Editorial: Imagining new role for Ed Dept.

The case for making the state education department a cabinet-level agency with a secretary appointed by the governor gained strength this past week as the state’s test scores provided less than sterling results with no-one but local school boards to hold accountable.
What’s to be done?
First, let’s look at the test results. As a state average, Vermont students were 36 percent proficient in math (down from 38 percent the previous year), 30 percent in science (up from 28 percent in 2011), 48 percent proficient in writing (down from 50 percent in 2011), and a whopping 73 percent proficient in reading skills (up from 72 percent last year.) A chart in this week’s Addison Independent (see story Page 1A) shows that area schools generally fared better than the state average, though MUHS saw a steep drop in three of four subjects compared to the prior year and OVUHS needs additional help in math and science.
Critics suggest the tests don’t measure a student’s knowledge base or learning skills fairly and point to another test they say is a more accurate barometer of student learning. Maybe so, but in the case of MUHS, for instance, results that show declining performance of this same test year-to-year aren’t the direction in which we should be moving. Parents and students have a right to question whether we’re getting a good return on the considerable amount of money we’re spending on a per capita, per student basis. Vermont, after all, ranks fourth in spending on a per-student basis, yet ranks in the middle of such tests. That’s not an argument to spend less on education, but rather to think anew about how to improve educational performance for the dollars we spend.
Interestingly, only VUHS improved in all four categories from last year to this, and in many cases, the improvements were significant. They went from 36 percent proficiently in math in 2010 to 51 percent in 2011; from 22 percent to 31 percent proficiently in science; 69 percent to 79 percent proficiency in reading and from 38 percent to 57 percent proficiency in writing. Even if the tests are flawed, it’s fair to ask why and how VUHS students were able to make such progress while students in the other three area schools saw sharp declines in some areas, while just holding steady in others.
More systemically, it was troubling early this week to learn that the state education department wasn’t sure how many of its 11th grade students had the prerequisite math courses the tests covered. Some schools, for example, don’t require students to take algebra before their junior year and yet the tests definitely ask questions that cover that subject matter. Why doesn’t the state have a better handle on what students take by what years? Here’s one reason: because the education system prides itself on local control, and there is no coordinated requirement statewide that, for instance, insists on basic math and a first algebra class by the end of a student’s sophomore year.
That’s not the end of the world, but it’s a ready answer for why Vermont students fare so poorly on the math scores. It’s a fair question to ask if that makes a difference to a student’s overall education, but then again, if math and the sciences are the basis for the new global economy, one might think it wise for our state school system to mandate minimum requirements early on, so more advanced classes could be taught for those so motivated and all students would have a basic understanding of two subjects that are so fundamental to the modern world.
That’s not going to happen, however, under the current system in which the commissioner of education and the state board of education have an advisory role but very little authority to implement change.
Test scores aside, there are bigger changes that need strong leadership within the education community that a cabinet level secretary of education could provide.
Much has been made over the past few years about the increasing need for early education. Recent studies now suggest that children as young as two respond well to a teaching environment and that it is an age pivotal to future development. What we now know is the longer we delay the opportunity for our children to learn, the longer we continue to play catch up in our schools — and the tougher it is to compete in the global marketplace.
We intuitively know this and study after study bears it out. Those children whose parents are well educated and have spent numerous hours reading to their children, playing games with them and encouraging mental development throughout the pre-school years usually have an early advantage in the classroom. Conversely, children raised in poverty with both parents working and little adult interaction have typically struggled.
Now, consider today’s challenges. The typical lower- to middleclass family is hard-pressed to meet expenses even though both adults are working more than ever before. The idea of spending all day at home with toddlers is becoming a luxury of the past, and may presage a more difficult time for students if early education does not take on a more important role in our society.
But how could Vermont usher in a new era of education without a strong advocate for education that has the governor’s full support?
Consider, too, that under the present system, Vermont has three agencies that govern our educational continuum from infancy to college. The Agency of Human Services has jurisdiction over day care centers and deals with children at risk and in poverty. The Department of Education handles the K-12 years; and those students going into post-secondary education are under different governing institutions.
It’s not a leap to suggest that combining those pre-school years with K-12 and beyond and putting them all under a new Agency of Education makes a lot of sense. The focus, one would assume, would emphasize learning and education in pre-school, rather than a department focused on at-risk students, poverty, and making sure minimal standards for qualified pre-schools are met. That’s not to criticize the Agency of Human Services or current day-care and pre-school programs, but rather speculate on what could be an obvious difference in the core mission of both agencies.
Vermont is also well positioned to make such a change. In the past decade, the state has lost about 15 percent of its student population by virtue of a changing demographic. We have empty desks and classrooms in our schools; possibly enough to accommodate many of those aged 2-5. Furthermore, the Agency of Human Services spends a pretty penny on this very group. While the numbers have not been scrutinized, some suggest it could come close to being a wash if those funds and responsibilities were simply shifted to a more education-based focus and jurisdiction.
The potential benefit could be exponential. If we start our children earlier on their educational journey, studies suggest we’d have less remedial learning at every grade; we’d be able to work on more advanced courses, therefore giving our high schools better prepared students. Secondary graduation rates would likely improve, and college aspiration rates would likely rise. Meanwhile our drop-out rates would be reduced, which helps lower the cost of our Corrections system.
And on and on.
But it all starts at the beginning; back with a focus on learning at an earlier age. It also starts with a single education department that takes schooling from age 2 to 42 and beyond so that the capacity for these changes is possible.
It also starts with a governor who understands the potential gain these changes offer, and who is willing to push the Legislature to make it happen. Gov. Shumlin is an advocate for elevating the Commission of Education position to a cabinet-level agency. We hope a law to make that change possible will soon be passed out of committee and met with enthusiasm by the full Legislature. Without it, it’s likely the state will struggle with the status quo and we’ll still be arguing over the validity of various testing methods, while opportunities to meet the needs of a changing world pass us by.
Vermont is small enough, nimble enough and has a strong educational ethic — all things that make positive changes likely, if only our leaders are willing to take decisive action and tailor a system to meet tomorrow’s challenges. It is a time in education for bold leadership to take us to new heights. The governor needs to lead the way, even in the face of critics whose turf may be compromised. The Legislature, too, needs to keep its eye on the long-term goals, not on the short-term battles. The public can help by pressing its call for improved outcomes for our children, and the prospect of better jobs at home that come from a school system that excels at every age — starting with the very young and continuing throughout a lifetime.
Angelo S. Lynn

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