The Ideal Student

Let me tell you about the college student that I hope all my high school students become.  

In fact, let me tell you about the college student I wish I’d been.  

He only graduated two years ago but he is already a published author.  His name is Zachary Wood and his new book is called Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America.  I think you should read it.

Wood rose to national prominence while an undergrad as the president of an organization at Williams College called “Uncomfortable Learning,” dedicated to bringing controversial speakers to campus.  Today, two years after graduating, he’s a hero in free speech circles. He writes and speaks to a variety of influential audiences. In the book he writes openly about his desire to run for President someday; a lot of important people who’ve met him don’t laugh at his chances.  After reading this book, I wouldn’t either.

As someone who believes in the First Amendment, it’s challenging to see how in the past five years, in the name of progressive reform, many liberals, perceiving the First Amendment as a protection of systemic discrimination, have turned against free speech.  Long ago, the reverse was true; important gains for liberals during the Civil Rights Era were secured largely through courts’ robust interpretation of the First Amendment to protect liberal activists. Even more challenging has been to see not just conservatives but right wing provocateurs grab the mantle of free expression, using their platforms to do little more than poke at liberals, then position themselves as martyrs when they’re shouted down.

It’s hard not to blame liberals though.  The First Amendment is being used by the Supreme Court to justify increasingly sketchy interpretations of free speech.  Examples include the protection of large companies’ campaign donations as “free speech,” the break-up of unions due to the apparent free speech rights of individual members, and the protection of small business owners’ rights not to service gay customers on the grounds that the very products they sell are somehow speech not to be coerced.  It’s hard not to think that we’ve gotten a little far from the point. When justice Elena Kagan complained that conservatives are “weaponizing the First Amendment,” she had a point. Under the Roberts court free speech is starting to seem less a defense of the powerless than a defense of the powerful.

What good is it then, really?

Enter Zachary Wood.  


Zachary Wood stands out.  When I first read about him, I was not surprised that Wood, a preternaturally gifted spokesperson for viewpoint diversity and a bringer of controversial speakers to his liberal campus, was once vilified by peers as a “white supremacist.” I was surprised to learn that Wood is not even white.  In fact, this vocal critic of ideological homogeneity is not only not a stereotypical white boy college Republican in preppy clothes, or a vaguely white nationalist, anti-this and that-style troll.  Zachary Wood is a liberal, progressive, African American man. Unlike most of his college peers, he is not rich. In fact, he comes from an impoverished background rife with abuse.  It is this background which both directs him toward a political mission of social progressivism but also implores him to pursue very different means of achieving his goals than those of most of his peers: what he terms “uncomfortable learning.” His story is one that means something in today’s divided America.

Let’s start with his background, which is absolutely unlike anything I’ve ever heard about.  Wood’s mother, who raises him, suffers from serious mental health issues which cause her to abuse her son in a vividly-depicted series of escalating confrontations, but at the same time to instill in him a remarkable self-reliance, poise, and conviction.  It’s as if she is teaching him to withstand her in order to withstand greater foes. For example, at one point Wood’s mother, finally under the guidance of mental health professionals, has apparently completed a remarkable turnaround. A naturally articulate and gregarious person, she and Wood are invited to speak, a mother-son team, at mental health conferences as a kind of testament to the power of modern psychological treatment.  Trouble is, she is by no means fully healed, only skilled at hiding it. She continues abusing her son (recounted in some truly dark vignettes) — all the while schooling him in the arts of public speaking in preparation for their conference talks (which are a hit). Even as she privately taunts him with some of the most uncomfortable (and sometimes weirdly sexual) invective I’ve ever read, she demands that he stand tall, make eye contact with her, and never retreat an inch.  It’s truly bizarre: in the process of making life a hell for her son, Wood’s mother is instilling deep pools of courage and resilience.

And it is this courage that allows him, years later, to make his mark.

Here’s what I admire so much about Wood.  He does not court controversy to relish the attention, raise his profile, rankle fellow students needlessly, or even because he agrees with the conservative thinkers he invites to campus.  Instead, over and over again in the book he explains his bedrock belief in the importance of exposure to divergent viewpoints in order to strengthen his own arguments and understanding of the world.  It’s diversity he wants — viewpoint diversity.

If you’re reading this book even half-awake, you quickly realize that Wood’s desire to hear all voices is really just part and parcel with his almost overwhelming hunger to learn.  By high school, Wood, having escaped his mother’s abuse, moves to Washington, D.C. to live with his father, who is caught in a cycle of debt and poverty, despite working three jobs.  Each day, Wood commutes an hour each way by train from his Anacostia neighborhood past gang members and drug addicts who taunt and sometimes beat him, across the city to the uber-rich suburb of Potomac where he attends a fancy private school.  If anything, Wood might work even harder than his father. Although he is popular and well-liked on campus, he is so zealously wrapped up in his learning that at one point he passes out on his makeshift desk, reading all twenty-two of Cornell West’s books in order to say something perceptive during the Q & A at West’s upcoming speaking engagement.  When Wood’s father visits him in the hospital, the first thing Wood asks for is his books. His father, a constant but laconic presence, wisely tells him no — he must restore some semblance of balance in his life.

But this is not just a Horatio Alger story where a young man from a poor family does double time in the library to keep his grades high, before riding a college scholarship straight into law or business school, eventually escaping the cycle of poverty and making partner.  Wood has more than financial gain in mind for his studies. This is why I think Wood is such a role model: It’s not grades he’s interested in, it’s learning.

Wood actively wants to make the world a better place.  Remember, he’s interested in politics. His values are recognizable as social-progressive (which is why it is ironic that he has been hailed by conservatives for his free speech advocacy).  He pauses a number of times for perceptive, politically-tinged asides about his mother’s mental health treatment, his father’s poverty (“it’s expensive to be poor”) and the social conditions that contributed to his dangerous neighborhood.  It’s not hard to see his budding political ambitions.

But perhaps because he has always been an outsider — poor and black in a rich, white private school — he has grown accustomed to trying to understand the way others think, and it dawns on him that if he wants to improve the world we live in, first he must learn everything he possibly can about why the world is the way it is.  This is not just rhetorical. He is not just trying to win the argument. He’s interested in understanding context.  I didn’t learn this until much later in life: the importance of asking not “Why can’t we?” but first “We do we?” Not “Why can’t we end discrimination?” but “Where does discrimination come from?” It’s a similar desire to know that leads him to a voracious reading of history and philosophy, and to an insatiable curiosity to listen to his ideological opponents.

During high school, Wood presses his wealthy white peers (and sometimes their parents) as far as he thinks he can, trying to learn why they think the way they do.  But it’s not until he attends a summer program at Stanford University, where he engages in a series of classic late-night common room debates with a genial conservative friend that he learns the thrill of intellectual debate.

Then he gets to Williams College.  

Suffice to say, his small, elite New England campus — which he chose for the rigorous tutorial program (of which he makes characteristically voracious use) — does not offer this same kind of robust debate.  Wood finds himself in an ideological bubble where most students and even professors subscribe to the same set of progressive-left values.  It is for this reason that Wood takes up with a student group called Uncomfortable Conversations, and immediately begins pushing the campus to engage in the kinds of debates that he believes are urgent.

When Wood invites a series of increasingly controversial speakers to campus, the backlash is fierce.  Wood tells a number of anecdotes about how vilified he becomes. The most disturbing is a death threat he receives, a drawing of a tree with a message strongly implying he should be lynched.  That Wood is African American and poor makes it especially striking when many of his peers at Williams, most of whom are white and rich, criticize him, with one of them labeling him a “white supremacist.” What’s awkward is that most of his peers and professors — even the ones who are African American — are card-carrying progressives, whose discomfort with the dissenting views that Wood seeks to bring to campus is partly based on the desire to protect minorities like Wood himself from discrimination and harm.  Consider the irony of a historically white campus like Williams trying to create a welcoming environment for persons of color by opposing the efforts of and even personally vilifying Zachary Wood — just the sort of poor, minority student they’re claiming to protect.

It’s not surprising then that conservative media adopted Wood for their own cause, but for all his classmates’ protestations, Wood time and time again reiterates that while he shares their progressive ideals, he just wants to better equip himself against his opponents:

“I wanted to push myself even more to immerse myself in the complexities of what my opponents thought and felt so that I could use them in service of my own goals . . . If I knew my opponent well enough to confidently conjecture his moves and lines of reasoning, I could act astutely and respond effectively.”

And this is what I think is so promising about Wood’s approach.  We can only convince people if we understand where they’re coming from.  The more we remain in ideological echo-chambers, the more we caricature the other side’s beliefs and motivations.  In a way, we not only allow them to dehumanize us, but we dehumanize them.

