Agency of Education report looks beyond pandemic

  • By Jim Sabataso, Staff Writer for the Rutland Herald
  • September 16, 2020

A new report commissioned by the Vermont Agency of Education (AOE) says schools should resist the urge to return to business as usual once the coronavirus pandemic passes.

Released by the AOE last Friday, the 26-page report, “Making Revisions to the Grammar of Schooling: Education After COVID-19,” points to “noteworthy practices” deployed during the state’s continuity of learning period this spring and offered recommendations in three areas: student-centered learning, identifying educational malpractices and crafting policy coherence.

In April, Education Secretary Daniel French established the Continuity of Learning Task Force to identify “strategic opportunities in education that might emerge as a result of the COVID-19 emergency.”

The 22-person task force was composed of educators, school administrators and business leaders from across the state.

French said he and Deputy Secretary Heather Bouchey selected task force members based on knowledge of their “prior work, interest and role.”

“We were looking for some diversity in perspectives,” he said in a Tuesday email.

Andrew Jones, director of curriculum for the Mill River Unified Union School District and president of the Vermont Curriculum Leaders Association, chaired the task force.

He said that the timing of the report might feel like it’s putting one more thing on the plate of educators and policymakers, but underscored that it’s the beginning of a conversation.

“We need to start, kind of, changing our mindsets from this crisis mode mindset to a recovery mode mindset because at some juncture, this will be behind us,” he said Monday.

In an email Tuesday, Bill Olsen, superintendent of Rutland City Public Schools, said that, while many of the ideas put forth in the report are “not all that new” and are in alignment with global education and workplace trends, he appreciates that they are being emphasized.

“I agree this is a good time to reassess where we are in meeting those goals,” he said, adding that RCPS has been “on a steady path” toward achieving much of what is described in this report for the last decade.

Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent of the Slate Valley Unified School District said she agrees with the report’s premise.

“We need to use our experience with COVID and use some of the positive opportunities that have come from this crisis and leverage them to think about education differently,” she said in a Monday email, adding that districts need to stop lamenting “what was” and start thinking about “what will be.”

Addressing equity

In assessing the schools’ remote-learning experiences this spring, the task force identified equity and access as two central themes.

“It is the committees’ recommendation that to make remote learning a viable option for instruction for Vermont students, access to high-speed internet and devices are fundamental,” the report reads.

The report also urges more training of classroom educators in remote and hybrid models of teaching with an eye toward establishing a blended model that more intentionally deploys technology to provide a more student-centered learning process in the classroom.

“Though technology has had significant impacts in other fields, education remains largely untouched by any sort of disruptive technology,” it reads.

Don Tinney, president of the Vermont-NEA, the state’s largest union representing more than 13,000 teachers and school workers, agrees that the report is a “good conversation starter.”

But while Tinney said he was glad it addressed equity, he notes that issues of equity are “far more extensive than simply internet access.”

For example, he said he was “disappointed” there was no mention of racial equity.

“If we’re talking about the redesign of our school system, we absolutely must make sure that our schools are welcoming and inclusive of our black, brown and Indigenous students,” he said.

No new policies

Turning toward lawmakers, the task force calls for a moratorium on any new education polices and “that focus on pedagogy” until the current policies are better implemented.

It also encourages them to “stay the course” and resist calls to repeal recent policies enacted in Act 77 and Act 173.

“The education policy arena in Vermont is forward-thinking but crowded,” the report stated, noting that policies like proficiency-based graduation requirements, Flexible Pathways and personalized learning plans have not been implemented “with any sense of fidelity.”

“(T)his piecemeal and partial approach to implementing student-centered learning across our K-12 system perpetuates educational inequity.”

David Younce, president of the Vermont Superintendents Association and superintendent at MRUUSD, agrees. He said these policies “need time to play out.”

“You don’t want to change the landscape unnecessarily,” he said.

Local first?

The report highlights the state’s precedent of granting school districts local control as a “policy coherence problem.”

According to the report, inconsistencies across the state have created confusion among families, educators and administrators alike, and made it difficult to build community support for the implementation of policies.

“It was a challenging conversation because in Vermont, as probably anywhere, everyone cherishes their autonomy,” Jones said. “But at the same time, we saw some value in maybe a higher level of consistency with certain policies and certain things that we’re trying to implement within the state.”

The report recommends that the state work toward establishing a statewide school calendar and develop common proficiencies for all districts to adopt.

