Conference shows fresh thinking on how states educate their children
Sep 26, 2013 | 3955 views | 0 0 comments | 382 382 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ann Manwaring
Ann Manwaring
This past weekend I attended the annual conference of the Council of State Governments, held in Kansas City, and since all of you generously sent me there, I’d like to share some of what I learned. There were presentations in many public policy issue areas, but the ones that primarily interested me were those regarding education and economic development, and in each of these areas, there was one session that genuinely got me excited.

One on education was entitled Education Reform and Transformation: Fact or Fiction.  The presenters were two state superintendents of instruction, one from Idaho and one from Maine, and two teachers of the year, one from Kentucky and one from Kansas.

It was the fellow from Maine, Don Siviski, who blew me away. 

Maine seems to have reinvented its education system based on the work of education innovator Tony Wagner, author of the Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators, and other education thinkers. As a result, Maine is transforming its state and local school system into a learner-centered practice where time is the variable and student learning is the constant, all leading to proficiency-based diplomas for all Maine students by a specificed date. 

Before articulating what Maine has been doing, Siviski talked about the 100-year-old system we now have, invented to sustain an industrial model and full of control elements, where time is fixed and student learning is the variable. He said, as reported in a CSG summary article, “We had this fixed mindset where your IQ didn’t change. We put you into ability groups because we were nice to you. We tracked you. (We) limited your aspirations. We just destroyed kids’ dreams.

“The current system of education was invented in 1892 to prepare foremen for the assembly line,” Siviski said. “One hundred and twenty years later, it hasn’t significantly changed.  Here is our position. In 2013, time is a variable; learning is a constant. It’s not just 175 days and five days in-service. Everything about what we do in school just changed. Every parent is a consumer of the old system that’s full of control factors. Textbooks were a control factor. The number of days is a control factor.”

Siviski continued to say that this is not what parents really want for their children, nor is it what our present day economy or life quality needs from its citizens, nor even what children themselves want. No longer do we need to have teachers impart information – that is available at everyone’s fingertips – especially our children, right in their pockets. We need children to leave school with critical thinking skills – the ability to keep asking questions until they are satisfied, with communication skills both written and verbal, with the ability to work in groups, and to use their imaginations to be creative.

The two teachers of the year, both of whom were middle school language arts teachers, talked about how they were using these new principles in their classrooms.

Again, quoting from the CSG article, Dyane Smokorowski, 2013 Kansas Teacher of the Year, said common core’s focus on deeper learning has made radical changes to the business of education. “Everything you do in the classroom has to have a real-world connection to it,” she said. “How many asked that question in school … when am I ever going to use this? Our babies have questions and those questions deserve answers and it’s our job to guide them to the people who have the answers.”

A lesson in Smokorowski’s class led to a new project—Global Teen Solutions to Stop Bullying—in which middle school students from 15 classrooms on four continents are getting together using Skype and a website to discuss what bullying looks like in their community and what they believe are some of its causes. Smokorowski’s students will be building an action plan and visiting Kansas legislators to discuss their findings.

Now that is exciting!

Here are a couple of other things I wrote down that I think will inform the work being done in Vermont and its schools.

• Learning is a right of passage for children

• Data base must be child-centered

• Get started, go slow, and don’t stop

• Education infrastructure is broken

• Flow of money is currently per child so administrators get very good at attendance.  What does that have to do with outcomes?

• Send some dollars to schools based on achievement

• Allow dollars to be used differently school to school and classroom to classroom

• Create teacher-leaders to train other teachers, rotate over time.

• Be very targeted in teacher training dollars.

All of this is heady stuff, as Vermont, both at the state level and in many local school districts, including our own, is moving toward implementing many of the practices. What was especially exciting about Maine’s work was that it seems to be a whole system change, embracing both the state’s overall responsibility for education and local schools, where the work is actually done to carry out that responsibility.

This is getting a little long, so I’ll be short on the economic development piece that also caught my attention and just say that in Kansas they have created a separate part of their commerce agency just to focus on entrepreneurship, targeting the rural parts of Kansas.

This is especially significant as Vermont, perhaps surprisingly to many, has the highest percentage of rural population of any state at 82%.

So I hope, knowing that some real new and emerging ideas have made their way back home at least in the form of one legislator, that you won’t conclude that your tax money was just a boondoggle.

But either way, I’ve got some new thinking to add to my long-held commitment to change the conversation about education, so thank you all.

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