Opinion: Ideas offered to improve public school education

Thank you for four fine articles about whether or not to close small schools in Vermont and the expression of northeast Addison County’s lack of confidence in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union board and its superintendent. It strikes me that a thread of a common assumption runs through the issues raised in these four articles: the primary importance of cutting education costs.
As educators who have taught Addison County children for over 40 years, we are becoming numbed and exhausted by the persistence of that assumption. Our children’s education should be our first priority, not our last. As we are faced with diminishing numbers of students in our schools, we could grasp the opportunity to turn the whole “system” upside down, to dream big, to ask ourselves, “What if we put our kids’ education first? What could that look like?”
First of all, what if we did away with the cumbersome organizations we have created: the superintendent’s office, the school boards, the teachers’ union? They are manifestations of our belief in scarcity and of our lack of trust in each other. Second, do away with standardized testing. Instead, trust teachers to know, and communicate to parents, how each child is progressing.
What if we trusted our teachers to run the schools? What if we paid all teachers according to a statewide scale commensurate with other professional incomes and benefits? What if we kept our schools small and local so teachers can attend to individual children? Abundant educational research and our own experience with excellent small schools, like the Lincoln Community School, show that the most important contribution toward learning is individual attention.
What if leadership became a shared activity, rather than one delegated to a principal or a superintendent? What if parents and community members manifested their responsibility toward their children’s education by being personally involved? Groups of parents and teachers can discuss face-to-face how the school is working in its own community. What if that group of parents and teachers were responsible for hiring and firing its own school’s teachers?
What if we changed to a countywide district whose central office was led by a resource coordinator rather than a superintendent? This person would be responsible for making sure that all schools had appropriate supplies, non-teaching staff and traveling teachers (all teachers other than classroom teachers). It would be a job for someone adept at organization and scheduling.
Much has been made of teaching “21st-century” skills, cooperation, communication and collaboration, to our children. What if we began by using those skills in our community to create a new educational culture, one built, not on a model of scarcity, but one built on trust and mutual respect?
I can already hear the snorts of derision — “Very pretty. But how do you pay for it?” True, that’s much harder. To do that well we will have to work toward a time when, in the words of that old poster from the 1960s, “Our schools have the money they need and the Air Force has to have bake sales to pay for a bomber.” What if education budgets were created collaboratively by teachers, parents and county legislative representatives? If we begin small and locally, and we see the benefit for our children, perhaps we’ll have the courage to lead the whole country to changing our values. What if our income tax money paid for our most important investment in the future, our children’s education, instead of weapons of destruction?
Susan Gallagher Borg and Richard Nessen
Editor’s note: Borg is the founder of Quarry Hill School in Middlebury and currently teaches music at her home. Nessen is a co-founder of Bridge School in Middlebury and currently volunteers at public schools in Addison County.

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