Perceptive readers soon realize that in the end it is not the conservative speakers who Wood invites to campus that are his true adversaries — it’s his intolerant peers.  They are his best training. It is their arguments he finds himself most seeking to understand, their hearts and minds he tries hardest to win over. He came to Williams College looking for debate and he found it — except it was among his own kind.

I know I never would have had the courage to be a Zachary Wood, especially while I was in college.  It’s hard to imagine withstanding the censure of one’s peers the way he did, especially on a small rural campus, particularly with your name in the national headlines.  Even more importantly, I can’t imagine ever having had the wisdom and perspective of a Zachary Wood when I was 28, let alone 18. Imagine being mature enough to resolve to set an entire campus on its head because of a far-sighted principle.  To be fair, there are moments in this book that remind you how young and idealistic Wood is, and how fresh and unprocessed many of these experiences are, how unmitigated by reflection and time. But generally I found myself coming up short time and again at Wood’s old-soul perspective on the importance of both viewpoint diversity, intellectual curiosity, and of simple, old-fashioned reading and studying as a compelling counterpoint to the ideological division, the rush to judgment, and the tribalism that dominates our politics today.

These are the qualities I admire in Zachary Wood.  These are also the qualities I aspire for my own students to have.  They are finally the qualities I aspire to have myself. Read this book and take note of Zachary Wood.  Something tells me we’ll be hearing a lot more about him.

Putting Off PBL

It doesn’t seem as though there’s a lot of talk online about the VTDigger news story that came out this week:  The Vermont NEA is calling to delay the Proficiency Based Learning (PBL) graduation requirement, which is set to go live for next year’s seniors. My sense from talking to colleagues is that many of us expected something like this to happen, perhaps even sooner than it did. I’ve been surprised by the relative lack of vocal opposition to PBL here in Vermont. But then this is the moment — as the first PBL graduating class closes in on their final year — when PBL’s requirements start to seem very, very real.

Then again, it’s hard to know how seriously to take this delay proposal. Right now, it’s just the NEA saying this.  It’s not Montpelier. And even the NEA doesn’t sound like they’ve got their minds made up.  Maybe the talk of a delay will all blow over? Then again, I remember a few years ago the Maine NEA came out against PBL, and it wasn’t long afterward that the mandate was strongly scrutinized, then dropped entirely. The NEA proposal is surely a harbinger.

But Vermont is unique. Let me step back and say I’m proud to teach in Vermont.  You start talking to teachers in other states — or even following the news — and it starts to dawn on you how good we’ve got it here. Watching the tumultuous year we’ve had in education — the teacher strikes, funding wars, the fights over whether to arm teachers — I’ve often thought, “That’ll never happen in Vermont.” Often it’s true.

Think about it: We had a Republican governor change our gun laws because of a school shooting that didn’t even happen.  Where else do you get that?

This is not to say we don’t have our problems.  Those are well documented. But we are more sensible than most. We never bought in hard into the punitive ed reforms of the last twenty years: test, punish, repeat.  We don’t just say we value schools, we actually open our wallets. Our schools are some of the best funded in the country. Our classes are small and our student-teacher ratios are low. And unlike every other state in the union, we actually know our American history.

Once again, I am not suggesting Vermont’s schools are perfect. I’ve written many, many words to the contrary. But I think it’s easy to forget, as we dwell on the problems of declining demographics, how unique we are.

I think the main thing that makes Vermont’s schools so different from other states where I’ve worked is our progressive values.  We like to see ourselves on the cutting edge.  PBL, although it descends from old ideas, is still a radical departure from today’s educational mainstream, scrapping age-old pedagogical mainstays like the Carnegie Unit and the alpha grading scale.  PBL as Vermont envisions it is progressive and student-centered. Taken alongside the rest of Act 77 — Flexible Pathways, Personalized Learning — it is innovative and bold.

Or is it untested and unproven?  

That’s the dilemma. Because the problem with being an innovator is that sometimes what you’re attempting isn’t research-based simply because it hasn’t been tried before.  I see that tension now in Vermont. We want to innovate but we don’t want to harm. PBL advocates have never been able to point teachers toward any clear, reassuring models of PBL done at scale. We’re told to pattern our work on embryonic charter schools, or lone districts in Alaska. I always thought it was interesting that PBL advocates never talk about the mastery learning movement in the 1960s and 70s, the minimum competency movement in the 1970s and 80s, or the outcome-based education movement in the 1990s. You rarely hear competency or proficiency backers mention William Spady or even Benjamin Bloom. If anything, the pivot to different names for the movement (how interesting that two states sharing a border — New Hampshire and Vermont — call the same reform by two different names) is really a pivot to better branding. It’s as though advocates, wary of getting bogged down in the very real debates about efficacy and values that happened in schools during previous incarnations of PBL, wish to shroud these earlier efforts from teachers and voters. As a teacher, that’s part of what has been maddening under this mandate: we’ve spent six years being told we should show kids models of what we want, and clarity of objectives — yet we aren’t given a single convincing model ourselves of what PBL should look like, or any kind of historical clarity about the origins and evolution of the movement we’ve adopted.

Here in Vermont, are we innovating — or flying blind?  I guess it depends on who you ask.

So into that context is dropped this slightly awkward news article. Now the Vermont NEA is asking for a delay to the PBL requirement.  As I said, I’m not surprised. Maine delayed their PBL graduation requirement, too (before getting rid of it last year).

Should Vermont do the same and delay?

Here’s my answer:  Don’t.

First of all, a delay kills our credibility with students and families.  Right now I’d argue that we’re at the make-or-break moment. Our first PBL-graduating class is now second-semester juniors.  As the reluctant guinea pigs for five years, they’re not only conscious they’re being experimented on, they’ve passed through the stages of PBL-related grief, and now as a few colleagues and I have joked, they’ve finally arrived at acceptance. This has only happened because they’ve finally realized that we’re not joking — they’re actually going to have to meet all of these different proficiencies if they want to walk across the graduation stage next year.  If lawmakers pull the plug now, right as students have finally resigned / committed themselves to the new system, we’ll undercut years of work getting them to buy in. Not to mention we’ll ruin educators’ credibility with subsequent graduation classes. Future students may think, “If they delayed it once, they’ll delay it again.” Children are often very good observers of adult behavior, after all.

A delay will also undercut teacher support.  By now we’ve spent years of our lives learning complex, even experimental new methods of instruction, curriculum design, and assessment.  We’ve chained ourselves to the computer night after night, doing reams and reams of additional PBL data entry, all while fielding a slew of new questions from parents about the new system. Most importantly, we’ve been the ones standing in front of a crowd of resistant teenagers and selling a system we’ve often struggled to understand ourselves. If lawmakers show us they don’t have the will to finish what they’ve started, they’ll lose credibility with us for the next statewide reform. Why invest next time if Montpelier’s just going to renege?

Lastly, a delay accomplishes nothing.  We’ve already had five years; what’s another going to accomplish? A delay three years ago might have helped us tighten and clarify, but by now the main questions we must answer all require the final “summative assessment” of a PBL-determined graduation: Is the bar set in the right place? Does our new system articulate the proficiencies that teachers and parents actually value? Are all schools graduating students on equal standards?  The pressure of high school graduation has a way of clarifying important questions. And we need the answers. A delay gives us none.

I understand that people are worried about what’ll happen when you try to graduate students under PBL.  I think the main worry is that we just don’t know what’ll happen. Sometimes PBL reminds me of screenwriting legend William Goldman’s famous quip about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” Partly because we’ve tried to cover up the past experiments in mastery and outcome-based learning, we’re not sure how this is going to turn out. It’s uncharted territory.

But that’s what Act 77 asked for. The price you pay for being innovative is that you have to be comfortable with taking risks.  We venerate men like Steve Jobs while forgetting that he failed repeatedly. The old system is familiar and safe, and most educators rightly sense a lot of uncomfortable problems we’ll have to face next year. But isn’t it better to face them sooner rather than later?  

Because too often with bold reforms, facing your problems later can quickly turn into never facing them at all.

(Update: I had just published this post before seeing this new story. Apparently the AOE is now opening the door to a delay now too.)

The Immovable Mountain

A few years back, Chuck Scranton, long-time Vermont high school principal and now the Executive Director of the Rowland Foundation, gave a TEDx talk called “The Immovable Mountain.” It’s a great metaphor for what educators seeking change are up against.  What Scranton was referring to was the mammoth weight blocking the path of any would-be school reformer or innovator.  It represents a lot of obstacles. The immovable mountain is the Carnegie Unit. The immovable mountain is the schedule.  The immovable mountain is the need to parcel out learning into eight separate, discrete classes every day in different rooms.  All of these “facts” of American education have proved next to impossible for even the most intrepid public school “change agents” to displace.  

