Some Thoughts on Math and Science Education in Vermont

In a recent article in the Rutland Herald, an IBM executive remarked that only 38% of Vermont’s juniors meet basic math competencies.  I am not sure where these numbers come from, but I take more issue with her cure rather than her diagnosis which she apparently prescribed to several university presidents: “You’ve got to immediately stop graduating teachers the way you are graduating them today – they don’t know math.”  Although I think the quality of teacher development programs at the college level is and will always be something we need to attend to, I think the larger problem is how teacher development relates to curriculum development.  Currently, there is a significant disconnect between the two.

We have some excellent teacher development resources in Vermont for math (e.g. VMI, and the Vermont Mathematics Partnership Ongoing Assessment Project – see OGAP on Marge Petit’s site) which prepare teachers very well.  There is a gap, however, between the quality of these programs and the quality of the curriculum materials these teachers end up using in their classrooms.  Teachers are frequently required to customize and augment the locally adopted curriculum, and they do much of this work in isolation from each other and from the training programs which supported them.

A more effective approach would be leverage a network of well trained teachers to design a curriculum from the ground up, and to use that curriculum as the basis of a training program for future teachers.  Such an approach would close the gap between training and implementation and thereby create both a faster development cycle and a better feedback loop for quality assurance.  I described the theory (“Lateral Networking”) behind such an approach in a previous blog post.  This type of approach is not just theory, however, but being used to great effect in other places such as New Jersey.


Lessons in Lateral Innovation from the Garden State: The New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning (NJCTL)

I ran into Dr. Bob Goodman of the NJCTL several years ago when he was presenting at Alan November’s BLC conference.  An MIT trained physicist and the former CEO of Harman Kardon and JBL Consumer Products, Bob is a physics teacher at a vocational high school in Bergen County, NJ and was New Jersey Teacher of the Year in 2006.  Bob is also the Executive Director of the NJCTL where he works on creating and implementing the Center’s Progressive Math Initiative and Progressive Science Initiative (see PSI-PMI for more information).  These initiatives have been very successful and are excellent examples of teachers working together to build a world class curriculum from the ground up.  I call these initiatives successful because they get results for students.  They are also designed around world class standards.  The PSI has won international awards, and Bob has been working extensively in Argentina and was recently hired by the World Bank to do some work in Africa.

In the early years of the PSI, Bob ran into a problem in that there were not enough physics teachers in New Jersey to teach AP Physics.  To solve this problem, he obtained authority to license physics teachers directly through his program.  His teacher development program utilized the same physics curriculum materials used to instruct students in high school.  Bob recruited good teachers from a variety of content area backgrounds and taught them physics.  Interestingly, Bob believes, “the physics is easy but the teaching is hard.”   See the attached whitepaper by Bob which describes his approach in more detail.  Bob’s program is well supported by both New Jersey NEA and Governor Christie.  Apparently PSI-PMI are one of the few things the union and the Governor both agree upon.

I noticed on the NJCTL website that the program has now spread to Colorado.  The question is why not Vermont?  Well, it is not for a lack of trying.  We brought Bob to Vermont on several occasions.  He was the keynote presenter at the VSA and VTFEST conferences where he wowed the audiences.  I have also had him present to my staff at the BRSU.

There is a lot to be learned from initiatives such as PSI-PMI.  I think it would be great if VMI and other exemplary Vermont teacher development programs partnered with similar programs in New Jersey, Colorado, and Argentina to develop a world class math and science curriculum which could also be used as the basis for a teacher development program.  This could be done fairly easily if we leveraged the Internet and networked teachers in a common development platform.  Such an approach has proven to get results in New Jersey and would likely be more effective than our current curriculum development systems which in my opinion rely too heavily on the delayed promulgation of top down standards and outdated organizational methods of curriculum alignment.

Our curriculum development systems are too disconnected from the high quality teacher development programs provided at the state level.  Our students would greatly benefit if we closed the gap between the two in a more systematic manner.


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