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Vermont school reform woes

Ohanian Comment: The Vermont Education Departent offers further evidence that most folks will twist themselves into any manner of grotesque arrangement. . . and mouth platitudes about workers in the global economy. Recently, on a call-in show on public radio, I asked the assistant commissioner if she'd read the appendices to the winning Delaware Race to the Top application. She avoided answering the question but insisted Vermont must participate in Race to the Top.

By Molly Walsh

Guess what â your school is one of the worst in the state. Oops, it's not.

That's the message that went out last month when the Vermont Education Department acknowledged a math error and subsequently revised the list of the ten lowest achieving schools in the state. The list, you recall, was generated by our educrats in order to comply with a new federal reform program being championed by Obama's Education czar, Arne Duncan.

Turns out the fix -- which wiped two schools off the list and put two new ones on --came after retired Johnson Elementary School administrator Judy Schultz and others studied the calculations behind the rankings and noticed something didnât add up. More on that later.

The designation continues to shake up school communities in Vermont.

This week the St. Johnsbury School Board voted to remove the principal of St. Johnsbury Elementary, one of the schools on the list. The board announced it would apply for a portion of the $8 million in grant funding available to listed schools and make changes required to get the money. St. J is choosing the "transformation" reform option, which calls for getting rid of any principal who has been on the job for more than two years.

The principals at most of the listed schools are new -- so they dodge this bullet. Not Marion Anastasia, who has worked at St. Johnsbury Elementary for 28 years, the last four as principal. Next year she won't have that title anymore. But neither will she be fired. Anastasia will be reassigned to work with a team of people to reform the school, she told me Thursday. Anastasia declined to say how this shift would affect her salary and calls to the school super weren't immediately returned to answer this question. (Yes, the salary is public record.)

Anastasia expressed relief that the board chose to bounce her out of the top job rather than pursue a more draconian option, such as firing all the teachers. She's trying to be optimistic. "I've got a whole staff here. Iâve got 80 teachers. All of them are pretty glum right now and I need to show them that I support them. If Iâm gloomy itâs not going to help."

It's no surprise that the listing process has generated angry calls to the VT DOE in Montpelier. Vermont Deputy Education Commissioner Rae Ann Knopf, the point person on this issue, defended the program in a letter to teachers, principals and superintendents titled "What Matters Most." [see below] In an interview this week, she told me she wants the "squabbling" over the designation process to end and see the focus move to school improvement. Some school officials are already making changes for the better, she said. "I think a lot of innovative things will probably come out of this in those schools."

State of Vermont
Vermont Department of Education
120 State Street
Montpelier, VT 05620-2501
March 30, 2010

Re: What Matters Most

Dear Superintendents, Principals, and Teachers:

I know many of you have concerns about the recent national emphasis on ranking schools and how our state fits with those expectations. I am writing today not to talk about formulas and rankings, winners and losers, but to talk about what I believe is getting lost in this conversation and truly is most important to all of us.

There is no question that Vermont has a tremendous reputation for its strong educational system, where our young people learn and excel and most go on to lead meaningful, productive adult lives. The key here is most, but not all. If 15 percent of our young people donât graduate, this means over 14,000 kids in our state today have a fairly slim chance of gaining employment as adults sufficient to sustain them and their families. If only 18.5 percent of our students eligible for free and reduced lunch reach proficiency in math by 11th grade, this means 29,000 kids in our state have little hope of gaining the skills necessary to be meaningful participants in today's global economy.

Yet I still hear some people say achievement scores do not matter or that they are not an accurate reflection of the learning that takes place. Our NECAP testing is based on the countless hours of work educators in Vermont and other northeast states put into creating high-quality standards for teaching and learning for our children. If, according to those standards and assessments, we still have tens of thousands of kids who will not graduate or who graduate without having reached those standards, thatâs a big problem. It is a problem we have to work together to fix, which brings me to my next point.

Ranking schools is a competitive approach to dealing with the problem stated above. It is not one Commissioner Vilaseca or I would have chosen. We have also made it clear both to the U.S. Department of Education and Vermont Superintendents that Models 1, 2 and 3 (closing schools, bringing in a charter school, or replacing the principal and half the teachers) are in most cases not possible or appropriate in our small, rural state. In fact, we fought to have the fourth model added to the required school improvement models for the Tier I and Tier II schools you have now heard so much about. The fourth model we fought for was the Transformation Model. Even though they heard us, they did not relent on their position about replacing principals who in their view are ineffective. If asked directly, I think this is something we would all have a hard time arguing with. It is the rare person who wants to keep doing a job in which they are not effective, and a rare school community that would support that individual staying on in a position for which he or she is not suited. We understand however, that choosing to make these decisions and feeling forced to make them with what may be less than desirable alternatives are two different matters entirely. But because contract decisions are a local matter the department is not taking a position on this.

Throughout all of this, we are committed to working with you to do the right thing for the children in your communities. In areas where the principal has been working hard to make change but their job is still in jeopardy, we have worked with the administration to consider ways for that person to be a meaningful part of the school improvement efforts going forward.

We are also in the process of completing a restructuring of the department to more effectively support you in your efforts to continually improve instruction and learning outcomes for Vermont's children. Instead of having four people dedicated to school improvement, we now have a much larger team of high-quality, caring people who will work together across general and special education and support services to provide consultation to you in continuing the good work you are doing and incorporating new federal requirements where necessary.

When Commissioner Vilaseca and I were in Washington, D.C. last week, we discussed with other rural states and Secretary Duncan the many pressing issues we are facing, including proposed changes in funding, reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in a rural context, and also proposing a fifth model for future school improvement funding. Instead of automatically replacing principals who have been leading the school more than two years, a coaching, mentoring and leadership development approach would be applied concurrent with continuous feedback and evaluation for both the principal and the teachers in the school, prior to making changes in staffing.

Next week, I will send an update on the School Improvement Grant (SIG) application process and a summary of the more systemic elements contained within the SIG Transformation Model highlighting areas consistent with our own Transformation goals. Most of these are strategies I hear many of you are working to implement. Our hope is that we can work together with you on this, for the benefit not of most of our children, but the benefit of all.

Rae Ann Knopf
Deputy Commissioner
Education Transformation and Innovation

— Molly Walsh
Burlington Free Press blog


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