The reason is, people know what a ‘real school’ looks like — it has bells and lockers, and eight separate subjects, and last 6.5 hours, and final exams, and letter grades.  There aren’t wacky semester-long projects, or free comings-and-goings in the halls, or long breaks in the middle of the day for sports, or student taught classes. A “real school” is what we know — and deep down, despite our desire for positive change, that’s what we want.  The immovable mountain, in other words, is tradition.

This year I was lucky enough to receive one of those Rowland Fellowships, but last year, during my interview with Chuck Scranton, he asked me pointedly how I hoped to change “the immovable mountain.” Since that day, even before my fellowship began, I made it a point to learn as much as I could about where that immovable mountain came from, and why, exactly, it’s so hard to move.  I wanted to know who had tried to move it, and why they failed.

Up to this point, I’d not read much professionally.  Then starting last winter, soon after Chuck asked me that question, I began reading, hurriedly, about educational history, reform, and theory.  Sometimes — more than I ever imagined — I’d come across a nugget of insight so fascinating that I found my basic understanding of the job I’d been doing for nine years subtly altered, some new light shed on a practice I’d never understood or questioned.  I read many of the school history and school reform classics — Tinkering Toward Utopia, Horace’s Hope, and — almost by accident, a mind-blowing book called Schoolteacher by Dan Lortie.  

Lortie’s book, written in 1976, is a sociological study at the teaching profession.  It sounds dry, doesn’t it? Let’s just say that sociology wasn’t my usual go-to genre before this.  But within the first few pages I was riveted, and after finishing this book, which is as fresh and current as if it’d been written last month, I’ve become a major believer in the analytic tools of the sociologist to shed light on exactly what makes a group of people tick and move.  It’s the most penetrating analysis I’ve ever read. What was remarkable about it was that here was a book that was explaining to me what I am, as a teacher, in ways I’d never considered. The second I put it down as I finished the last page, I knew I’d be rereading it again within a year.

I was reminded of its power the other day, when I happened to pick it up from behind my bedside nightstand or wherever it had fallen to (my house is filled with such remnants; while I’m spotless-clean at work, I’m less fastidious at home, and also something of a compulsive partial rereader, strewing half-reread books across the house).  I wanted to share a short gem of an insight that I came across this weekend, flipping through the early pages again while making tea.

Let me set the context.  One of the biggest wishes of would-be school reformers, particularly practitioner-reformers, is the notion that teachers should teach in teams.  Many schools do this — math and science together, social studies and English together, formed into interdisciplinary classes. Or even better — all four teachers banded together to teach one large group of kids in one academy-style “school-within-a-school.” In Ted Sizer’s famous and influential book, Horace’s Hope, this vision was central to the Platonic Good School that the fictional school committee seeks to found.  It is, in a way, Horace’s Dream. And teaming has been the lodestar of many other progressive school reformers going back decades.  Even Chuck Scranton’s TedX talk specifically referenced this as a promising model of school change, citing examples of initiatives funded by the Rowland Foundation in Vermont over the years.  In fact, two of my cohort classmates now are working on setting up a similar program at a school here in central Vermont. It’s a great model.

So why aren’t more schools doing it?  What exactly is the “immovable mountain” standing against such an agreed-upon progressive reform.  After all, when you learn more about educational history, you know that this reform isn’t exactly new.  In fact, it was a major tenet of the Eight Year Study, a major educational reform movement in the 1930s, which sought to break up the cellular nature of traditional schools to allow a more integrated, student-led curriculum, team-taught curriculum to flourish.

So, what’s the problem?  

Obviously tradition gets in the way — the notion of what a ‘real school’ is.  (That’s really the main thesis of another mind-expanding book I read, Larry Cuban and David Tyack’s Tinkering Toward Utopia.)

But there’s more — and that’s where Lortie comes in.

Here’s where Lortie showed me the answer.  Early in his book, he writes about American education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In particular, Lortie highlights how the employment regulations of female teachers influenced the development of the profession: “Continued growth of the public school system required the services of thousands upon thousands of young, single women.  This pool of personnel has never produced a high proportion of teachers ready to commit many years to work outside the home;” [this part feels dated, but for a long time was likely a fair statement] “and the problem of turnover was compounded by school board policies which ruled out the employment of married women. Such restrictions prevailed well into the twentieth century.”

Wait — what?

“In short, teaching was institutionalized as high turnover work during the nineteenth century and the modern occupation bears the marks of earlier circumstance.”

This is fascinating — so the fact that public schools were growing rapidly in number and size, and that for a long time the only people they could get to staff them were young, unmarried women (who could only work, presumably, for a short time until they married) — all meant that teaching was “institutionalized” (what a great word) as a high-turnover profession?  


I’d never heard of this idea of a “marriage bar.” But here’s a fun fact: up until the start of World War II, 87% of districts refused to hire married women, and 70% refused to keep single women who married.  So much for job security and fair hiring practices!

But there’s more.  Here’s where it connects to team teaching — and the immovable mountain.  Because schools adapted their very structures, says Lortie, to fit that employee transience:

“It was easier for those governing schools to see them[selves] as aggregates of classroom units, as collections of independent cells, than as tightly integrated ‘organisms’ . . .  New teachers could readily be placed in the former teachers’ classrooms with new groups of students. Such flexibility was possible as long as teachers worked independently; but had their tasks been closely interwoven, the comings and goings of staff members would have created administrative problems.”

Again, fascinating.  This is why teaming never caught on.  It wasn’t because teachers were anti-social.  It wasn’t because they didn’t think co-teaching was solid pedagogy trick.  Instead, it was administrative. According to Lortie, the primary historical reason teachers don’t team teach is because they were forced to leave the profession so frequently because of marriage restrictions that it was just easier to plug them into their own rooms to teach than to try to work them into teams.

And according to Lortie, this was still the case even after the marriage restrictions were lifted.  He hints in this section at what he’ll talk about subsequently: that later on, schools were largely staffed by married women, who cycled in and out of the profession (this was long before the advent of modern maternity leave) in order to have families.  This only fed the existing need for teachers to be easily replaceable and in turn only reinforced the “egg crate” design of separated classrooms — with the goal of a relatively porous workforce causing minimal disruption to existing structures. In short, teachers came and went so frequently that teaming was hard.

This notion of teacher transience seems at odds with the traditional notion of teaching as a stable profession, union-protected, a job staffed by fairly domestic, settled professionals dedicated to community service and uninterested in career advancement.  

And yet, teaching is a profession that allows us the freedom to move.  If I suddenly wanted to pick up and move to the Rocky Mountains, I could probably find an English teaching job in any kind of town I wanted: big city, college town, small village in the mountains.  They’ve all got high schools. They all need teachers. Part of what drew me to teaching, if I’m being honest, was that flexibility. I knew that if I was suddenly gripped with the need to reroute my life to, say, Big Sky, Montana to ski, or McCall, Idaho to kayak, I could probably get a job right there in one of those towns.  (If I was a math teacher instead of an English teacher, I bet I could all but name my salary.)

When I think back on it, I’m always surprised at how many coworkers have come and gone at the school where I work.  Although I teach in a stable, happy school with good pay and good morale, in the past eight years, I’ve had no fewer than eight fairly young coworkers in my department of ten leave.  This is not even counting the four who’ve retired. When I think back on it, two of my coworkers left to become administrators, but a number of them simply moved away. They went down south to be back with family, out west to chase warm weather and dreams, to the big city to be around friends and like-minded people.  

And this ability to simply pick up and plug into another school is significant, because it both reflects the historical norms Lortie describes and reinforces them.  Schools are not like law firms, where you work your way up, slide into larger offices, fancier titles, and higher pay by dint of serving that specific firm. In schools there is no real hope of upward movement if you wish to stay in teaching, and no hope of any more than the same incremental upward movement in salary as everyone else.  If you were to pick up and go to another district, you’d theoretically start at the same step on the salary scale you’d been on before, by virtue of your experience level — not start back at the beginning. In this sense, just as Lortie described, teaching is a career that makes it okay to come and go — either from the profession, or to and from different schools.  That I think explains a lot of the turnover even in good schools like the one where I work.

But if people are cycling in and out, team teaching becomes much harder.  Teaming takes time and effort getting to know and understand your partner.  That becomes very difficult to do if you start having to replace too many faculty.  It’s hard enough even if you’re not co-teaching, but merely working on content teams, or on middle school core teams that call for common planning but separate instruction in different rooms.  

