Can we spend less on our system of public education in Vermont, given the decline in student population, and achieve even better outcomes? Redesigning a public education system so that the end result is high quality, increased opportunities for students and financial sustainability has been the focus of Vermont’s educators, community members and elected leaders for several years with no easy answers to the problem imminent. With the defeat of 35 school budgets on Town Meeting Day, the debate has intensified with compelling arguments on both sides of solutions such as school consolidation, the education funding formula and whether to eliminate supervisory unions in favor of “expanded districts.”
Whether the failed budget votes are a sign that we are in fact experiencing a crisis is uncertain. Time will tell, but two things are certain. Significant changes need to take place, and there need to be multiple solutions to this challenging problem. One solution that should be considered is to dramatically change the structure of high schools. It’s one of the few things that we can do that will increase opportunities for students and increase financial sustainability.
It’s a fact that about 80 cents of every dollar we spend on education in Vermont goes to providing salaries and benefits to the adults who are employed by schools. Anyone who has created a school budget knows that the only way to significantly reduce the bottom line is by reducing the number of adults.
When student population declines in elementary and middle schools, reducing staff is relatively simple. Administrators divide the number of students by the agreed upon class size, and the result is the number of teachers and support staff needed in a given year.
This works because they are organized around the students and not by academic discipline and courses. The structure of elementary and middle schools has built-in flexibility and can adapt to the ebb and flow of student population and at the same time maintain quality.
The structure of high schools makes them less flexible and able to adapt to changes in student population. The current structure of high schools, called the factory model, came about during the efficiency movement that swept the country in the early 1900s. This structure makes it virtually impossible to engage all students in learning. We now know that learning that doesn’t allow for the integration of skills, knowledge and experiences across a broad range of disciplines is counter to the goal of preparing students for the challenges of the 21st century. I challenge anyone to name any major institution that looks today as it did a century ago.
The great irony is that today’s high school is anything but efficient. The daily schedule used in high schools, in whatever form, is what determines the number of classes offered, when the class will be taught and who will be teaching them. The process used each year to create a schedule in elementary and middle schools is dictated by the total number of students determining the number of teachers. Contrast that with the process at the high school, which is focused on the number of teachers determining the total number of classes and then students fit into them as they create their schedule. Fewer sections of the same class results in a greater challenge for students creating a schedule that works for them.
As a result, high school administrators work hard to maintain the greatest number of sections and in turn teachers as possible, even when the population decreases. This is why, in any given semester, the same class, offered three different periods of the day, might have a roster of 18 students one period, nine in another and seven in a third. This system works fairly well in larger schools but not as well in smaller schools and even less well when the student population declines. Because it’s a system that is static and not flexible, it’s very difficult to reduce the number of teachers.
If this current model is not the best way for students to learn and is not capable of accommodating the ups and downs in student enrollment, why do we keep it? It’s a complex question with complex answers, but tradition, culture and fears that any changes in the institution will harm students’ chances of being admitted to college are some of the reasons.
The other reason is that there are few, if any, models that have been developed that challenge the current structure. Those that have been created are in alternative programs, pilot programs, small charter schools and private schools and are dismissed by educators as “comparing apples to oranges” and not workable as a scaled-up model. Will it be easy? No. Can it be done? Yes. Making any significant change will be threatening to all stakeholders, but now is the time to structure high school so that the outcome will be greater student engagement in learning and financial sustainability.
Thanks to the State Board of Education and the Vermont Legislature, new rules and a new law open the door to communities to redesign the structure of high schools. This is where the newly revised education quality standards and Act 77 enter as tools for restructuring the way that high schools work. These two policy changes have the potential to dramatically replace the current structure of high schools with a structure that is flexible, adaptable, more engaging for students and with far greater potential to improve outcomes — social, intellectual and emotional — for students.
Both of these documents clear the way for communities to design a high school that will increase opportunities for students and ensure that every student graduating will be prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.
In the end, we have to consider that the best structure of high schools might be a lot less about fitting students into classrooms within the walls of the building and a lot more about students engaged in real learning that is directed by them, supported by adults and not confined by an inflexible daily schedule.
Some of the decisions we’re being asked to consider lately about the future of education in Vermont require us to give up one thing in order to gain another. We gain only when we create high schools that work better for students and increase learning opportunities and are financially sustainable. This is the time to significantly change the last four years of public education in Vermont. We have the tools and the rationale to do it. Do we have the courage?
Peter Evans is a retired high school principal, past president of the Vermont Principals’ Association and Vermont Principal of the Year in 2008.
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