Vermont study calls for radical change

In 1978 (Oct. 23), I wrote a column entitled "For good schools: don't go back , go forward," after learning that the governor of Vermont had established a commission to suggest future directions for public schooling in that rural state.

The column asked the commissioners not to look back (not to overemphasize basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills), but to challenge presently popular school practices. For example, the column called for making schools into community centers, combining civic services with schooling in the same buildings; for new laws that would guarantee equal resources for every child; for the elimination of graded classes, instead asking teachers to treat each pupil individually and to move him along by skill achievement instead of by age or years in school.

After I sent the chairman of the commission, Robert S. Jones of Springfield, Vt., a copy of my "comment," he kindly invited me to spend a session with the newly formed commission. This I did, on Dec. 15, 1978.

Less than a year later, last November, the commission issued its report, and I'm delighted to say it has not gone back one single step, but has gone forward far beyond any suggestions I made. And what is thoroughly interesting is the fact that a national study group under the direction of Clark Kerr set itself a similar task -- spelling out some future steps for public schooling in the United States -- and come up with similarly (as well as similar) forward ideas.

The Vermont commissioners stated flatly that, of all groups influencing children, the "most important is the home." It is here, they stated, "that attitudes toward learning and work are formed." This led them to their first goal, closer cooperation between parents/guardians and the schools, and to the recommendation that a new course be put in every high school -- a course to teach students the tasks and responsibilities of being parents. They have also called for the invetorying of community members to find those who could contribute to the educational program on a volunteer basis.

This last point is hardly new, and it's often cited as a reason for a particular school's having a "good" environment or a "good" academic reputation. Yet while it's not a new idea, it is one too little used from coast to coast.

These intrepid Vermonters have redefined the "basics." They state throughout the report that schools should be teaching three languages: verbal, mathematical , and artistic. And they even take on the sacred precinct of method with this flat statement: "The languages are best learned not so much in the abstract as in their application to subject matter."

Yet, the report calls not just for skill training, but for teaching "the reasoning and imaginative powers" appropriate to these verbal, mathematical, and artistic basics.

The report's recommendations regarding teachers and administrators are in line with the curriculum suggestions. They call for an initial year of probation for teachers on top a year of practice teaching; for continual re-evaluation of all professional staff; and for the dismissal of those "who do not demonstrate competence."

The report also calls for the elimination of graded classes (Grade 1, Grade 2 , Grade 3, etc.), and calls instead for the grouping of children aged 6 to 10 with teachers and aides in accordance with achievement levels. From what has been called Grade 4 through Grade 12, the commission calls for the elimination of these "steps" and the substitution of "skill and concept areas." It is from a "skill level then, that a child would graduate to move on to the next skill level.

Also, these bold reformers would have each student contract with his public school for the skills and concepts he wished to pursue in a given school year. Further, these Vermonters, ignoring the high level of unemployment in the state, call for youngsters to become part of the labor force as early as age 13.As Robert Jones explains, this does not mean that a kid can quit early, but that parents, school, and student would agree on some sort of work-study program.

This naturally calls for guidance counselors to do more than provide transition help for the college-bound. The Vermont school the commissioners envions would offer help to the job-bound -- not only help to find a job, but to find some form of alternative schooling that would support their job preferences.

The Clark Kerr Commission, too, considers help for youngsters paramount in the job sector, but unlike the Vermonters, suggest that the help be provided at the community college level.

The Vermont report does ask for new legislation to equalize resource efforts for all Vermont youngster and recommends, as well, that "schools should become community centers, which may mean that they will share space with other agencies."

This 16-page report is a powerful document, but already school personnel and teacher organizations in Vermont have treated it as lightly as possible, hoping it will either "go away" or "collect dust" on a high shelf.

I asked chairman Jones if either was possible. He said he didn't think so, that he was fairly sure the report would generate a great deal of discussion around the state and in the Legislature.

I trust, too, that it will; and it should. And I would suggest as well that every state call on a commission of concerned citizens, charging them with making suggestions for improving the public schools in the closing decades of the 20th century.

Copies of "Education and the Public Schools of Vermont" are available from: John Vogelsong, 7 Lamoille Street, Essex Junction, VT 05452 ($1 for handling and postage).

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