Comments to VT School Boards Association – November 15,2006

Thank you for your kind invitation today. I am not sure that I have any special knowledge to impart beyond what you already know from the hard work you all have done in the service of Vermont’s young people.

I do believe that in order to make progress on critical policy issues, one must explore what is true, what is myth and focus on doing what is right, not necessarily what is expedient, but what is sustainable, right and within our reach financially.

Let’s start with a few myths:

Myth One: Vermont is “a special place.” It is not. It is one of many wonderful places in which to live. Its geographical boundaries, however, are virtually meaningless. Our borders, our government and administrative structures were established at a time when few ever ventured out of their own communities. Fast, affordable travel, the Internet, media networks, global economic forces, and the roll-up of small businesses into ever larger more ubiquitous entities with more compressed ownership has changed all that. There is as much commonality of interest between VT, ME, NH, upstate NY and Quebec as there is between Burlington and Rutland. Our problems are regional and national and, to an increasing degree, global. Our pollution problems are as much a function of what comes to us from the Midwest as anything we create ourselves. Our economic and educational problems are as much a function of Washington policy makers as they are of our own attempts at solutions. Our county and state borders are and administrative artifacts. This same meeting may be occurring in Maine where they have 262 school districts and an equally high tax burden.

Myth Two: “Taxes are too High.” We are highly taxed in Vermont, but we cannot look at taxes in a vacuum. Taxation is a function of community cost and community value. We must remind ourselves of what taxes create and support in our communities. It is foolhardy to simply cut taxes without analyzing the efficiency and function of that which they are designed to sustain. When one buys a product or service, one measures the value against the cost, not just the cost.

In Maine a TABOR amendment went down in flames when Grow Smart Maine asked for help from the Brookings Institution.  TABOR amendments are a national initiative of the anti-tax crusaders. They’re modeled after a 1992 Colorado initiative (now suspended) that limited the state budget to the sum of inflation plus population change. Taxes or spending can only be raised by a supermajority of the legislature or popular statewide referendum which we, thankfully, do not have in Vermont.

Taxes are a function of overall government spending, much of which is for educational delivery and governance systems. The Brookings Report acknowledged that income and property taxes in Maine were high, as they are in Vermont. With 262 school districts, Maine, like Vermont, is overspending the norm for K-12 education. Brookings said “Think, then cut,” which is what we must do in Vermont.

A business whose survival depends on cost reductions must review its entire cost structure before it makes its cuts, from the CEO’s compensation package through middle management on down to the people who actually create value on a daily basis. They must review procurement, process control and all elements of overhead. If they take the easy way and simply cut costs at the production level of the work force by which I mean teaching staff, they reduce their value in the market disproportionately and threaten their own future.

When neighbors become disconnected from their own community resources like their schools or libraries and they rebel at escalating tax burdens by voting down a school budget or new tax initiative, a school may respond by cutting educational and sports programs that do not support standardized test scores without looking at their own enterprise-wide efficiency. This is a response designed to punish the community for its miserliness. In these cases, the kids are the losers.

Myth Three: Our Schools are Failing Us.  As a society, we are failing our schools and our children. Vermont is the second best state in the union for children’s well-being and we should be proud of that. We also have a good educational system on the whole. As a community, however, we have to some extent lost respect for our schools. We speak disparagingly of our schools in front of our children. We no longer instill in our children a sense of the deep value and importance of education. We often assume our children are right and their school is wrong, reflexively defending them from a teacher’s disciplines or scholarly demands instead of teaching them to respect their school and their teachers.

Foreign shores are teeming with people who would die to be in our schools, yet we ourselves often have little regard for them. Culturally, we have lost our sense of the intrinsic value of education. We see it through our property tax bill rather than through our understanding that free, accessible public education was envisaged by our founding fathers as a basic tenet of democracy — which we are now purporting to export to the Middle East militarily. There are parents in Iraq who would sell all their meager assets to ensure that their children get any education at all.

The recent phenomenon of “helicopter parents” who hover in the school system being critical and “protecting” their children, further exemplifies this.

Life, education, society are all fraught with risk.  There are good teachers and bad teachers. There is justice and injustice. There are mean kids and nice kids, rich kids and poor kids. Education is reflective of life. Increasingly, we seem to believe that if anything goes wrong in life, someone is to blame. Someone should be sued or called to account.  The great beauty of this world is its imperfection and our educational system will always reflect this. It does not warrant our loss of a sense of the value of education.

