• In the classroom
    November 07,2013

    Rebecca Holcombe is a teacher with a wide range of experience, which she will bring to her new position as Vermont’s new secretary of education in January.

    She is coming to the post from Dartmouth College where she is a lecturer and director of the Education Program and supervisor of the Secondary Teacher Education Program. That is a high-level position that suggests that she is well versed in many of the most important issues in education, and their theoretical and academic background. But she has also been a teacher herself and a teacher of teachers and of principals. One of her fellow professors at Dartmouth said, “One of her best traits is that she’s willing to get her hands dirty with the here and now.” Let’s hope that’s true.

    The here and now — or rather, the soon to come — will involve many nitty-gritty practical problems that Holcombe will have to address, not just with the forward-thinking vision of an education professor, but with a teacher’s practical awareness of what goes on in the classroom. Much of the criticism about education and schools of education is that it is too preoccupied with theory. It’s easy to talk about education with great airy generalizations. But there are some tough practical challenges ahead for teachers having to do with children in the classroom and the hours in the day.

    Schools in Vermont will soon be caught up in a new regime of standards and tests under what is called the Common Core. These are national standards that Vermont had a hand in developing to establish benchmarks for learning. Accompanying these new standards will be a new battery of tests to help schools determine where they stand in relation to the standards.

    In a wide-ranging interview with the Rutland Herald and Times Argus on Sunday, Holcombe prepared Vermonters for the likelihood that results on the tests at the outset will probably not be so good. If standards are raised, results are not likely to be so favorable, at least immediately. That is easily understood: no reason to panic.

    But the new process brings with it a practical problem that she should be aware of. The new tests are going to take whole new chunks of time out of the classroom schedule, throwing into disarray academic programs. These will be disruptive. School officials are reluctant to damage programs for the sake of new tests.

    But given the new mandates they are facing, they are making adjustments. In some cases, however, schools will not have the computer capacity to administer the new tests efficiently. If they don’t have enough computers, they may have to stagger the testing, further disrupting the academic schedule and taking time away from math or music or history or science. The Agency of Education must be aware of the challenges facing diverse districts and sensitive to the reality that education is more important than testing.

    Testing has its place, of course. But standardized tests are not the best way to measure the full range of an individual student’s gifts. For that, teachers will be preparing individual learning plans, about which Holcombe offered supportive words. She said she understood that individual learning plans were something a lot of good teachers were already doing. In fact, building on the good practices now commonly used will be worthwhile. Importing a new layer of bureaucratic requirements on teachers will be counterproductive. Holcombe appears to recognize that danger.

    Holcombe veered toward the touchy-feely language of an earlier era when she spoke of students designing their own education. Allowing students to flower in areas that matter to them — music, math, science, literature — is important, but before a fourth-grader will be able to design his own education, he will also have to learn to read. This balance between the innate differences of each student and the need to convey a common core of knowledge and skills is something that Holcombe appears to be aware of. She will have a challenging job helping teachers manage that balance.

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