I remember a few years ago I was on two content teams — a ninth grade English team, and a tenth grade English team. I started with four colleagues between the two teams, and within three years, five new teachers had cycled into different positions on the team.  I vividly remember my experience on the tenth grade team, spending an entire year with one coworker, planning the course, learning how to work with each other, building a shared understanding of the other’s style and perspectives. Then one day she informed me that she’d be leaving for another school at the end of the year.  The next semester I teamed with her replacement, a dynamic and talented educator, but a wholly new person with a different style, background, and lack of familiarity with not only the curriculum but with the school itself. I remember feeling, partway through the year after several disagreements, as though I was back at square one.  While I enjoyed the experience, I got the sneaking suspicion that this woman herself, new to the state, would soon leave the school and the region as well. Within another year, she left the state. I had already moved on to teaming with others.

While working with new people can be invigorating, it can also be exhausting.  Training someone new, even an experienced veteran, can be a lot of work. Every school runs differently, and even similar courses at different schools — American Lit in School 1 and School 2 — can be composed of such different books, assignments, and grading standards as to make it practically a new course to learn.  No two student bodies are the same either. It takes time to get a new teacher up to speed.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like if these coworkers and I had been team teaching, rather than merely planning together.  I think it would have been almost unworkable by even the second year. You have to keep the band together, at least for a while — and that can be hard.

That’s Lortie’s point.  Because teaching is set up to be each person in a discrete classroom, it’s easier to imagine switching schools if you want to move.  And because this ability to move has become a well-known featuring of the profession, that in turn further increases the likelihood that teaching arrangements will be cellular rather than truly co-taught.  This is not to say that teaming is a bad model, only that the historical forces aligned against it in public schools run deep.

I love learning stuff like this — about how the early days of public education in the United States dictated what was to come in ways often overt and conscious, but often subtle and below the radar.  I highly recommend Dan Lortie’s book if you’re interested in uncovering the nature of why our jobs are the way they are.

I’ll think about this now every time I hear someone wonder why schools don’t do this or do that, especially if they’re wondering why teachers don’t co-teach or team-teach in academies with their coworkers.  Because the immovable mountain’s not just tradition — it’s a response to historical working conditions that continue to define our jobs in ways we rarely detect.

In the words of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

It doesn’t have to define us, but often it does.  If we’re to have any prayer of escaping the grip of the past, we must understand its influence and how it continues to shape our profession.

I recommend Dan Lortie.

Know Your Place

As a first-year teacher, I’d say one of the worst role models you could have is Miss Caroline from To Kill a Mockingbird. You don’t want to be Miss Caroline.

(But chances are, during your first year, at least for a while, you probably will.)

Remember her?  Miss Caroline is Scout’s teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Harper Lee’s characterization of this type is timeless:  fresh out of college, brand-new to teaching and to the town she’s teaching in, hailing, of course, from a more sophisticated part of the state, she is both incredibly confident in her fancy new ed techniques . . . and woefully unprepared for the reality of the job. She cries on the first day — in front of her students. Doesn’t get much worse than that.

But what’s most memorable is how ignorant she is of the community where she has been assigned to teach. Her cultural missteps come one after another. First she insists Walter Cunningham, a boy from a poor but proud family, to accept a loan for lunch money. Then she tries to force Burris Ewell, from a family that does not or cannot bathe, to go home and clean himself. Both times, it is Scout, on her first day of school, who has to gently correct her. It’s a nice little exposition device to introduce the town’s families, but more than that, it hits on a truth.

More often than not, new teachers are just this ignorant.  Placed in districts far from home, often in very different types of communities than they grew up in, thrown into classrooms on the first day with hardly a drive through the local neighborhoods, they’re liable to begin their jobs without knowledge of the local town, its people, or its customs.  You don’t want to be Miss Caroline when you start out, but chances are you probably will be.

And yet even as we become more experienced teachers — and the Burris Ewells of the world no longer unnerve us with their lice and with their profanity — still the culture and the customs of the communities we teach in sometimes continue to elude us.  This is a problem because a thorough understanding of your students’ cultural and social context is, in its own way, every bit as helpful to a teacher as knowledge of their reading and writing abilities.

I have been thinking a lot about this because I have been reading Christopher Emdin’s book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood (and the Rest of Y’all Too): Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education.  Emdin’s thesis — quite a provocative one — is that modern urban students are akin to “neoindigenous” peoples — “colonized” by (primarily white) educators who see the culture and values of inner city children as inferior and in need of shedding at the schoolhouse gate.  It sounds extreme, but the way Emdin explains it makes a lot of sense. It instantly had me thinking about:

1) “No excuses” militaristic urban charter schools such as KIPP.  These schools are basically the army. Kids learn to do everything as their told — even to track teachers with their eyes.  It always struck me that no white, middle class parent where I live would EVER allow their children to be educated this way — to be forced to drop their cultural values at the door, to adopt an entirely different mode and manner of speaking, forced to spend huge amounts of time at school and on homework, all with the overt goal of removing them from their neighborhoods and families.  (Now that I think about it, “colonization” might be too light a term.)

2)  Test prep-heavy urban public schools that pump kids full of rote memorization in order to inch past the cut-off scores on the all-important standardized tests.  These approaches proliferated under NCLB, throwing music, arts, and everything else not nailed straight out the window in favor of endless hours of prep in math and reading.  Once again, it always struck me that no middle class white parents would ever allow this to happen.

Both of these kinds of places are classic examples of schools believing that it is their mission to teach students whose cultural values are so different, or whose skills are so deficient, that a plowing-over of who they are and where they come from is essential to educating them.  It’s educational boot-camp, educational occupation. It’s amazingly common.

But Emdin’s problem isn’t just with the brute heart of the system itself.  It’s with the system’s emissaries — the teachers — who don’t bother to become interested in the communities they work in.

Most of us are like this at the beginning.  I remember the first public school I taught in.  It was a small, rural public school in Vermont — and I completely misunderstood the culture.  It was the sort of school that devotes a day during spirit week to a “camo day” — and everyone in the school wears camouflage everything (boots, hats — even, later in the year, a camo prom dress).  The students love country music and working on engines. In the fall the student parking lot was filled with rows of souped-up pick-up trucks. In the winter these same spaces were taken up with snowmobiles which the junior and senior boys rode to school.  In the mornings, boys tracked mud into school from their barn chores.

It was also a community rife with the sort of poverty I’d never studied in grad school — rural poverty.  In the wake of the Great Recession, jobs were scarce. Already the first signs of opioid addiction were appearing, though we didn’t realize it at the time.  Alcoholism and unemployment were easier to identify. So were neglect and abuse of all types. Just a year before, a girl had been kidnapped and murdered in the next town.  It was, again, the sort of town I’d not read about or studied, and it caught me off guard. It was as though this kind of rural poverty was almost unnoticed beside the much greater problems of urban schools and communities.  Years later, I thought about towns like this, so overlooked, when voters in these kinds of towns sent Donald Trump to the White House because he seemed to remember them.

It was hard sometimes not to read this community, with so many poor, needy students and with such obvious blue-collar rural values, as places that did not value academic learning.  It became easy as a teacher to believe that our job was to inure them against their own impulses, to inculcate in them the same values and ideals with which we ourselves had been raised.  It was a game of “us versus them.”

But education at its best should never be that way.  How ineffective this is for a teacher! I remember the amount of time I spent fighting with my students over trivial matters.  That year, I disallowed them to say the word “crap” in my classroom. I considered it vulgar. Now I realize that enforcing such a petty rule asked my students, in some small but important way, to reject who they were.  You can’t very well tell a young man that his father is course and mean and expect him to wish to learn from you.

This is not the way to educate kids.  Instead, teachers must tap into precisely who students are at their deepest levels.  They must feel as though they matter to their teachers if there is to be any hope of learning from their teachers.  Good teachers have a way of being able to take a student from where he is to where he is capable of going with some help.  But we can only do this if we understand students — both the origins of their misconceptions, but also their preoccupations and cultural values.  In this sense, education is always “local”; you simply cannot teach two groups of students from vastly different communities the same way. You will not reach them.

But it is not easy to understand fully the context of the community you teach in.  That school in rural Vermont is a case in point. Outwardly, it should have been an easy context for me to understand.  My students and I were of the same race, and grew up in similar rural communities. Not only that, I was born in Vermont and lived there for years.  And yet even I missed badly just what these students loved and valued. The United States is, it seems to me, a much harder place to be a teacher than other countries precisely because of its vastness and diversity. If I had this much trouble misreading my students in a place so close to home, how would I have done in another region entirely?

Now I am not saying that all students arrive at school with attitudes and values that we teachers are obligated to respect.  In every community in the United States are students who arrive at the school door having learned how to bully, how to hate, how to curse and scream until they worm their way out of work.  

What I am saying is that you get nowhere as a teacher dismissing your students because of their perceived backgrounds or cultural values.  What I am saying is that if we wish to bring students from where they now to where they can be at their best, we must understand where they’re truly starting from.

