Category Archives: economy

Vermont Needs A World Class Public Education System

“Welcome to Vermont: Home of a World-Class Public Education System” is the title of the vision statement on a quality education commissioned by the Vermont Superintendents Association in 2010.  As the president of the Association at the time, I had a hand in organizing the two years of work which went into producing this vision statement and I helped author the above mentioned quote.  I think the phrase “World Class” resonated with our membership because it was aspirational – we desired to transform Vermont’s public education system into a world class system.

Lately, there has been more discussion over what is meant by a world class education system.  Last week the US Department of Education put out its white paper on international education strategy entitled, Succeeding Globally Through International Education and Engagement, and in 2012 several books on the topic were published (e.g. A World Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation by Vivien Stewart, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students by Yong Zhao, and The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence by Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley).  I thought I would synthesize the key concepts of these books in order to suggest policy design principles for Vermont as we begin to think about transforming our current educational system into a world class system.

  1. International Benchmarking – World class education systems benchmark themselves against other countries.  They search out best practices from around the world and try to make sense of them in their own policy and cultural context.  I think Vermont, like many US states, is too inward focused in terms of our educational standards and benchmarking.  We frequently use grade normalization data from among our own schools (or regional data in the case of NECAP) to measure success when we should be comparing our students’ performance against their international peers.
  2. Strong Moral Commitment to the Success of All Students – Countries with world class education systems make an overt commitment to the educational success of all students, and make the necessary social investments to ensure their success.  As compared to other developed countries, there is a higher degree of correlation between US performance on international benchmark exams and our relatively high rates of poverty.  This means most high performing countries do a better job of closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students.  Vermont needs to expand its focus on early education programs and seek stronger policy coordination and alignment between social and education systems.
  3. High Quality Teachers – There is consensus that one of the critical features of a world class education system is having high quality teachers.  This means not only creating high quality teacher education programs at the university level, but also having well developed systems for ensuring teachers continue to develop their professional skills once they enter the work force.  High quality teachers in world class systems have solid preparation in both content and pedagogy.  Another common feature of world class education systems is the empowerment of teachers and a shift from accountability systems to responsibility systems – teachers are empowered and responsible for the success of their students.  Interestingly, in Finland the best translation for “accountability” is “responsibility.”  Vermont has some excellent teacher preparation programs, but these programs are fairly disconnected from teacher inservice professional development programs and teacher re-licensing activities.
  4. High Quality Curricula – In many world class educational systems, teachers develop curricula from the ground up with strong connections to educational researchers at the university level.  Vermont should implement an instructional development platform which connects all teachers to educational researchers in the development of curricula.  Such a system should also provide opportunities for connections with other teachers and educators from around the US and the world.  Such a system would better ensure high quality curricula are provided throughout all regions of the state.
  5. Systems Thinking – World class education systems are the result of systems thinking on the part of policy makers.  In these systems, education policy is very intentional and closely linked to social and economic development, and in some cases national survival.  Vermont needs to have a clearer and more coherent approach to education policy, and needs to make a stronger connection between investments in education systems and social and economic development.
Conclusions

The better part of the argument for the need to create a world class education system comes from the economic perspective.  Globalization has accelerated increasing the number of educated workers entering the global work force, and technology has increased the need for higher skilled workers and decreased the need for lower skilled workers.  In short, our students will be competing for higher skilled jobs with students from all over the world not just with students from Vermont or from the US.

Yong Zhao makes a slightly different economic argument.  He believes a world class system is one which makes the shift from preparing students for employment to preparing students to be entrepreneurs.  His data suggest there is an inverse correlation between a country’s scores on international education exams such as PISA and a country’s entrepreneurial capabilities: aiming for standardization of curricula and better performance on high stakes international benchmark exams might diminish a country’s capacity for economic growth by discouraging the necessary capacity for innovation and creativity among its work force.

