There was a bill that that was going through the Vermont legislature this last session, H.883, which proposed to consolidate Vermont school districts. It would have eventually reduced Vermont’s 270 districts down to 50. Advocates pointed to long term cost savings, better ability to serve students, and equality of funding. Opponents cast doubt on these points and mourned the loss of local control. H.883 went back and forth, got diluted, and eventually died in the House at the eleventh hour. And there was much rejoicing.
My take is that we are trying to solve the wrong problems. I see this debate as people trying to drive nails with a pair of scissors and arguing about how to sharpen the scissors.
First, everyone is missing the point on funding, both in terms of amount and equality. Taxation ought to be based a person’s ability to pay. We tax people for school funding according to the value of their real estate holdings. Sure, through Act 60 we have shared money across towns and income adjusted to some extent, but the system is a kludge. The saying is that it took the tax burden off of poor people in poor towns and put it on poor people in rich towns.
Taxing people according to real estate value worked a century or more in the past, when income was hard to track and most people farmed. Real estate value was a decent bellwether for income; more acres equaled more crops. Now the situation is inverted. Few people farm, income is easy to track, and there is no strong connection between real estate value and ability to pay. With your average dairy farmer it is inverse. Current use taxation helps, but let’s just admit it: the most income sensitive tax is an income tax.
We should be collecting all education tax as an add-on to the income tax at the state level. It would be collected by the state but it would belong to the schools. It should be distributed to schools on a per pupil basis, with a multi-year rolling average to prevent funding shocks. We could put aside a percentage as a dedicated education rainy day fund to even out economic dips.
“At the same time, technology and globalization and other societal demands are changing what our students need to know and be able to do in order to contribute to building a strong economic and civic future for the State. Notably, our students need to acquire what are generally called “21st century skills,” which include the ability to innovate, adapt, handle nonroutine problems, reason from evidence, synthesize and analyze complex data, work confidently with technology, collaborate in teams, and communicate effectively through a variety of media.”
Our schools aren’t designed to do this. The fundamental structure of the K-12 school hasn’t changed in a hundred years or more. I once heard it said that our schools are doing a wonderful job – of training the farm kids of the 1890s to do the factory jobs of 1910. The present structure is focused on obedience, repetition, tolerance of boredom, alienation from nature and community, fear of failure, obsession with time limits, and the categorization of students according to the needs of moribund heavy industry. Most schools resemble medium security prisons and operate much the same, despite the best intentions of educators. The structure, both physical and rule-based, overwhelms the occupants.
And what about those time limits?
Here are a couple of statements I think everybody can agree on: Each student learns a subject at a different rate of speed. That rate will vary according to the sub-section of the subject being studied and the physical and mental state of the student at the time. A student will not learn all subjects at the same rate of speed. One student might have an easier time with math and a harder time with reading and another student just the opposite.
Obvious to the point of utter banality, you might say. I agree.
So why do we force all students to learn all subjects at the same rate of speed? Most states define a school year at 180 days. We can observe that some students master a subject in far less than 180 days. They get bored and waste time. Others might need 200 or 250 or 300 days to master the same subject. They are rushed through the subject matter, tested, branded as failures (or partial failures), and spit out the other end of their grade level to endure the frustration and humiliation again the next year.
I read a parable somewhere about an infant learning to walk. The kid grabs onto a table leg and pulls herself upright. She lets go, takes a few wobbly steps, and falls down. At this point she realizes that she is a failure at walking and crawls on all fours for the rest of her life, as we all do. Of course not. She grabs onto the table leg again and repeats the process until she can walk. Short of an actual physical disability, she will eventually walk, run, jump, and scare the crap out of her parents by climbing things. This is because small children don’t have a concept of failure. We have to teach them that. And we do.
One of the ways we do this is by imposing arbitrary time limits on learning. It’s useful for beating down children into a state of docile self-doubt and filtering for industrial productivity. It’s also convenient for administrators, but last time I checked we didn’t create and maintain schools for the convenience of administrators. Except that we do.
Another way we teach failure is through standardized testing. Standardized testing will not work until someone invents the standardized child. Until that mythical time we are merely distracting students and teachers from real learning. What we get are snapshots of a teacher’s ability to jam a student into an artificial framework under time pressure, and the student’s willingness and ability to be so jammed, combined with the student’s physical and mental state at the time of the test. It is like one of those snapshots that catches you with one eye closed and your mouth twisted into a palsied rictus.
We should get rid of grades and grading. Segregating students by age and ramrodding them all through academic material at the same speed is patently idiotic. We all know this is unrealistic, and yet we accept it. Testing them all on a particular day at a particular hour and considering this an accurate indicator of their mastery of a subject is just as idiotic. A student should be able to study a subject until he or she achieves mastery of it and then move on. Perhaps a particular student might take four years to learn what we now call 9th grade reading. At least the student ends up being able to read.
To consolidate, or not to consolidate, that is the irrelevant question. Fifty school districts based on the present educational foundation would be just as abusive and pointless as 270 districts. It’s an administrative question, not an educational one. Those fifty putative districts would be just as poorly funded.
We need to look past the wreckage of our present system, think about what outcomes we want for the children of Vermont and build schools based on how children actually learn.