Furthermore, our children become who we are, not who we tell them to be. They do not necessarily follow our rules. They follow our example. If we grouse about the schools and the teachers and the taxes, our children will understand from this that school is flawed and deserves no respect, no academic effort. It is merely to be tolerated. We must reinvigorate our respect for educational systems within the home and community, model our respect and support for education. The failure is our own and less that of the schools.

Today, we send our schools five and six-year olds who may not have had the benefits of a home life with a fulltime parent there to bond with and care for them, as one or both parents must now work to subsist. If they are lucky, our children may spend their pre-school years in a good daycare center, but there are precious few that provide the nurturing and wealth of early education and sensory experiences that young children need to grow into healthy learners.

With steep cutbacks in housing and nutrition subsidies for the poor and the working poor, we are already sending children to our schools obese and malnourished with junk food and suffering from developmental problems brought on by poor nutrition, relentless media exposure, rising poverty and homelessness.

We send them children who watch hours of TV daily and who go about wearing headsets blaring rap or techno, isolated from the sounds and sights of a world rife with excitement and natural lessons. Their play electronic games in a fantasy world filled with implied sex and violence, both of which are now “in their face.” The wonders of sexual discovery at an appropriate age and in appropriate circumstances are lost on our children who have seen it all. The real horrors of war and societal violence are quotidian and vicarious, and conveyed without physical pain or pain of loss.

School budgets we do pass can rarely have positive impact on the quality of teaching, but are escalated by rising healthcare, labor, utility, insurance and maintenance costs.

Too many politicians give speeches and pass laws about how schools should work while rarely visiting them to see how they do work or asking those who teach there what they need to enhance the culture of learning.

The current administration in Washington, under their new rubric of “starve the beast” or “the ownership society” – or “whatever” as our children now say – passes lofty sounding legislation rife with doublespeak while providing little, if any, funding to realize those lofty goals.

As a society we will be judged not only by our material wealth but also by how well we care for our children, our aged, our poor and our infirm. In our obsession with consumerism, our abiding belief in the salvation of mankind through free market economics, we are losing aspects of community which are vitally important and will inevitably define us in history. Archeologists will paw through the detritus of our consumer age and remark on the size of our cars and houses, but history will judge us by our human and cultural values.

When I look back on how education changed my life, I see no schools, gyms or technology- no physical plant. I see the faces of about six or eight people who cared so deeply about my learning that they would not let go of me. Sometimes they made me afraid, sometimes they pushed me further than I thought could go, but in the end, I learned from them in spite of myself. I remember books, music, plays and science and math experiments that amazed me. I also remember competitions and recess games, but mostly I remember with fondness and respect those who made a difference in my life. We need to celebrate and support them, make them leaders in our schools. This is where the much vaunted “creative economy” begins.

Much of what is wrong with our schools lies within us.

Myth Four: We must prepare our children for the workplace. No, we must prepare our children for life, of which the workplace is an important part. We want intelligent, balanced young people coming out of our schools who can communicate well verbally and in writing, know how to research and find answers, understand collaborative problem-solving, understand the universal concepts of math and science and, more important, the navigation of dynamic new information systems that track the relentless discoveries in both. We want young people who speak a language other than English, who may have spent a semester abroad, who understand and value their cultural heritage and the living arts. We want people who are practiced in wellness, good diet, exercise and sports.

Our American obsession with productivity may end up eclipsing the very purpose of education altogether as we lose more students and young workers to social, media and stress-related maladies such as ADD, depression, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, sleep disorders, suicide and other manifestations of physiological and psychological burnout. The very balance that a good educational system engenders will produce a worker who can learn, adapt and change, and balance family and community life while maintaining productivity, intellectual curiosity and emotional agility.

We need to differentiate workforce training and education. They are intrinsically different. I don’t want schools training my workers. I want them educating them. I will pay to train them for the tasks for which I have job openings. We must be clear about the difference.

Many of the new tools that technology has developed are becoming part of the educational curriculum as they should. I want a worker who can write a clean, crisp, intelligent business letter and I want them to be able to do it in M/S Word. If I want a process flow engineer, however, I will pay to send them to training to be that compressionist. The ubiquitous tools that have become standard facilitators of science, art and communication enter the educational lexicon and curriculum: word processing (Word), database management tools (Excel), graphic tools (PhotoShop, Quark) etc. Technological tools unique to specific businesses are matters for training.