Another cautionary note pertains to the problems associated with trying to replicate education models found in different cultures.  Many of the successful education systems can be seen as a function of a country’s unique history and culture.  The fact that education in Singapore does not look like education in Finland points to the necessity for considering the uniqueness of the cultural context.

Nevertheless, I think Vermont needs to put more effort into understanding what works in education systems from around the world, and then trying to make sense of those system features from a Vermont perspective.  I think it would be especially helpful to consider successful systems in countries or states which have a similar respect for local control.  Alberta, for example, has an acknowledged world class education system which is highly decentralized.  I think Alberta’s Initiative for School Improvement is worthy of further review.

As we talk about improving our educational system in Vermont, I think it is important to frame the conversation around creating a world class system.  Vermont education has much to offer the world, but we would benefit greatly by learning from the educational approaches of other states and countries.

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My Google Apps Presentation

Here is the outline of my Google Apps presentation for the VPA conference on May 11, 2010.

Why move to Google Apps?

  • FUD (and sometimes FUDD) Concerns
    • COPPA – “If you are using Google Docs within Google Apps Education Edition for your school domain, your school assumes the responsibility for complying with COPPA and the information that students submit. When offering online services to children under 13, schools must be cognizant of Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).  COPPA is a regulation that requires parental consent for the online collection of information about users under 13.  Per the Google Apps Education Edition Agreement, any school administering Google Apps Education Edition acknowledges and agrees that it is solely responsible for compliance with COPPA, including, but not limited to, obtaining parental consent concerning collection of students’ personal information used in connection with the provisioning and use of the Services by the Customer and End Users. Parental consent and notification could take place in form of a permission slip granting use of Google Apps and/or other technology services at the school.”
    • FERPA – Google’s Privacy Policy
    • CIPA – A free message security service can make the system CIPA compliant.
    • Archiving – Google provides each user with over 7 GB of email storage.  A message discovery service is available for a fee.
    • Technology Schools Can Trust
  • The Case of Oregon
    • state-wide access to Google Apps for schools through the Oregon Virtual School District
    • Oregon negotiated a state-wide agreement with Google to address privacy and protection concerns for all of their schools
    • Accelerate Oregon – “a public-private partnership is dedicated to providing Oregon schools with the tools necessary to advance teaching and learning with Technology”
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Report of the Superintendent of Schools 2009

During the 2009 school year, new administrative job descriptions were adopted. This work culminated in the design and implementation of a superintendent evaluation process that will serve as a model for the evaluation of all administrative staff. The results of the superintendent evaluation were reduced down to specific organizational priorities. These priorities can be viewed on the BRSU website.

These priorities focus on strengthening our instructional systems, personalizing learning opportunities for students through the use of technology, and improving the efficiency of our operations. In terms of operational efficiency, the accounting services for the Manchester School District were shifted to the BRSU office in Sunderland. This change will save Manchester approximately $37,000 a year and will greatly enhance our financial reporting capabilities. The Mettawee School District transitioned their accounting services to the central office in 2008. Consolidating our back office operations saves money, streamlines audit processes, and provides greater oversight to board members and the public.

Another major structural change being implemented pertains to our early education programs. The supervisory union and its districts are navigating a new law, Act 62, which provides incentives for the expansion of early education programs. Based on these changes, we will be eliminating a full-time director position at the BRSU and some of the responsibilities for administering the school-based early education programs will be shifted to administrators in the schools.

We have made substantial progress in improving the efficiency of our operations, but there is still more work to be done in this area. Since 80% of our costs are attributed to personnel, our major strategy for achieving greater efficiency will be to seek opportunities to share personnel and services among our districts. I believe this points to the necessity for governance reform; our current structure of 9 districts and 10 boards is too cumbersome and inhibits our ability to respond to changing economic circumstances and declining student numbers. Governance reform is being considered at the state level, but our districts are not waiting for these decisions to be made in Montpelier. We are engaged in a serious review of our systems and will be organizing opportunities in the coming months for broad community input on this topic as our boards establish Ends policies.