It’s hard, it takes time, and it takes a kind of humility.  We must listen, and we must open our eyes, and we must not be too quick to judge.  We must have careful conversations with our communities about values, about what an ideal education looks like for graduates — and real conversations about what we need to attain that vision.  But we must start by understanding the place we’re teaching in.

Because you don’t want to be Miss Caroline — not for too long, anyway.

Why It’s Hard to Raise the Bar

It’s not unusual for educational reforms to be exercises in bar-raising.  Most are — that’s why we do them. We don’t always say we’re “raising the bar”; we might say we’re improving instruction, setting better goals, designing better curriculum. But it’s the same idea: we’re improving.

Proficiency based learning (PBL), the new grading system in Vermont, is no exception. We put it in place to ensure students are graduating from high school prepared.  We are, whether we’re saying it or not, trying to raise the bar.

But too often the danger of reform is that if you’re not crystal-clear about what specifically needs to happen, the bar ends up right back smack in the same place it was before.  I’d been thinking to myself about why this might happen with PBL. The other day I had a revelation: the important forces we need to counter are both cultural and statistical. As things are now, the bar needs to be set in a place where we can 1) preserve our high school graduation rate and 2) preserve our cultural ideal of high school as only four years long. Those two forces may conspire to keep the bar right in the same place it has been all along — only now the bar’s height may come with added dangers.

Let’s look at why.

Start with graduation rate.  Think about it: The four-year high school graduation rate is one of our most important educational measurements.  Unlike most of our statistics, this one’s actually pretty good (see this national report, from just a few days ago).  For a profession in which most of the numbers always seem to point back at glaring inequality (if not outright failure), the high school graduation rate is a rare statistical bright spot.

And it’s a source of pride here in Vermont too, where we have one of the best in the nation — just under 90%.  Even our governor acknowledges, “We have a good graduation rate.” It’s an important metric, a source of pride, and — most importantly — a quantifiable one.  

While there are two common ways to calculate high school graduation rate, from what I can tell, both only measure four-year timeframes.  I am not a stats geek, but from what I can see, graduate in longer than four years and you might as well not have graduated.  That makes sense. Right now anyone taking longer than five years is not really considered to be in high school any longer.

So what I am saying is that the danger with PBL is that Campbell’s Law is in play here.  Campbell’s Law basically says, anytime a statistical measurement is taken too seriously, participants will game the system to keep the numbers looking good.  What I mean is — we are not voluntarily lowering our four-year graduation rate anytime soon. If anything, educational leaders are under tremendous pressure to raise it (particularly for poor or minority students).  It’s an important stat, and usually a good stat, so we’re not about to ruin that.

The problem is, PBL might.  PBL says, “Time is a variable.” Some kids take longer, and that’s okay.  The important thing isn’t rushing through high school, it’s actually learning something.  The old system said: “When we finish the unit, if they don’t get it, give students a D and move on.” PBL says: “If they’re not proficient, they need more time.”

But where does that time come from?  We don’t have the political will to increase the length of the school day or the school year.  That leaves only one place that extra time can truly come from. If we want to do PBL with fidelity, we must get comfortable with students staying in high school longer than four years.

But we won’t.  First of all, high school is four years long in the popular imagination.  It’s cultural. Parents see a fifth year of high school as a child’s failure.  

But more importantly, our own graduation metric measures only four-year graduates.  It encourages us to push them across the graduation stage before they’re ready. Under our own measurement, time most certainly is not a variable — it’s a hard and fast constant.  Take longer and you don’t count. In fact, you make us look bad.

That’s where the low bar comes in.  PBL demands a low bar. Or to be more precise — it makes the lowness of the bar (which has always been there) much plainer than the old system did.  

Let’s take a look at why.

The Lowness of the Bar

Work backwards: If we’re keeping the graduation rate the same, that means that all the same students must continue graduating.  Under the old system that meant attending school for four years and — through some murky amalgam of academic skill and habits of work — passing your classes.  Under PBL it means being “proficient” by the end of 12th grade.

Okay.  But that bar must be the same for all students.  You can say that some students will meet proficiency in different ways, but you cannot say that the bar for that proficiency is any different whether school is easy or hard for a child.

But if we’re still graduating all the same students, the proficiency bar must be set where our most struggling students can reach it — within four years.

Fine.  But won’t our most advanced students be able to reach that bar much earlier — perhaps in tenth or even ninth grade?  After all, isn’t the work some ninth graders are doing equivalent to the work other students do as seniors? Take English class.  Aren’t some kids writing better by the end of ninth grade than others by the end of twelfth? In other words, aren’t some kids four years ahead of others by the time they start high school?  

Of course they are.  We know this.

This is striking:  some of our students will satisfy their high school graduation requirements during the first half of high school.  Many will finish by tenth grade, others perhaps by the end of ninth.

But surely, you ask, there won’t be enough time for students to finish all of the portfolio artifacts they must do by the end of ninth grade?  They might be proficient, but surely it takes more time to prove it?

Yes, but we can’t require too much proof — otherwise our most struggling students will struggle to finish in four years.  It has to be the same bar — and it cannot be too high — otherwise we risk retaining fifth-year seniors.

The implications are staggering.  

For one thing, we’ll need to get good at convincing higher-level students to stay in school.  I know that sounds strange! But because graduation standards are attainable in such a shorter time, we’ll need to actively start selling these students on sticking around rather than graduating early.  Honestly, I’m not worried about our most advantaged students — they’ll keep taking our hardest classes and working their tails off because that’s what selective colleges want. And they’re usually the students who are the most invested in the life of the school — sports teams, student government, arts and extracurriculars.  And their families either have money for college or an understanding of how to work the system for scholarships.

I’m more concerned about the group of students on the next rung down on the socio-economic ladder.  Their families have less money, less agency and experience with college financing; to them the prospect of a free year of higher ed through an early college program is harder to pass up.  They’re already leaving Vermont high schools early, every year in greater numbers. Once PBL starts to kick in and these students start to realize they can finish graduation proficiencies earlier and earlier, I believe we’ll start to see a mass exodus.  They’re done with high school, and they can do a free year of college if they leave. Why would they stick around?

This has consequences.  Specifically, I worry that we’re hollowing out our schools of the middle group.  It’s hard to have both flexible pathways and community. In some ways, that’s always going to be a problem because of tracked classes.  But at least seat time requirements mostly kept students all in the same building for four years. Now with more students able to finish high school early, and with more pathways open if they do, I worry that we’re creating a system in which only the rich and the poor stick around for four years — on increasingly separate tracks, with fewer students in the middle to soften the disparities.

I also worry that, as schools start to make choices about where the PBL bar should go — how many standards to meet, how many times, in what proficiencies? — schools will set radically different bars.  Won’t schools be inclined to — because of cultural pressures and graduation rate pressure — set the bar where the most students can attain it in four years? And won’t that look very different at a wealthy school compared to a poorer school?  If you have a wealthy and relatively homogenous population, won’t you set a higher bar?

This was always an issue, of course, but it was always much more hidden what the actual graduation standards really were.  PBL requires that those standards are made abundantly clear. Won’t it make it so clear, in fact, that we’ll plainly realize that the same student can graduate from one school but could not from another?  For example — won’t a student from Missisquoi complain that he must complete three proficient artifacts in nine English standards, while his friend at South Royalton needs to do only two in five standards?  How is that fair?

I suppose the hope is that, in clarifying such things, we can work to make them more fair, perhaps more even statewide.  But again — because the disparity across the whole state is wider than that within most single schools — doesn’t that just open us up to creating a bar that either keeps some students for even longer, or lets others leave even earlier?  Aren’t we back in the same place?

The counterargument of course is that PBL will actually raise the bar.  That it will be a higher bar than our current graduation requirement because it makes teachers teach better: they must be clearer about goals, more accurate in their assessments, more focused in their instruction.  Students will learn more, more quickly, and the bar can be higher — and we’ll still get everyone across the finish line in four years.

I like to think that’ll be true, but I’m skeptical — for a whole host of reasons that I’ve written about before.  I’ll let that be for now. Suffice to say, there’s no magical system. If PBL were so revelatory, it would have caught fire back when it was called Mastery Learning, or Outcome-Based Education, or Competency Education.  It didn’t.

My personal solution would be to do this:  First, broaden the graduation rate metric to ensure it includes students who take longer than four years.  Second, create an environment — both culturally and economically — in which it’s okay to take longer than four years in high school.  We’ll need funding to be able to keep educating these students beyond senior year. More importantly, we’ll need to stop saying you’re a failure if you take longer to finish than four years.  

