Comments to VT Assoc. of School Boards and VT Superintendents – Montpelier 2/5/2015

Many thanks for inviting me here today. You all have taken on what I believe to be the most important work in front of Vermonters. Our children are our future and you all are the future of education, along with the many great teachers working in your classrooms.

Before I get into my thoughts about the challenges facing us, I believe a speaker should explain their own connection to the subject and then declare their biases so what they say has some context if not import.

I moved to Morrisville in 1947 at the age of two with my recently war-widowed mother. I went to kindergarten and grade school in Morrisville for nine years in many of the same classrooms that my new stepfather, Emile Couture, went to and was taught by many of the same teachers. They neither knew nor cared about my self-esteem. They expected me to learn. Some were tough and some were empathetic, but they were all committed to my success.

In high school, I went to Phillips Exeter. I didn’t want to go, but my stepfather saw in it a rare opportunity. I’d been accepted not because I was brilliant but because my birth father had gone there. Life at Exeter was Dickensian. I had the last of the Harkness-era professors from the Depression, men in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

Later on, I came to understand how well I’d been prepared by the sturdy women in Morrisville for Exeter’s unsparing experience. But at Exeter many boys wanted to take time to “find themselves,” something that never would have occurred to my friends in Morrisville.

By 1968, at age 24, after a brief and bibulous two years at Kenyon College and a year off working in New York City, I was married with two sons and worked a nightshift job at IBM, while attending UVM during the day. I graduated with a degree in Romance languages and signed on to an opening in Bristol the year Mt Abe opened. There I taught seven classes a day of French, which was mandatory for all students starting in junior high. In those days, classes, like students, were graded. I taught 7 and 8 C& D levels and French 2, 3, and 4. The other French teacher had the other half. I made $5800 my first year, which seemed like a lot of money but then I looked at what I’d be making when I was 40 and left after the second year to start a business, at which I made even less.

Those two years teaching had a profound effect on me. To this day, I react defensively when people blame our schools for their children’s ills and the ills of society. I believe the two largest impacts on educational success are the culture in the home and the economic security of children in school.

We must look inward to the intellectual milieu in our own homes, the example we set for our children, and the respect we instill in them for their life in school. Tax-grousing, helicopter-parenting, fake self-esteem-building, “edutainment,” trigger-warnings, and other risk-eliminators, are all enemies of true learning. We live in a time where too many parents are too emotionally dependent on their own children, a recipe for life-long failure. Our children will, in fact, be who we are, not who we tell them to be – at home or in school.

From my time on the Legislative Blue Ribbon Tax Commission, I know Vermont has the second highest polarity of wealth of any state. Like the rest of the country, we’re becoming two Vermonts – one rich and one poor. Remember, we coined the term “gold towns.” Many of our once vibrant downtowns are bereft of their former robust economic bustle. Our main streets are now tenanted with Asian restaurants and convenience stores. Our former dry goods, groceries, and general stores are now Hannafords, Rite-Aids, Walmarts, and Dollar General Stores, many sadly in the next town. So much of the malaise in our communities and in our homes gets blamed on the one institution that remains robust, our schools.

Having said this, I want to focus on the art of the possible. Two of the most important issues facing us… are how we deal with the controversy over local control and redesigning our Byzantine school governance system.

Here are the realities of change and my suggestions for dealing with them.

The impacts of media, communication technology, mass transit, and global businesses have eroded our town boundaries, economies, and social cultures. Geography as we knew it is dying. Credit cards enable remote business transactions. Television homogenizes countless world cultures into a few. The internet moves information from one end of the world to the other as easily as across the room. Cell service and wi-fi cuts wires. It’s a different world.

We must also rethink the terms nursery, kindergarten, grade school, middle school, junior high, and high school. They need to be retired, along with their dubious graduation ceremonies. They’re outmoded and distract us from the natural continuum of childhood development.

The issue of local control is nuanced and yet we still prefer to see it as black and white. I promise you there are no black and white issues. There never were. Get over it.

The argument for small, local schools is age-specific. It makes sense to me that families would want small children nearby in their community, especially if public school access becomes optional at age two or three and mandatory by age four, when children are already deep into learning.

Pre-school to grade four should be in the heart of our communities, no matter how small. Small primary schools can function economically and effectively in small spaces with a modicum of students and several teachers, although some of the very smallest schools might be more viable if aligned with larger systems. Much of our fear of regional consolidation is about bussing small children to large and distant schools. As a parent, I’d fear that, too.

Middle and high schools, however, must be consolidated regionally. Their increased scale will permit better-resourced curricular diversity. The science, math, reading, art, and writing teachers for the local early grades will be replaced regionally by entire departments of specialized teachers in the upper grades offering six sciences, foreign languages, Vermont, American, and World history, business, civics, computer technology and languages, multiple math disciplines, studio and performance arts, and vocational skills.

The contention that local control equals quality is nonsense. Great, well-trained teachers, visionary leadership, and streamlined governance are at the heart of any great system. CVU in Hinesburg and U-32 in East Montpelier are but two fine academic examples of consolidated systems. College should be far away from home – even abroad. Our job is to make our children more, not less, resilient.

As to governance … you know the numbers. Our total student population is similar in size to that of a large suburban school district. Our schools are managed as 277 school districts with 282 school boards governed by 62 supervisory unions. The last serious school consolidation occurred in 1892 and Vermont’s motley collection of 2500 isolated school districts became the 277 we know today. There’s been no recognition of technical and socio-economic change in school governance since then. We can no longer afford to ignore this. The costs are unsustainable and our good educational achievements are becoming less equitable. It’s not just about the money. You all have read Secretary Holcombe’s excellent analysis of our current situation.

Consolidating school governance would streamline decision-making, enhance accountability, improve efficiencies, and make the system more agile. I would also argue that we should have a state teacher’s contract and calendar for improved leverage and management.

Your time will be better spent implementing new educational quality standards that focus on learners and teachers rather than administrators. Streamlined school governance offers the agility to implement needed change in your classrooms.

Finally, you all are the leaders. Having served on three legislative commissions, the recommendations of which the legislature has largely ignored, I can promise you that this governance challenge will not be solved in the legislature. You don’t want it to be. It will either be solved by you as experienced educators, by legislators as politicians, or by Vermonters, pissed off about their property taxes.  I am convinced you must and will solve it yourselves by coming to a rational consensus and bringing it to the legislature as a finished package.

Leadership defines a problem clearly. You and the Secretary have done that well. A leader then ensures that each relevant constituent is heard once. He or she then drives to a consensus. Dissent is welcome, respected and recorded but then leadership moves on and implements agreed-upon change. A real leader knows that the perfect is the enemy of the good and that nothing is forever. Errors can be fixed and improvements can be made.

That is your mission and you all have the knowledge, experience and skills to do it. Don’t leave it to be people who know less than you do.


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