Opinion: MUMS ‘team model’ of teaching should be preserved

In the next several weeks the UD-3 school board will be deciding upon the 2014-2015 budget to present to voters for their approval. The current budget proposal before the board calls for eliminating 3.2 educator positions at Middlebury Union Middle School (MUMS) in order to be fiscally responsive to a projected decline in enrollment of 42 students. As a parent of a seventh-grader, a community member, and a Vermont educator for nearly 40 years (seven of which were spent serving as the principal of the Cornwall Elementary School), I have a significant interest in the outcome of the board’s budget decision. I offer the following for consideration as the board, administrators, faculty and community members grapple with the challenge of balancing the educational needs of students and teachers with the ability of our community to financially support those needs.
The Nov. 21 issue of the Addison Independent quotes board member Allison Stanger as stating at a recent board meeting, “We’re not just talking about a reduction in positions, we’re talking about upending an entire educational model.” The Independent’s report of that same meeting includes commentary by English teacher Eileen Sears, on behalf of the MUMS faculty, which cites the impact on the middle school model of paring the proposed 3.2 positions. Notwithstanding Stanger’s and Sears’ (the MUMS faculty) concerns, I think it is important to note the following.
Educational research regarding evidenced-based practices is clear that students’ academic success, motivation for learning, the development of self-discipline and responsibility, bullying and violence prevention, and the honoring of diversity are directly correlated with the building of positive teacher/student relationships. The current middle school team model at MUMS is founded on ensuring the capacity of teachers to establish such relationships with students from the time they enter as seventh-graders through eighth grade.
It might be espoused that fewer students can allow for fewer teachers without diminishing the capacity for building teacher/student relationships and its aforementioned positive effects. While such thinking may be applicable to producing widgets, it isn’t applicable to schools. In this context educational research is also clear that the diversity of students’ academic and social-emotional needs is increasing steadily. The gap in educational progress between students from poor and wealthy families is one indication of such increasing diversity that may likely be compounded by the adoption of new “Common Core” standards of achievement. Perhaps our school budgets should be reflective of providing educators with the resources required to meet students’ increasingly varied needs rather than determined by simply counting the number of heads in a classroom.
Educational research also acknowledges that the profession of teaching requires much more than merely standing in front of a group of students and offering instruction. The planning of learning experiences and the other myriad of tasks for which teachers are individually and collaboratively responsible is daunting. Effective instruction, student success and positive school climate depend (among several variables) upon ensuring that educators have time to work together designing, planning and evaluating instruction and discussing their teaching practices and student progress.
Student success and positive school climate also intimately depend upon tangible support for enabling educators to experiment with different teaching methods, maintaining high expectations of themselves and students, and broadening their repertoire of how students learn best. The current middle school model at MUMS supports all of the above attributes. Eliminating teaching positions places those attributes in jeopardy.
As those involved continue to develop the 2014-2015 school budget, I would like to think that as community vitally concerned with the education of our children we have the intelligence, creativity, problem-solving ability and shared interest to work collaboratively in developing a budget that reflects and preserves what we know is effective with our ability to financially support those practices.
Ron Rubin

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