What of vocational and professional training? I remember the closing of the good vocational schools of which there were several in Vermont when I was growing up. In the endless cycle of rejection and adoption, we are now rebuilding them. They are schools designed to train young people to job-specific skills for which there is a continuous need, plumbing, construction, welding, electrical, public safety, environmental stewardship, accountancy, graphic arts, Web development, nursing, teaching, energy, medicine, law. It may surprise or annoy you that I lump together the professional schools like Law School and the vocational schools that teach crafts like welding. To me, however, they are one and the same. They train people for specific jobs of which society has an ongoing need. I know two plumbers who make more in Vermont than two busy lawyers I also know. I know nurses who make more than teachers. Fletcher Allen rarely has less than 100 openings for nurses. Pay runs from $44K for a recent graduate just starting to a high of $108,000 for specialty nurses with additional training. We cannot fill these positions and use the same number of “travelers” who cost almost twice as much, as they come through an agency. For reasons, no doubt, having to do with status and sensibilities, we differentiate between an electrician and a lawyer when it comes to training, but in reality, what is the difference? Starting pay?  Less and less true.  Lawyers, doctors and accountants are not educated they are trained. Hopefully they have already been educated.

Myth Five:  Globalization drives everything:  The abrasion between globalization and community will continue to chafe, but the self-styled futurists who see it as the driver of all change are simply wrong. It is indeed a powerful economic factor and will continue to be, but it is not the only factor, just as the dynamic tension between local community control and a broader state or regional educational vision continue to compete with one another, often inhibiting needed change.

We just saw this play out clearly in the UNESCO battle which yet again isolated the United States against the rest of the world on cultural and intellectual property issues. Simply stated, we want everyone in the world to watch or buy Hollywood movies and buy our musical artists, pay for them and respect their copyrights. There exist, however, other cultures that simply do not want their citizens watching the violent and sexually explicit content that we take for granted and, what’s more, they want to establish and nourish their own movie and music industries derivative of their own cultural heritage. It plays out as well with farm subsidies. France is no different from Vermont. It plays out locally in the debate today about local community control of our schools within the sixty odd superintendancies, the State’s educational vision and national educational policy such as it is.

Myth Six: Technology and distance learning will transform education. People and communities will transform education. Technology and distance learning are valuable tools that will amplify human assets – good and bad – within education.  For the foreseeable future, human beings will be at the heart of pedagogical systems and the quality they bring to learning systems and networks will drive the success or failure of the tools – garbage in, garbage out.

Remember too that learning is not only about data. It is about helping children convert data to information, information to knowledge and knowledge to wisdom. These transitions require a fine teacher in the classroom. Information to wisdom requires experience and heart, not yet available from technology.

Enough Mythology….just a word about educational culture. You can feel it within minutes of entering a school: the demeanor of the students, the bearing of the teachers, the care for the physical plant, the artifacts of discovery, learning, curiosity, community, expression and intellection that adorn the walls of the place. It is palpable. This is a place where young people and teachers learn.

Contrast this with a “heads down” institution where children propel themselves from room to room with wires emerging from both ears or in loud conversation about issues that express their disdain for where they are and their longing for where they would be if they were not compelled to be in school.

This “feeling” has no metric. It cannot be quantified in a “school report card.” It is cultural and derives its success from exemplary school leadership. It needs a corollary culture in the home to succeed consistently. With only one such culture in the life of a child, the child can succeed, but they have a harder time of it.

This learning culture is not driven by high property taxes, escalating school budgets, federal or state legislation, national testing, or teacher’s unions. It is a modeled behavior set by leadership in the school and emulated by a critical mass of the teaching body, all of whom are accountable for the culture and propagate it by their own example, their commitment to a community of learning, their respect for one another and for their students.

It is the same in the home. Children bring to school their parents’ attitudes towards learning. If no one reads and discusses what they read, if the family never convenes over a shared meal to discuss a film, a book, a concert, or a local or world event, or no one ever just hops up to look up a word in the dictionary, the meaning of which no one knew, there is no culture of learning, curiosity or exploration in the home and the entire burden is left to the school.

What is the action step? We must support quality, accountability and educational leadership and ensure that our educational leaders are teachers and learners themselves and exemplify a love of learning, not just a politic knowledge of what the system requires to retain a job.

The relentless escalation of cost has little to do with excellence. As parents, we must be the source of educational excellence in our own selves, our homes and in our choice of principals and teachers to personally model and sustain a learning culture in our schools.

Finally, I do believe we must think smart and then cut as Maine is doing. We cannot sustain the cost of our current educational governance architecture. We must look at how to do more with less as others are having to do and re-engineer our administrative systems to retain the vital principles (that’s both “…ples and …pals) of community and a strategic vision for educational excellence.

Thanks for the opportunity to be with you and learn from you today.