• Changes could hurt students
    November 12,2013

    On Nov. 19, the Vermont State Board of Education will review the proposed Education Quality Standards Commission recommendations. Although scarcely noticed by the media, the proposed standards will dictate the rules and regulations of public schools. Vermonters may be shocked to learn that the recommendations would eliminate course-credit graduation requirements, except in physical education. This radical change may prevent low-income, special education and other at-risk students from participating in a high-quality, comprehensive college- and career-preparatory secondary education, and will exacerbate inequality in our state.

    Vermont’s foundation of high school courses — four years of English, three years of social studies, math, and science, plus physical education and the arts, as part of the 20-credit graduation minimum — would be replaced by proficiencies for each student to demonstrate. The standards promote increasing student access to multiple pathways (such as internships, independent studies, online learning, etc.) and instructional materials via broadband width and online resources. Multiple pathways provide interest and career exploration but cannot replace the guaranteed and viable curriculum of minimum course graduation requirements. When some students opt out of required courses and pursue personalized learning options, the quality of learning, which is always a group process, diminishes.

    Teachers carefully craft their lessons and refine instruction to engage and ensure that all students learn. Personalization emerges by teachers building relationships, providing relevance, sustaining rigor, and maintaining close accountability in heterogeneous, college-preparatory courses. Socialization and civic development flourish when diverse students learn together in the same classroom.

    Decades of research demonstrate that struggling students can achieve at high levels in classrooms with teachers who know them well, believe in their potential, and thereby add protective factors: reasoning skills, self-esteem, self-control and resilience to adversity. In this way, those at risk interact with stronger students and receive additional instructional time with teachers, learning to understand complex text, write skillfully, problem-solve and realize greater aspirations. Multiyear learning relationships through course requirements directly transfer to readiness for college and career. As top public schools in America and the nation of Finland have demonstrated, this is the only pathway to closing the achievement gap and increasing achievement of all students.

    Before becoming a principal, I served as a personalized learning coordinator for eight years, overseeing hundreds of students involved with learning opportunities outside the traditional classroom.

    While students appeared at first to enjoy the new learning opportunities, this did not translate into academic gains. Rarely did they attain Vermont’s standards in their topic, because they did not possess the foundational literacy and problem-solving skills to learn without a teacher’s instruction. Their studies of interest never transferred to success in other areas; in fact, many grew resentful when requested to work on subjects they didn’t like.

    Struggling with home life, poor health, lack of self-discipline, addiction, and/or behavior problems, personalized learning opportunities removed them from class and placed them further behind their peers. Rarely did multiple pathways transfer to the workplace, and many of those at risk have since drifted from low-wage job to job.

    In school they needed extensive, direct, nurturing instruction by devoted teachers to master foundational skills. In contrast, high-achieving students thrived in traditional classes as well as enjoyed new learning options, fully supported in their transition to higher education or employment as their parents had expected. In the absence of home support, the participation of at-risk students in the untracked, guaranteed and viable course curriculum of graduation requirements becomes their bridge to higher education and a prosperous future.

    On Dec. 17, the Vermont State Board of Education may vote on the adoption of the proposed Education Quality Standards Commission recommendations. I hope that board members and all Vermonters first consider the far-reaching impact of the elimination of course-credit graduation requirements that will deepen the educational divide and eclipse the horizons of low-performing students.

    Dorinne Dorfman is the principal of Leland and Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend and a Fulbright scholar. She is a resident of Waterbury Center.

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