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An opportunity missed

Ohanian Comment: "Opportunity Missed" by Steven Gross (Feb. 15, 2012) provides the only approach to education reform that will work. Making sure schools are connected to a safety net for Vermont's schoolchildren and their families must be our first priority. The money we spend on federally-required standardized testing, which Gross rightly labels "outdated management," is a waste. Worse, its overweening intrusion into classroom practice erodes the very values Vermonters embrace.

We don't need oppressive testing required by the federal government to show us that children in affluent areas score better than children in areas afflicted by poverty. We must reject the strategy developed by the Business Roundtable in the late 1980ies of tarring public schools and begin to work on what we do best--protecting our children. All our children. Steven Gross is right on target in pointing out that the place to start is that safety net.

by Steven Jay Gross

We all know about opportunity knocking. Well, it̢۪s happening right here, right now for Vermont̢۪s schools and the children they serve, but I believe we̢۪re about to miss it. We have the chance to propose an alternative to the burdensome federal law known as No Child Left Behind, and I was glad to see our state Department of Education was working on an exit strategy. Serious effort went into their waiver request (federal bureaucratic language for the alternative plan), including reaching out to the Montpelier-based education organizations. But because the Department of Education failed to involve more of our citizens in the process, the plan they will submit later this month misses the mark in two crucial areas. It̢۪s an opportunity missed.

First, it maintains the false belief that schools alone can provide impoverished children all that they need to succeed. They can̢۪t. Hungry children with family and health needs will not score well on tests. A child coming from a family without adequate housing, food, employment, and health care is carrying too great a burden and deserves better.

We in Vermont are not afraid to be the first state to work towards a single-payer health care system. Why not connect our health care reform to this waiver? Why not add other, crucial supports, especially in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene when many Vermonters are hurting? In other words, why not make this waiver request comprehensive in its vision, connecting schools to all the other sources of support for children? We must never give up on children, especially those in great need. But without a holistic approach, schools are setting themselves up to fail, and that̢۪s a tragic mistake.

Second, the waiver request continues our dependence on high stakes testing alone to achieve a great education for our children. That doesn̢۪t work because testing does not lead to a love of learning. What we need to emphasize are creativity and empathy since these are keys to our social and economic future, according to experts. Research is clear on this point: creative, experiential learning is connected to engagement and deep, sustained achievement. By ignoring this fact, the waiver request keeps us locked to a system inspired by outdated management theories. It is backwards thinking from the failed past.

That takes me back to the reason why I believe the waiver missed the mark. It came from missing the opportunity to involve our citizens and so, lost the chance to follow the Vermont tradition of connecting policy decisions to the wider community. Community involvement led to the famed Vermont Design for Education that inspired a generation of children and educators for decades. Facing a similar problem 20 years ago, we came across with a Vermont response: It is called the Vermont Common Core of Learning. I had the privilege of leading that effort as our state̢۪s chief of curriculum and instruction. We asked 5,000 Vermonters at 50 meetings the question: What do all of us need to know and be able to do to be effective in the future? This led to Vermont̢۪s Vital Results, then the cornerstone of our education policy. My colleagues and I weren̢۪t magical or ingenious, we simply trusted ourselves to frame the issue in a way that fit our state. We listened to our citizens and practiced the community spirit that makes us Vermonters.

I hope that next time the Department of Education will follow this tradition and make the effort to involve more Vermonters directly. We can̢۪t afford to keep missing opportunities like this.

Steven Jay Gross is professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Temple University. He was formerly chief of curriculum and instruction at the Vermont Department of Education. He lives in Middlebury.

— Steven J. Gross
Rutland Herald


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