Education proposals could make state envy of the nation

Two education proposals are making their way through the state legislative and bureaucratic process with positive feedback and much promise.
The first is H. 440, a bill passed by the House last week and now being debated in the Senate that would change the Department of Education to an Agency and the commissioner to a secretary. The governor would appoint the secretary, whom would serve on the governor’s cabinet. The second is a provision that would mandate Vermont high school freshmen take algebra 1 and sophomores take geometry. The goal is to make algebra II a requirement for high school graduation starting with the Class of 2017.
As we have championed before, the legislation drafted in H.440 would help the state move quickly and effectively to address the educational needs of the state by putting the Secretary of Education in a position of greater authority with direct access to the governor, and which also ties the state’s educational performance back to the governor. While this change doesn’t guarantee a panacea for all things facing the state of education in Vermont, it does create political accountability.
Under the current structure, we are hamstrung by a system governed by an independent educational hierarchy whose natural instinct is to deflect change and protect the status quo of a $1.4 billion system. Rather, what’s needed is an agency that can take the considerable resources Vermont already spends on education to produce the best public education system in the nation. What’s needed is an agency that has the political authority and support from the governor to declare Vermont “the education state,” and to address every avenue to achieve that status.
The measure also complements the state’s push for innovative jobs. The governor knows it is fruitless to promote long-term job creation in the technology or alternative energy fields, for example, if Vermont doesn’t have the educational system that is innovative enough and flexible enough to fill the need.
The Senate passed a similar bill two years ago, but it stalled in the House. This time the House passed H.440 on a voice vote. The governor supports the measure, as did former Gov. James Douglas. It has bipartisan support. It’s now up to the Senate to make this long awaited change a reality. From there, it’s up to the governor to set the bar a bit higher and create a more flexible approach within the state’s education community that will address the changing needs of the 21st century.
The second initiative, to mandate earlier math courses in high school and demand a higher level of competence to graduate, is designed to better prepare Vermont students to pursue the high-paying jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Proposed by Gov. Peter Shumlin and Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca, the measure is being considered by the State Board of Education.
Currently, state graduation requirements demand at least three years of math to graduate, but don’t dictate which courses students must take. The proposals follow on the heels of recent test scores showing only 36 percent of Vermont 11th graders scored proficient or better on the 2011 math tests administered through the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP).
But three years of math does not necessarily mean a student will take algebra 1 or geometry, let alone algebra II. A statewide report showed only 13 percent of Vermont high schools require the completion of algebra II to graduate; while only 38 percent require algebra 1 and geometry to graduate, and 47 percent require just algebra 1. Other math courses, like basic math or everyday finance can fill the school’s math requirements, while avoiding the higher thinking that algebra or geometry requires.
The objection from some educators is that some students might have difficulty graduating with the math standard set too high, but the alternative is to graduate students in studies that don’t adequately prepare them for tomorrow’s higher-paying jobs.
Rather that accept mediocrity, this initiative should help drive change throughout the school system, starting in grade school. The result should be to put more focus on math and the sciences throughout all grades so that being proficient in algebra, geometry and the higher math courses becomes the norm — not the exception — in Vermont schools.
If the state can make both changes, we can be sure that higher paying jobs will be forthcoming, and the state will have staked out a reputation in education – in addition to tourism, healthy foods and our environmental ethic — that will be envy of the nation.
Angelo S. Lynn

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