“Though local context matters, greater consistency, coherence and coordination across school districts and education institutions will be imperative to the transformational changes needed in Vermont’s education system,” the report states.

French agrees that there needs to be some degree of state-level leadership.

“In order to ensure high-quality educational opportunities are provided to every student (equity), there needs to be a degree of state-level leadership, support and oversight in describing the educational goals of the system while at the same time reserving some flexibility to locals on how to achieve these goals.”

Younce observed that, during the past decade, policies coming out of the Legislature, Agency of Education and its board of trustees seem to be challenging local control, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

“If you’re looking to deliver a consistent type of experience or provide for consistent outcomes, you do have to have some consistency,” he said.

Olsen, meanwhile, agrees that local control can hinder the implementation of the state’s educational goals, but said that, depending on the district, it has the potential to “move progress faster.”

He said there needs to be a balance because a loss of local control could force a district into a system or policy it does not support.

“I also think that if these concepts become implemented well in local districts, their value becomes apparent, and other communities will follow,” he said.

The status quo

While Jones cautions against returning to status quo, he acknowledged that the report’s push for changes wasn’t an indictment of all past practices.

“But we do need to take a hard look at some of the past practices and make sure that we don’t just fall right back to that rubber band into doing what we were doing before,” he said.

Jones said the pandemic has presented an opportunity to better reinforce practices like transferable skills, student-centered learning and personalized learning plans.

“I think it is critical that we use this opportunity to maintain our momentum,” he said.

However, the report’s executive summary, written by Jones and edited and revised by a number of other task force members, is more direct.

“Schools today look remarkably similar to those in the 1950s,” it stated.”The ‘grammar of schooling,’ which has remained relatively unchanged for over a century, is not preparing our students well for the 21st-century knowledge economy.”

It went on to call a return to the status quo “tantamount to ‘education malpractice.’”

Jones said “decades’ worth of research” from around the country back up the report’s claim that schools are slow to embrace change and innovation.

He conceded there is more innovation in grades K-8 than in high school, which he said can tend to be more teacher-centered and siloed content-wise.

Tinney, however, took issue with some of the conclusions made in the executive summary, such as the assertion that today’s schools have not changed since the 1950s.

“We have some of the most progressive teachers in the country working in Vermont,” he said. “This notion that somehow we are not providing a progressive and viable curriculum simply doesn’t ring true.”

He calls some the statements made about the state of education and the quality of teaching in Vermont “unfair and unfounded.”

“Every national survey that we’ve seen in recent years places Vermont public schools in the top five school systems in the nation,” Tinney said. “If you were to read some of the sections of this report, you would think that we’re completely missing the mark.”

He also took issue with calling the current status quo “tantamount to educational malpractice.”

“What is the point the author of this study is making?” he asked. “I would like to see the data that says that the status quo is educational malpractice. I find that to be insulting.”

According to Tinney, the three practicing teachers on the task force were “not engaged in any way” with drafting the summary.

“I find that what I see in the executive summary and conclusion is really the same tired rhetoric of education reformers that are trying to implement new technologies and business-based approaches that have been proven to not work,” he said.

On special education

While the report did not directly address special education — an area in which the inequities of last spring’s remote-learning experiment were particularly prevalent — that absence should not be interpreted as an omission.

“No category of learner was singled out as that was part of the point,” said task force member and Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Jeanne Collins. “It should not matter if one has a learning disability or other learning need, schools should be able to meet the child where he/she is in development and address those needs, through personalized learning and a multidisciplinary approach to interventions.”

Task force member Tami Frechette, a special educator at North Country Union High School in Newport, said the task force was receptive to discussing special education.

“There was openness to the discussion. It was not the focus of the discussion,” she said Tuesday.

“I know it’s definitely a focus that needs to be addressed,” she said. “It’s, I think, the most difficult to do remotely for our most significantly challenged children.”

Frechette said she feels her voice was heard on the task force, and that “all schools are concerned” about special education.

“I think that there was a lot of agreement on how much the special educators had to take on in order to get the kids through the remote learning,” she said, noting that the task is not to just get students through the end of the year, but to actually ensure that they are learning.

While the report now sits on French’s desk, he said the priority at the moment is reopening schools. He said it will be “reviewed in the coming months.”

“I take the ball,” he said. “Next steps would be to consider what policy recommendations might emerge for consideration by the legislature, and/or the State Board to consider regulatory implications.”