In a way we’ve already done that with college. There is not the same stigma about getting done in four years. More importantly, there is not the same stigma about starting college immediately after high school. We’re starting to understand the wisdom of giving students some time, space, and life experience before they go plunging back into (costly) school. They need time off: the Gap Year. It’s great, and it’s catching on. I’d love to see the fifth year of high school become something similar.  Just like some kids aren’t ready to start college at 18, some aren’t ready to start the next phase either — whatever that may be.

It can take time — and we should make that okay.

School Choice — Why No One Actually Wants the Free Market

Why do people say, “Everyone should be able to have school choice”?

First of all, they do.  Second of all, why is choice a good thing?

I know why they say this, of course.  We live in a country that fetishizes the market, distrusts government, bows down to innovators, looks askance at credentials.  We’re a country of gated compounds, semi-automatic weapons, sections of New York that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade. We’re obsessed with competition.  Our favorite sport causes brain damage. Our president is definitely going to hell.

Dammit, don’t tell us what to do.  We’ll make up our own minds, thank you very much.  Give us liberty — and choice — or give us death.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am 100% in favor of traditional school choice.  By that I mean private schools. Every child in America should be able to attend private school if he wants.  But that’s not what people mean when they say school choice.

Even without private schools, Americans have school choice right now — just not in the way they want it.  People have some magical ideas about what “choice” is and can accomplish.

Here are the things I don’t get.  

1.  When anyone says people are “trapped” in their local school

Umm, aren’t those people free to move?  If they lust after Springfield High, then move to Springfield.  Wait, you can’t afford to? Then get a better job. That’s how the free market works.

What’s that?  The free market isn’t fair?  It tends to sort winners from losers, not lift all boats?

And you want MORE of it, not less?

Come on.  Poor kids are still going to live farther from the good schools.  That distance plus the rigors of the application process will always discourage them from attending “better” schools.  So will entrance policies that either subtly discriminate toward students with disabilities, or can be gamed via test prep and resume padding.  The deck will still be stacked.

Meanwhile, the wealthier people will still want to be among their own kind.  Once their local schools are flooded with needy out-of-towners, they’ll pull their kids and put them in private schools.  Or they’ll move even further away and form wealthy people colonies all over again.

It has happened over and over.  That’s the free market, baby.

What, you don’t like?

2.  When people say, “It’s self-evident.  Everyone wants a choice.”

No.  As the writer Peter Greene has astutely pointed out, people do not want choice.  They want a quality school.  That’s different. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think Vermonters living in the Stowe or CVU districts are saying, “Boy, I wish I had school choice.”

Remember how the Paul Ryan healthcare plan passed last year?  Me either. Why? Because no one wants choice. I don’t want the option of four different hospitals.  I want one quality hospital near my house. I don’t want to spend time leafing through the fine print of eighteen possible health plans.  I just want a cheap one that works.

Same with schools.  I just want a good one that works for my child.

3.  Here’s something else I don’t understand: Liberals who are against the ills of privatized healthcare and big business . . . who want to privatize education through charters and choice.  

So many Democrats decry the kind of wealth inequality perpetrated by free market capitalism.  But then they want to turn around and toss the keys to a bunch of fly-by-night charter operators?  Somehow private healthcare companies are the Bad Guys because they’re trying to make a living off sick people, but private school companies that want to make a living by skimming bright students and making fraudulent claims are somehow encouraging healthy competition?  Why is that?

4.  People who say “public education is a monopoly”

You’re telling me that a decentralized system of hundreds of thousands of local schools, each one run by its own, idiosyncratic locally elected school board — is somehow a monopoly?  Vermont alone has 264 school districts, each with their own board of directors. That’s not exactly a table of fat cats at Standard Oil bleeding the country dry.

If you don’t like what’s happening with your local school, you can attend board meetings, stand on the stump, bang your fist, even call up the local school board rep and vent to your heart’s content.  You can wage a campaign to get her fired. You can get elected yourself and hold the superintendent’s feet to the fire. Or the principal’s. I’ve seen it — over and over and over. It’s called local control.  We have it in public schools.

Monopolies don’t.

Now, is it a monopoly for those people in town?  I guess. But that’s like saying the police department is a monopoly.  Or the water company. Or the fire department. Like those services, education is not a commodity.  It is a civic responsibility.

But education is not a commodity.  It’s a public good.

5.  People who think choice leads to quality

It doesn’t.  Choice leads to competition, not to quality.  That’s a big difference. The market is good at creating competition for what it believes people want.  My town in New Hampshire has a lot of restaurant choices. Most of them, however, are not very good. They’re fast food — because that’s what the demand is for.  Choice promotes competition — but only for what people want. In my town, you’ll get quick drive throughs. You’ll get a hefty dollar menu. You’ll get a wide variety of cheap, processed food.  If MacDonalds was the only game in town, food wouldn’t be as fast, as cheap, or as varied. That’s what competition does. It fulfils demand — and there is demand for fast food.

But does the market produce quality restaurants?  Of course not. We don’t have any three-star Michelin cuisine.  Why? There’s no demand. The free market doesn’t promote quality per se — only competition.

Think about the implications.  People want their kids to get good grades and get into college.  Won’t that lead schools to compete for applicants by inflating grades and test-prepping the SAT and AP exams?  Or by simply spending more and more money on marketing, promising the moon and stars to parents (while neglecting teaching and learning)?

I sometimes think part of the reason public schools are so maligned is that they rarely spend time on P.R.  But do you really want to live in a world where they do?

6.  People who forget the math

Schools cost money.  A lot of money. Everyone forgets this.  Even tiny local schools routinely have yearly budgets totaling well into the millions.  The math only works if:

1)  Everyone in town is paying, even those with no kids (public school model)

2)  Only attending families pay, but tuition is very high (private school model)

Most private school tuitions today are in the $50,000 range.  Even imagining that we ended property taxes, can you imagine a universe on which most families could even manage half of that — for even one kid?  Me either.

So now you’re back at Option 1.  But why is it fair for some people in town to be able to take their money and spend it elsewhere?  What if I, as a resident with no kids, don’t like the local school’s approach and no longer want to support it?  I can’t take my money and spend it bankrolling another school I like better. But school-age parents can? How is that fair?

7.  People who don’t like roving gangs of youth criminals

Okay, no one likes this.  But that’s why we put lots of money into schools that give young people productive ways to channel their energies.  Otherwise . . . youth gangs.

But what about people who want to use public money to pay for private school?  Don’t those people still get to enjoy walking through town unmolested? How is that fair?

You know what I mean.  

8.  People who say, “All children should have access to a quality education”

Great.  Access. That’s like saying, “All teachers should have access to a great salary.” No thanks.  I’ll just take a great salary. “Access” gives me nothing.

Same with schools.  We’re so daunted by the prospect of turning around schools steeped in poverty that it’s like choice advocates have given up and want to give people “access” to the market, and let the chips fall where they may.  That’s a lot different than trying to make sure every kid actually HAS a good school.

In the end, that’s what choice is — it’s access.

And if you think about it, that’s the system we already have.  You can move where you want. Only, even though it seems fair, it isn’t.  

Markets never are.

The Phil Scott Plan — Make Vermont Education Great Again

Whew.  There’s a lot to digest in “Designing Our Future: A Blueprint for Transforming Vermont’s Education System.” First it was an internal memo obtained by VtDigger and then after that leaked, the agency decided to publish it for real.  They are careful to remind us that this is not an actual proposal.  They call it a “thought experiment.”

Here are a few takeaways:

1.  It was not just developed by education officials

As far as I can tell, this plan was started internally at the AOE, led by Secretary of Education Dan French.  But it’s hard to tell if any AOE staff participated. The members of the design team, other than French, that they do tout, are members of Phil Scott’s cabinet: the Secretaries of Commerce and Community Development, Digital Services, Human Services, the Commissioner of Labor, and staff from the Governor’s office.

Notice something?

No Vermont educators were involved.

(But as a teacher, you expect that.)

2.  The stakes are high — really high

Apparently under the new proposal, Vermonters would “come together as regions, and ultimately as a state, to save the state; increase affordability, resources for vulnerable populations, and economic growth.”

Save the state?

My, my. The things we put on our schools.

3.  This is a super-unrealistic bureaucratic power grab

The proposal calls for condensing all of Vermont’s tiny supervisory unions into four big regional ones.  Instead of a lot of different superintendents, we’ll have four. Instead of a bunch of school boards from every town, we’d have four.

Clearly this won’t ever happen.  Consider the vicious fights going on right now over Act 46 (including a number of lawsuits). I don’t think Vermonters have any interest in anything like this at all any time soon.  

And by that I mean “ever.”

4.  It’s riddled with economic anxiety

Ever since he came into office, Phil Scott has been hammering his point about our declining population.  Vermont schools are the “canary in the coal mine” — declining in enrollment and increasingly expensive. Every year around budget time Scott makes noise about cutting school costs, sparring both years late in the budget process, and just generally seeming like he has no idea how to work with lawmakers to control costs.  

