolling ball is picking up more and more adherents. Parents, teachers, administrators and legislators from around the country have joined the outcry. But where is the outrage from Vermont's own community? Reading this newest monograph will help Vermonters redirect their thinking back to what education is really about ΓΆ€” our children, our future.
Dr. Alis Headlam of Rutland is a senior fellow with the Vermont Society for the Study of Education.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES