OPINION: The Quiet Revolution in Our School House

Part One of a Two-Part Series

by David Kelley

It was a Vermonter, John Dewey, who helped usher in the educational reforms necessary to sustain the growth and development of a robust middle class and a civil society through the upheavals of the industrial revolution and the Great Depression. Today other, less well known Vermonters, are at the vanguard of a another quiet revolution in education.  In years to come there are new phrases that will become commonplace in Vermont households: “personal learning plans,” “proficiency-based learning,” and “flexible pathways.” The industrial revolution is now ancient history, but a new revolution is reshaping our economy and our world.

Whether we call it the digital revolution or the information revolution, new technologies are fueling an economy globalizing at breakneck speed. One of the most apparent consequences is growing income inequality. The shrinking American middle class and the widening gap between rich and poor has even catapulted a little known Vermont senator, who has made those issues his life’s mantra, to center stage.

Globalization is a process that began long before Marco Polo journeyed to the the Orient and it will continue whether we embrace the Trans-Pacific Partnership or not. Whether we like it or not, countries that have been denied economic opportunity for centuries are coming onto the field.  If the U.S. takes its bat and goes home, the likely result will be another team leading the league. But there is no question that whatever we do, the middle class faces a daunting challenge and education must be a big part of the solution. 

As Michael Snyder, the editor of Business Insider Magazine wrote on April 17, 2012:  “Labor has become a global commodity … Middle class jobs have been leaving this country at an astounding pace … Over the past several decades, millions upon millions of middle class Americans have been systematically turned into government dependents.”

Snyder gave this example:

*In 1960, social welfare benefits made up approximately 10 percent of all salaries and wages. In the year 2000, social welfare benefits made up approximately  21 percent of all salaries and wages. Today, social welfare benefits make up approximately 35 percent of all salaries and wages.

*When Barack Obama took office, there were 32 million Americans on food stamps. Today there are more than 46 million Americans on food stamps.

*According to Snyder one out of every four children in America is now on food stamps.

The old manufacturing jobs created by the industrial revolution, that were once the backbone of the American middle class, have moved offshore where labor costs are 10 to 20 times less than in the United States. Labor unions are weaker today than they have been in the last 75 years and the competition for middle class jobs is fiercer than ever. The future of the American economy is now dependent on education and brain power. In 1980, workers with a high school diploma earned about 71 percent of what college-educated workers made. By 2010, that number had fallen to 55 percent and continues to decline.

While the looming presidential election may generate heat, it is by no means certain that it will generate light. To manage new technologies and to stay competitive in a marketplace that refuses to recognize political borders demands more skills, more imagination, more creativity and more entrepreneurial initiative than ever. The quality of those skills depends on the quality of our schools. 

While public schools have traditionally been among the least innovative institutions, it is to Vermont’s credit that our schools have begun to appreciate the need for change. Vermont schools have embarked on a handful of innovations that will, hopefully, help provide the kind of enhanced educational quality that will be required for the next generation to sustain an independent, healthy standard of living in a global economy that no longer recognizes political borders. 

First and foremost among these innovations is Act 77 which was passed in 2013.  Act 77 provides secondary school students with an array of new opportunities, including online classes, community based work/learning opportunities, dual enrollment opportunities where college courses are made available to high school juniors and seniors, and an early college program enabling students to earn their high school diploma while completing their first year of college.

Even more radical than the early college program is the concept of “personalized learning plans,” and “proficiency-based learning.” The intention is to have all students in grades seven through nine develop a personalized learning plan this year. By 2018 all students in grades seven through 12 will be expected to have plans. Students are expected to demonstrate proficiency in a given subject before they move ahead. Rubrics and scoring guides will be used to assess whether students have met the standards rather than just letter grades.

Some of the changes taking place are subtle but important. School quality standards are being replaced with education quality standards. The shift is intended to change our focus from school inputs to an outcome standard that measures a student’s competence not only in the basics but in so-called “transferable skills” as well — communication, problem solving and critical thinking.

Personal learning plans are expected to be a three-way partnership between the student, parents, and educator. The idea is idealistic — that there should be as many pathways to education as there are students, and that teachers should be facilitators not instructors.  By the time this year’s eighth graders become freshman they will be expected to demonstrate proficiency in the educational quality standards established by the Vermont Board of Education.

The emphasis with these new systems in place will be on personalization. While the educational standards will stay constant — time and place of learning are now expected to become variable. The standard for progressing from one grade to the next will not be measured by seat time in a classroom, but rather by demonstrating the skills required to move ahead. Math won’t necessarily be learned from a textbook, but might be learned at an internship in the construction trades. The hope is to approach each subject in a way that makes sense to the student.

The tuition for students who opt to spend their senior year at a Vermont college will be paid for off the top of the Education Fund. Those students won’t be counted in a high school’s average daily membership unless more than five percent of the senior class takes the college option.

The proposed changes are, in theory at least, revolutionary but they have been in the works for over a decade with a long planning process that has involved the New England Secondary School Consortium, the Gates Foundation and the Great Schools Partnership in Portland, Maine, among others.

If Act 77, personalized learning plans, and proficiency-based learning are going to accomplish their purpose, then students will have to shoulder an added degree of personal responsibility in shaping their education, and teachers will have to take even greater responsibility for providing students with individualized attention. It is a tall order when most schools are looking at significantly tighter budgets and are being asked to increase class size. Likewise, it is certainly not clear that these changes will go far enough to create the kind of educational and intellectual capital needed to sustain Vermont’s economic well-being or our standard of living, given the enormity of challenges facing today’s students. But today’s school house is to education what the horse and buggy is to transportation, and to Vermont’s credit we are taking some bold initiatives. The next few years will be exciting and interesting.

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