His other big goal is to make sure Vermont schools are training workers who’ll stick around, get jobs, and pay taxes.

So this is not a document filled with lofty language about education.  This is a document about using schools to grow the economy. There is a focus on Career Technical Education (CTE).  There is talk of “equity,” but mostly equity of economic opportunity. Even school buses, for Scott, fit into the lens of job growth:

“If a local school does not provide transportation, parents have to make career choices to ensure that they have the flexibility to take kids to and from school, impacting an individual’s ability to fully participate in the labor market.”

Duly noted.

5.  The new proposal would fix these economic problems

If we institute this plan, they claim:

“ . . . employers can be sure of a reliable, consistent stream of employees, from those ready to work directly out of high school in skilled professions to those who complete graduate degrees in Vermont postsecondary institutions.”

But isn’t that backwards?  Vermont’s problem hasn’t been that we don’t have smart young people coming out of our schools.  We do. It’s just that they don’t stick around — because there aren’t enough good jobs. You can’t just expect a “reliable, consistent stream of employees” to be sitting around waiting on your call when there’s nothing available.  That sounds like something a bunch of business people would say.

6.  They want the curriculum to be guided by the local economy

That’s right.  Talk to business leaders first before you go handing out more pointless math homework — so that your pointless math homework actually has a point because it’s all about how to push around a mop.  

Yep, it’s time to “ensure that all education-focused decisions (not just those that affect CTE) were made in the context of regional economic and workforce development needs” and “better align secondary school education resources with economic need and innovation efforts in the region.”

Time to fix the curriculum!  We’re cutting art and music and focusing on a new class.  It’s called “Making Change at WalMart.”

I jest.  But as a teacher, I’m dubious.  For one thing, as I mentioned, they’ve got it backwards.  If you want good workers, stop outsourcing. Offer jobs that pay good wages.  Offer stability. Offer dignity. Don’t complain no one’s “prepared” to work long hours for no money.  Also, don’t complain that local kids — whose parents’ jobs you cut twenty years ago and made them fight and scrap for a living while raising kids — aren’t whizzing through the school system on their way to Master’s degrees.  It doesn’t work that way. For kids to have opportunities, it helps if their parents had well-paying, stable jobs too.

If no one’s prepared for your jobs, ask yourself why not.  Don’t blame schools. Businessman, heal thyself.

7.  CTE is hot

That’s right — Phil Scott wants workers.  CTE — Career Technical Education — is mentioned 29 times in this report.  Meanwhile Flexible Pathways are mentioned once, and Proficiency-Based Learning not at all.  These cabinet types want to “Reduce the negative stigma of CTE” and foster “consistent practice and transparency in what CTE ‘counts for re high school graduation requirements.”

And — if you’re a undergrad focusing on CTE, you’re about to hit the jackpot.  Scott wants “consideration of existing educator contract terms, moving toward a more holistic, shared approach that appreciates the relevant skills CTE teachers may bring to the table.”

In other words, get ready for pay day!

8.  As a matter of fact, Vermont schools are focusing too much on academics at the expense of CTE

Here is what they say “must be given up” if we’re to “thrive”:

“Siloed curricular development and scheduling approach between general education and CTE, as well as relative over- emphasis in general education on academic preparation, at expense of career readiness and life navigation skills.”

I wonder if “life navigation skills” (LNS) will be the next hot term?

“Sorry, Mom, I can’t work on my homework.  I’m working on my Life Navigation Skills.”

“But you are playing Fortnite!”

“That’s right — I’m navigating life.”

But let’s step back.  Academic skills are — overemphasized?

Remember that “career readiness” is actually one-half of the phrase “college and career readiness” — which is really code for “the Common Core” — a huge, untested set of standards foisted on states like Vermont by the Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top.  It’s worth remembering that schools were forced to focus almost exclusively on basic academic skills precisely because of big, top-down federal mandates like Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, and the Every Students Succeeds Act — all of which required districts to drill down on basic math and English at the expense of arts, music, CTE, and yes, LNS.

So don’t hit us.  We were just doing what we were told.

9.  There would be a statewide teacher contract

Not to go unmentioned is this little tidbit, too, which Phil Scott has been dreaming about ever since he took office:  “Teachers would become state employees of the single statewide school district. There would be one teacher contract.”

As much as I don’t want that, I will say that there are three pay tiers in Vermont ed: 1) the small schools, which pay nothing, 2) Chittenden County and the rich schools like Stowe, which pay the most by far, and 3) everyone else.  I switched from category 1 to category 3 after my first year of teaching. I jumped up $11,000 — and was better supported and had fewer discipline problems. Small schools in poor towns can’t compete for the best staff. It’s a fact.

10.  It calls for statewide school choice

The biggest controversy around this proposal so far is around a relatively small part of the document:

“Students would have statewide school choice among all the public schools, technical centers, and non-sectarian independent schools approved by the Agency.” (Emphasis mine.)

Former Ed Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, who resigned her post last year after what I imagine were some pretty major differences with newly elected Governor Scott, wrote a scathing critique of this plan.  As always, she’s worth reading.  I had no idea that many Vermont private schools lack the ability to teach students with disabilities — while happily receiving public money.

And this document was written by a bunch of Republicans.  So school choice — not surprising.

11.  School choice is an “equity” issue

“Equity” is a hot word on the left right now, especially in education circles (and especially pertaining to race).  Of the two big conferences I’ve attended this fall, both were centered on equity.

Meanwhile it’s always fun to hear the left’s language co-opted by Republicans:

“[This plan] would also remove current disparities between students who, because of their district of residence, can exercise a choice about which school to attend, and those students who have only one school in which they can enroll free of charge. The current governance framework is arguably inequitable in this respect . . . ”

But that’s missing the point.  The inequity isn’t that some children have choice.  It’s that some children have good local schools while others don’t.  I have a feeling no one attending Stowe or CVU is saying, “Gee, I wish I had more school choice.”

12.  The report cites some misleading data on education spending

After citing declining enrollment, the proposal states:

“Unfortunately, Vermont’s education spending has not decreased at the same rate. According to the National Education Association, in the 2015-2016 school year Vermont’s per pupil expenditure was $23,557, or $2,000 more per pupil than New York who spent the second most. This compares to a national average of $11,787 per pupil.”

Yes — but no.

According to the 2015-2016 NEA report, Vermont did spend $23,557 per pupil, ranking us first in spending.  But actually not. The next year’s report revised that number down to $19,417, ranking us sixth.  Our 2016-2017 spending is down even more — to $19,399.

Why didn’t the report mention this?

(And Rebecca Holcombe suggests further reasons why these numbers are skewed, claiming that our per pupil spending is more like $18,000 a year.  Again, read her piece.)

13.  Vermont Schools should become brands and have PR campaigns

This is where the report really gets all Republican.  More from the file of “we should run schools like businesses.”

You see, even though this plan would strip local democratic influence and shutter local schools, the public would be more informed — thanks to the handy PR personnel these new mammoth districts would hire:

“Each education region or district would have one (or more) FTE position for a communications professional who reports directly to the superintendent. This person would be responsible for public and media relations, communications strategy, building communications policies, plans and best practices . . .”

Okay, okay, fine . . .

“ . . . and serving as an ombudsman for the region.”

Wait . . .  what?

Let me get this straight:  No more locally elected representatives, but at least you’ll have an regional ombudsman on your side?  (And he’s also the guy in charge of district PR?)

This whole idea sounds less like communication and more like good, old-fashioned marketing:

“In this way the communications team . . . in addition to serving the Agency of Education’s communications needs, would provide services to regions through a client relationship similar to a PR agency.”

It’s almost as though these Republicans are swapping community schools for quasi private ones:

“Regionalization of communications services . . .  would also give each region an opportunity to define their brand and build a public identity that new members of the region can get behind.”

Out with your silly local traditions, and in with regional brands!

“One can imagine the Champlain Valley schools, for example, building a brand identity and community spirit that is distinct from the North Country Regional Schools or Central Vermont School System.”

Yeah right.  I’m sure people in Thetford would feel a really shared sense of “community spirit” with the people of Rochester.  Go Central Vermont!

It’s a corporate approach.  Make up for gutting local traditions by peddling a corporate version of them.  There is nothing sadder to me that the way the 99 Restaurant in my town, having edged out Mom and Pop, covers their walls with pictures of local sports teams.  You’re not from here and you never were. You just want our money. Stop pretending.