Through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), our districts have received additional federal “stimulus” funds. These funds have been received through federal formula programs and must be spent in accordance with the guidelines of these programs. We have received approximately $90,000 in Title I and $400,000 in IDEAB or special education. All of these funds are one-time funds and must be spent in two years. The Title I funds are being allocated to the three BRSU districts that are eligible to receive these funds (Currier, Mettawee, and Sunderland), and the IDEAB funds will be spent centrally to reduce the costs of our special education programs. Most likely we will use these funds to establish special education programs at the supervisory union level in order to reduce costs for sending students out of the district for these services. We will also be reviewing the transportation costs of these programs to see if it would be more cost effective to run our own transportation services.

In spite of these additional funds, all of our districts have struggled this year to adopt budgets that are both fiscally responsive and sensitive to student program needs. The majority of our districts, however, have been able to achieve decreases in their expenditure budgets which is no small accomplishment considering many of our fixed costs are increasing. We will need your continued involvement and support to ensure we can navigate these challenging economic circumstances while at the same time ensuring our children obtain a quality education. Thank you for your support.

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Transforming Vermont’s System of Public Education

The State Board of Education has embarked on an initiative to transform Vermont’s public schools. This initiative is focused on making our schools, and high schools in particular, more relevant to students. Although this is important and timely work, I believe the focus is off target. The quality of Vermont’s public education system is already very high. We should be directing our transformative energies towards a commonly accepted but rarely examined aspect of our public school system: it’s poor organization and inefficiency. The current economic situation makes this inefficiency especially intolerable, but I believe it is through the current economic crisis that we can finally find the necessary political will to transform these systemic deficiencies.

Vermont’s system of public education is actually not much of a system, but rather a very loose confederation of local districts that can choose to work together, or not, when they see fit. This semi-structure is rife with duplication of effort and wasted time and money. The chief cause of this inefficiency is the political nature of the system. Politics always makes systems more inefficient, and our educational system, from top to bottom, is overly political.

In Vermont, the political nature of our education system is frequently expressed in a blind allegiance towards “local control” even though there is truly not much local control, and some of the things that are controlled locally (hiring, purchasing, contracting, etc.) are the very things that make public education in Vermont at times inefficient, complex, and costly. From a mathematical perspective:

LOCAL CONTROL=OPERATIONAL COMPLEXITY=INEFFICIENCY=HIGH COSTS

To become more efficient, we need to start thinking of our public education structure as a true system. At the heart of this effort will be the need to re-examine issues of local control vs. centralization. This will not mean abandoning local control altogether. We need to consider, however, what aspects of the system should remain within the purview of local decision making and what areas should be managed centrally in order to achieve a greater efficiency.

A compromise between local control and centralization would seem to be the creation of a regional school district system. A series of policy initiatives should be introduced that makes the regionalization of educational services more attractive or maintaining the status quo too expensive. Such strategically designed policy initiatives when considered within the context of our current economic crisis can provide the necessary energy to start transforming our current system into one that is more efficient. I suggest the following areas for policy consideration:

  • The small schools grant should be reduced to support only those small schools that meet newly created socio-economic and geographic guidelines. These guidelines would establish funding criteria based on the socio-economic status of a community and the relative distance of a small school from other schools.
  • Districts that do not operate schools should be forced to consolidate with other districts. Even if a district does not operate a school, it presents a cost liability to the system by being a corporate entity that can, and will be, sued. These districts are also required to meet the same regulatory, policy, and financial reporting requirements of districts that do operate schools. Eliminating these districts would reduce administrative costs.
  • The current configuration of school districts and supervisory unions should be reviewed for consolidation. A commission similar to a “base closing” commission should be formed to oversee this process.
  • New regional school districts should be formed with expanded authority over the major operational areas that affect cost:
    1. Hiring – These regional districts should be the only entities allowed to employ individuals. This would force the consolidation of union master agreements and allow staff to be shared among schools more efficiently.
    2. Business Services – All business services should be housed in these regional school districts in order to reduce duplication of effort and to provide better control and reporting systems.
    3. Purchasing and Contracting – These regional districts should be the only entities allowed to make purchases and to contract for services. This would promote more efficient purchasing and would allow services, including student transportation, to be better coordinated within a region.
    4. Charter Schools – These regional school districts should be given statutory authority to create innovative learning structures along the lines of charter schools. These structures would employ new technologies and provide greater flexibility for students and families at lower costs.
    5. Consolidated Grand Lists – The formation of regional school districts allows for the consolidation of education property tax grand lists within these regions. Such consolidation would likely reduce the statistical volatility of the Common Level of Appraisal, a major cause of property tax increases in recent years.
  • A state-wide student information system, special education management system, and financial accounting system should be implemented. We currently do not have a uniform approach to data systems. Public education is a very complex business; we need to have standardized data systems matched to uniform governance entities so we can better manage our programs and their related costs.

These are examples of the types of policies I would introduce to start transforming our public education system. We need to move beyond pedagogical debate, reactionary tinkering and political rhetoric to take advantage of this important moment in history to restructure our public education system so that it can become more efficient, manageable, and sustainable. This work will no doubt require significant political leadership, but if we do not act now we jeopardize the future social and economic well being of our state.

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We need to modernize our education infrastructure

I enjoyed hearing Daniel Pink a few weeks ago when he spoke to the teachers of Chittenden County.  He made some remarks about how we needed improve our education infrastructure.  He characterized many of our schools as being 40 years old and asked, “would you take your car to repair shop that had 40 year old infrastructure?  Would you go to a hospital or clinic that had 40 year old infrastructure and technology?”

I found a similar theme in a recent op ed piece by Thomas Friedman.  The quality of our public infrastructure reflects the relative importance we, as a country, place on education.  This needs to change.

When I attended the BLC conference this summer I was able to mingle with education leaders from Europe and Africa.  They get it.  They see education as a national priority directly connected to their economic competitiveness.

Letting market forces alone guide our improvements is not going to cut it in an era where other countries are urgently focusing their national resources on improving education infrastructure – we are in a global education arms race but we have not figured it out yet.

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Governor’s Budget Address

Governor Douglas gave his budget address last week.  In a paragraph of that speech, he cited federal stimulus funds that will most likely come to Vermont:

Many of the ideas being discussed in Washington are familiar to Vermonters. Proposals to reduce health care costs by using information technology and increased investment in preventive care are in line with Vermont’s groundbreaking Blueprint for Health. Increased funding for weatherization and energy-efficiency programs is consistent with steps we have taken to help businesses and families save money by consuming less. New investments to expand broadband internet access to rural areas would support our e-State initiative. And funding to transform the nation’s energy transmission and distribution system goes hand-in-hand with a Smart Grid for Vermont – part of my Economic Growth Plan.

Interesting that he failed to mention any stimulus funds that will be targeted to public education including:

  • $41 billion to local school districts through Title I ($13 billion), IDEA ($13 billion), a new School Modernization and Repair Program ($14 billion), and the Education Technology program ($1 billion).
  • $79 billion in state fiscal relief to prevent cutbacks to key services, including $39 billion to local school districts and public colleges and universities distributed through existing state and federal formulas, $15 billion to states as bonus grants as a reward for meeting key performance measures, and $25 billion to states for other high priority needs such as public safety and other critical services, which may include education.

A cynical person might think he might have had some other purpose for failing to mention such a significant amount of proposed investment in our public school system.

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Stuff We Own

The foreclosures in this Newshour story highlight the degree of personal tragedy associated with the recent economic downturn. I am saddened to see the material nature of our culture exposed for what it is – an empty pursuit. As a country, we need to figure this out. We can’t afford to continue to consume more than we need.

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