Failures in public education highlight need for reform

Is a more “flexible pathway” to graduation the right direction?

By Lindsay Smith

After receiving discouraging results from recent NECAP exams, Vermont educators are facing the reality that “the system” is not working. With spending drastically increased by 149% since Act 60 in 2008, it is certainly not a question of funding. What is failing our students is the rigid approach to learning. New research is showing students learn more efficiently in an environment that interests and challenges them. Each individual student is different and responds to different educational opportunities.

For years, Vermont has been thinking up innovative ways to graduate more students. In 2006 the legislature enacted Act 176, the Vermont High School Completion Program. The goal of this program is “to provide a flexible pathway to a high school diploma for Vermont students who are between 16 and 21 years of age and have left school.”

In 2009, Act 44 expanded this program to students still enrolled in high school, and introduced personalized “Graduation Education Plans.” The plans, based on “graduation requirements, student skill levels, long-term educational goals”, are a joint effort between each student and their education providers. As of now there is no standard for how these plans are developed and managed.

Act 44 also introduced the phrase “Flexible Pathways to Graduation”:

Flexible learning pathways empower students to pursue their passions and take a more active role in designing their own education. Sometimes called personalized pathways, flexible learning pathways encourage students to blend a variety of education experiences, both inside and outside of the school building, to satisfy graduation requirements and meet state-required standards. Rather than selecting from a list of predetermined course options offered according to a fixed schedule, students pursuing a flexible learning pathway work closely with teachers, counselors, advisors and mentors to develop a customized curriculum that meets specific learning needs, expectations, and aspirations….

In testimony before the House Education Committee, Tom Alderman, Director of the Secondary & Adult Division of the DOE, laid out the goals established by Act 44. “In that legislation you established the goal of 100% graduation rate by 2020 and talked about flexible pathways to graduation.” Alderman made clear that the Department of Education is” absolutely committed to achieving that goal and we would add to that every graduate would be college and career ready.” It is with this goal in mind that the DOE is seeking alternative pathways to graduation. In the original legislation the DOE was asked to come back to the legislators and report “that lofty goal.”

In January of this session the DOE provided information about Act 44 to current legislators and are now meeting with the House Committee on Education. Following the Governor’s mention of Vermont’s dedication to education in his state of the state address as well as the budget address, DOE and Vermont college officials are being called to action. In the budget address Shumlin proposed “$282 million appropriation to the Education Fund.” Shumlin also addressed the possibility of flexible learning plans. “Our delivery system leans too heavily on the rigid model that time spend together in class with blackboard and pencil will collectively result in acquisition of skills for our diversity of learners.”

The Department of Education visited three schools, Bellows Free Academy, Brattleboro Union High School, and Essex High School, to observe their innovations and discuss the challenges of implementing those innovative practices. Bellows Free Academy, funded by a “21st century innovative programming” grant from the DOE, is working towards increased individual learning plans and “innovative, non-traditional pathways to graduation.” Brattleboro Union High School offers classes taught by high school and postsecondary instructors as part of their Windham Regional Collegiate High School. These classes offer rigorous course material, independence, and provide college preparedness. Essex High School has created “academies” focused on art-related learning experiences.

Research has found these programs to be effective in graduating more students. The findings were presented to the committee. After their research they are recommending, among other things, that the phrase “Flexible Pathways to Graduation” be codified in statute “as the title of a section designed to describe and fund a variety of innovative practices and programs leading to secondary graduation through non-traditional, flexible pathways” (most likely the same language they use in their definition of the term).

As new plans for innovation are developed and put into practice, the DOE is proposing a statute to secure funding. Timothy Donovan, Chancellor of Vermont State Colleges, presented one example of flexible learning, the dual enrollment program, but was unsure how the 2.5 million dollar project would be funded. When questioned about where the money would come from Donovan answered, “This is high school as well as college and its completing high school requirements so there’s a case that could be made for that this is a reasonable and appropriate use of the education fund.” Governor Shumlin has expressed a similar opinion in the budget address.

“Allowing high school juniors and seniors to take college courses for college credit wherever they choose will make higher education more affordable for low- and middle-income, first-generation students. This flexibility, with the money following the student, should be available to all high school juniors and seniors in Vermont.”

Rep. Howard Crawford (R-Burke) supports the funding of innovative learning practices. When he is not in the legislature, Rep. Crawford works for St. Johnsbury Academy where they fund 50% of teacher salary for 16 seats in a high school auto mechanic program. Crawford acknowledged that funding for alternative learning programs is covered under federal law. “The commitment to people’s education is the same commitment driven by the same federal law called ‘FAPE’, a free and appropriate public education.” He claims that offering these programs is already justified by current law.

However, funding for the program is a question. “I’m not as nervous about it,” said Crawford. “I am concerned about making sure we secure a free and appropriate public education.” Of course, nothing is free. Somebody has to pay for it.

All legislators seemed to be excited about the possibility for flexible learning programs and educational planning. Rep. Brian Campion (D-Bennington) summed up the anticipation for the project:

What I think is most exciting, just hearing about it, is that it does really sound to me like students start to take more ownership over what that high school experience is… What I’m imagining happening is sitting down with guidance counselors, teachers, and, perhaps, faculty… and starting conversations that don’t always happen, I think, in high school.

Questions of funding certainly need to be addressed. While information at this meeting was positive and well-received, there was no opposition present to bring up shortcomings and negative aspects.