• State could use its power for learning
    January 16,2014

    A state of Vermont procurement officer walks into a bar, sits down with an engineer and a science teacher. Curious bartender asks, “So whadda you three got in common?” Teacher says, “Schlitz — let’s have a round on me.” Bartender says, “No, I mean professionally.” Engineer says, “Professionally, we ain’t got Schlitz in common.”

    Sorry, not a great joke. But what’s really not funny is how much this scenario reflects reality. Educators inside schools don’t have much in common — professionally — with people working outside of schools. As a citizen and public school principal, I think this is a serious problem.

    Officials and politicians give a lot of lip service to career preparation and applied problem-solving, but there are actually few incentives in place to spark collaboration among teachers, their students and the career professionals outside schools who are working to address contemporary challenges.

    John Dewey — educator, activist and Vermonter — once asserted that our school system fosters “immaturity.” He said this is mainly due to people’s “enforced mental seclusion,” which he traces to schooling that has “little free and disinterested concern with the underlying social problems of our civilization.”

    I don’t know what it was like in Dewey’s time, but these days it’s not easy for educators to focus on social problems — because so much of our energy is directed toward a narrow band of skills measured by high-stakes tests.

    Remember the well-regarded Burlington principal fired for low English test scores a few years ago? There had been an influx of English language learners in the school, which naturally affected scores — but this didn’t matter. Federal stimulus incentives demanded that somebody get fired. We may not hear much talk of No Child Left Behind these days, but the test-based accountability structures are still there, driving what happens in schools.

    Despite this, one can still find many instances, on a micro level, of school communities that keep other priorities in mind — like integrating student learning with external professionals and experiences. Vermont’s career and technical centers do this particularly well.

    But, at a macro level — other than some new grants to support science, technology, engineering and math education — where are the structures supporting educators to make authentic connections with the citizens outside school who are engaged in solving real-world problems?

    OK, this may feel like it’s coming out of left field, but remember that state procurement officer from the “joke”? This is where she or he comes in.

    I propose that we use the purchasing power of the state of Vermont to incentivize collaboration between schools and other sectors of our society.

    Actually, the state already does this with other kinds of cross-sector collaboration. Check out this request for proposals put out last year:

    “The Office of the State Refugee Coordinator is seeking proposals to provide services to refugee youth in transition to work and/or higher education. … Partnerships will be preferred over single agency proposals and coordination and cooperation with other refugee service providers is essential.”

    Note the emphasis on partnerships. The organization that secures this state contract has to demonstrate a capacity for collaboration with other entities. As a taxpayer and citizen, I like to see this.

    Don’t get me wrong — division of labor, economic specialization, and public/private sector distinctions are good things. But insularity is not, and sometimes we need to break down walls between organizations. This can foster the kind of coordination of expertise and cross-pollination of ideas that a healthy society needs.

    Here’s another RFP, for a study of bike and pedestrian traffic, from the Agency of Transportation:

    “The scope of this project will consist of a planning process that identifies the needs of pedestrians and/or bicyclists. … The outcome of the process will be: an identification and prioritization of improvements; a public involvement process to ensure local input and support of projects; an assessment of historic, archaeological and environmental constraints …”

    Note the emphasis on public input. The state is again using its purchasing power to drive collaboration and dialogue.

    So, what if our state put out RFPs that also incentivized dialogue and collaboration with public schools? Whether we’re talking about a contract to build a sidewalk, study tourism trends, provide mental health services or repair a culvert, there are ample learning opportunities for kids just waiting to come to life.

    Adding one simple phrase to an RFP could be all we need to get started. Something like this:

    “Preference for proposals that demonstrate consultation with schools about potential student learning opportunities.”

    And by merely calling for consultation, this measure constitutes no heavy mandate. It would be up to local parties to determine what learning opportunities, if any, ought to be actualized.

    Leveraging the state’s purchasing power in this way would help our tax dollars do even more in support of the public good. And it’d be good for business too.

    Professionals from all walks of life would gain opportunities to share expertise directly with the community’s youth. This is fulfilling in itself, but collaborating with schools is also good for name recognition, public relations and future workforce development.

    Students would benefit from opportunities to study — or even participate in — the work that makes the real world go around. In some cases, there’d simply be a field trip or guest speaker. In other cases, whole units of study would take shape around local projects and problems. In the best cases, deep partnerships among teachers, students, outside experts and organizations will result.

    Drawbacks? Well, if municipalities get on board too, school administrators like me may start receiving more invitations to collaborate than we know how to handle. We might even need to reallocate staffing resources to help coordinate partnerships with outside institutions. But this sounds like a very good challenge to face.

    Indeed, the question of how to collectively educate the youth of our society is always a good challenge to face — especially when we face it together.

    T. Elijah Hawkes is co-principal at Randolph Union High School. He lives in Middlesex.

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