Vermont Stands Up, Respects Parents and Teachers

Last Updated: August 26, 2014

This article appeared in the August 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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This month the state of Vermont was required to announce that all but eight of its schools are “low performing.” Those eight schools escaped the label only because they piloted an alternative state assessment last year and haven’t yet accumulated the two years of data required by the federal No Child Left Behind law to identify a school’s performance level.

Vermont has historically maintained one of the best-supported public education systems in the nation. Its students rank near the top in international comparisons of achievement. It boasts the highest graduation rate in the country. Its funding system is one of the most equitable. The fact that virtually every Vermont school is now considered low performing demonstrates the patent absurdity of the law’s test-based accountability measures.

By way of announcement, Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe sent a memo to Parents and Caregivers explaining why their child’s school has been declared low performing. It explains NCLB provisions and why and how Vermont is pursuing alternative approaches to ensuring that the needs of all students’ are met. It acknowledges that the state’s biggest challenge is “finding better ways to engage and support the learning of children living in poverty” and stresses that NCLB has not helped schools narrow poverty-related achievement gaps.

The memo presents a compelling, expansive, and humane vision of what a state public education system can be.

In many ways, the most startling aspect of Holcombe’s memo is its frank respect for parents and teachers, a quality in short supply in much education discourse. At three and a half pages, there’s no pandering. The memo respects the ability of adults to attend a substantive document and offers parents a set of practical questions they can consider about the quality of their child’s education. For example:

  • Is your child developing the skills and understanding she needs to thrive in school and the community?
  • Is your child happy to go to school and engaged in learning?
  • Can your child explain what he is learning and why?
  • Is your child developing good work habits? Does she understand that practice leads to better performance?
  • Does your child feel his work in school is related to his college and career goals?

These are life and learning habits not measured on tests but inextricably related to positive lifelong outcomes. The questions honor the ability and inclination of parents to consider the needs of their children and they directly engage parents in their child’s learning.

The memo concludes with a tribute to teachers and a call to rely on Vermont’s strengths: “As we have done before, we intend to draw on the tremendous professional capability of teachers across the state as we work to continuously improve our schools. Our strength has always been our ingenuity and persistence. In spite of federal policies that poorly fit… Let’s continue to work together to build great schools that prepare our children to be productive citizens and contributors to our society.”

Well said.

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Do take a moment to read Rebecca Holcombe’s insightful and inspiring memo:


Read more from the August 2014 Rural Policy Matters.