14.  The Scott Plan is going to Make our Schools Great Again

Now this is where the report is really reaching.  Not only will we reduce costs, but our schools will become so great under the Scott Plan that outsiders will want to move to Vermont just for the schools:

“Finally, each of the advances under the new system . . .  could help sell the state as an ‘education destination’ focused on rigorous personalized education, equity in opportunity for all students, and strong ties between both academics and career readiness starting in the elementary grades.  A marketing campaign designed to draw in more young families and keep graduating college students within the state could be relatively simple to develop based on these novel features.”

So you’re telling me we’re going to cut spending on education, consolidate schools against the will of local communities, increase staff-student ratios, and slash the number of superintendents watching over districts . . .  and suddenly people will want to move here just for the schools?

Come on, it’s easy.  

Just take away local control, community schools, offer kids a choice between a school 60 minutes away or one 75 minutes away, jack up regional pride via some good PR, let local businesses set curriculum, sprinkle in some magical CTE  . . .

And sit back and watch young families flock to Vermont.

Good luck with that.

Notes on Early Stage Fatherhood

Here is what fatherhood is like with an infant.

A few weeks back, my younger brother, who is single, texted me.  It was Saturday night, he was sitting in a bar in Harvard Square, waiting on a date, sipping a cocktail.

I texted him back:

“I just pushed James around the kitchen for 20 minutes in his stroller while running the vacuum cleaner because this all stops him from screaming.”

The parents of an infant are basically high class hostages.  Except our captor wears hats with rabbit ears and is incapable of using the toilet.

His main tool of oppression is the scream.  To someone used to the smooth tones of rational disagreement — or even the sarcastic repartee of teenagers — a true scream is surprisingly jarring.  These are not muffled sobs at a funeral, the raised voice of the spousal reprimand. This is someone terrified of being killed. My son sounds like Jack Woltz in “The Godfather” waking up next to a severed horse’s head:  “Ahhh! Ahhhhhhhhhh!” Listening from another room, you’d think his mother and I were trying to pry out his spleen using pliers (while forcing him to listen to Celine Dion). When in fact we’re just trying to dress him in an adorable outfit.

Isn’t it odd that infants are born screaming like banshees but cannot laugh or smile for months?  What does that say about humanity? Does that somehow explain Fox News?

If the scream’s not enough, he’ll take it to the next level. Parents quickly realize that those medieval torturers and Dick Cheney apologists had it right: Sleep deprivation works.  A week into fatherhood, I felt like I’d spent a month in Guantanamo: “I’ll confess! Anything!”

But the tyrant doesn’t make his demands clear.  That’s part of his genius: he keeps you guessing.  Sometimes, he wants to be fed. Other times, he no longer does — but wants to make the point that you missed your window. You just don’t know.

He’ll even manipulate you with good behavior.  The first few nights, my wife and I alternated between bleary-eyed incoherence when our son couldn’t sleep, and a strange anxiety when he could.  We’d had the fear of god put in us about SIDS. So after we hadn’t heard a peep from him for hours, we became convinced he was no longer breathing.

“James, wake up! Wake up!”

When he woke up and started screaming again, it was almost a relief.

But it’s not easy to get to that point. Getting your baby to quiet down is sort of like brokering international peace.  It takes a long time, and you have to be prepared try everything. Pushing the stroller while running the vacuum — who knew?

But it’s a fragile peace.  Your new overlord is vigilant. The other day, after 20 minutes of rather exhausting rocking, I’d finally gotten my son to sleep. Then — the arrogance of it! — I paused to scratch my chin. That was it. Game over! Back to Square One. Enjoy twenty more minutes of high pitched howls. Maybe next time you’ll learn, Dad?

Babies get lots of books. But I have a feeling no one’s still going to be giving him books when he’s ten or fifteen.  Why is that? Do we only believe reading is possible in that slim margin of time before kids discover phones and Fortnite?  Are we saying, “Eh, just get him through ‘Pat the Bunny’ and then hope for the best. That’s about all our president can do, anyway”?

Living with an infant requires a comfort with bodily fluids that can take some adjustment.  You’ve got to be prepared to get peed on, vomited on, and drooled all over. It’s like living in a frat house, except without the comfort of alcohol.

Infants are terrified of not being able to eat immediately.  See, they’re not capable of learning anything until they’re four months old, so every time they’re hungry, they don’t remember they’ve got two full-grown slaves waiting at their beck and call.  My son seems to require the reassurance of sleeping right on top of his food source, which happens to be my wife. That’d be like if I couldn’t bear to sleep more than a few inches from a t-bone steak and a pint of beer.  

Come to think of it, that’s sort of what you need to do as the father of an infant if you want to guarantee you get a full meal.

I can’t help thinking how strange it is that infants are actually incapable of learning.  That’s so weird — but then again, he’ll re-enter that state between the ages of 16-21. I’m hoping in between we can jam a few things in.

What redeems all of this of course is the notion that someday he’ll choose a lucrative career and buy his parents a sprawling beach house and / or multi-story yacht.

That and how cute he is on a minute-by-minute basis.

The Trump Plan Actually Makes a lot of Sense for Education

The Trump Plan for Education Makes a lot of Sense

Whenever I hear people say, “education hasn’t changed in 100 years,” I’m always amused.  These people have no idea how many truly fascinating and innovative reforms have come and gone, and come and gone — all long before you or I were even born.  

Take one initiative which at its height affected 15% of the schools in the country.  It was called the Trump Plan.

No, not Donald Trump.  J. Lloyd Trump.

Back in the late 1950s — right around the time The Donald was collecting his first million (courtesy of the savings bonds his father had prepared for him) — Dr. J. Lloyd Trump was a professor of education at the University of Illinois.  He was also a member of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In the late 1950s, they developed a committee called the Commision on the Experimental Study of the Utilization of the Staff in the Secondary School in response to a nagging problem facing public schools.

People always look back at the 1950s as some idyllic time in American public education, but if you go back and read the history, you realize that 1950s-era schools still struggled with the same intractable, inherent issues we puzzle over now.  

Like teacher shortages.

Here’s J. Lloyd Trump, writing in the early 1960s:

“The changes urged in this report result from studies which themselves grew out of the search for solution to a nationwide problem: how to improve education despite an acute shortage of teachers.  In 1955, a year before the studies began, 45,000 more teachers than were readily available were needed in high schools.”

Look at that.

The problem was so bad that the Association of Secondary School Principals established the Commision in 1956.  They spent four years of studying new ideas from “nearly 100 junior and senior high schools across the United States.” All of this was bankrolled by the Fund for the Advancement of Education and The Ford Foundation.  

“The World faces a simple fact,” Trump writes plainly.  “It may not long survive as we know it.”

“The practical question is” Are the schools ready for the job?  There is considerable reason to say they are not.”

Trump calls the Commission’s findings no less than “the story of the coming of a new kind of secondary education in America” in response to “a complex of problems which have never been experienced, collectively, before.”

So what were their ideas?  What was the Trump Plan?


In 1959, during the study, Trump wrote a hugely influential booklet — it wasn’t very long — called Images of the Future.  Its ideas became known as the Trump Plan.  Here are its opening words:

“The secondary school of the future will not have standard classes of 25 to 35 students meeting five days a week on inflexible schedules.  Both the size of the groups and lengths of classes will vary from day to day. Methods of teaching, student groups, and teacher and pupil activities will adjust to the purposes and content of instruction.”

Reading these words from 1959, I was struck by how modern they sound.  Of course, Trump was wrong about the schools of the future — they do have standard classes and inflexible schedules.  But it was surprising to read such a radical idea being proposed so long ago during an era we think of as stodgy, homogeneous, and traditional.

The Trump Plan was anything but traditional.  


Flexible Class Sizes and Meeting Times

Trump’s whole idea is that learning should happen in three different settings in high schools: large-group lectures, small group discussions, and individual study.  Let’s say you’re taking American Lit junior year. Sometimes you’ll meet in a huge group — like 100 or even 200 students — all the American Lit students in the same grade, together — to hear lectures.  Other times, you’ll be in groups of 15, discussing ideas. Still other times — a lot, by our current standards — you’ll be off on your own working during the school day. The big lectures, the discussion groups — it sounds a lot like college.  But it doesn’t stop there.

Not only should class size be flexible, but so should the weekly schedule.  Trump proposed dividing up the school day into short (30 minute) modules (“mods”) of time.  That allows the same class to meet for different lengths of time per week. For example, English class might meet for 30 minutes on Monday for a big introductory lecture, but then for 90 minutes later in the week, for a long extended period of writing time.  

Both of these ideas make a lot of sense on paper.  For example, Trump defends his large-group lecture idea by reasoning that it’s a waste of time and money for two teachers to give the same lecture to five groups of twenty students.  Instead, pool their kids and give one lecture to 200 students at once if you have the space. Same goes for his idea (and here’s where it feels really modern for those of us in Vermont) that time should be a variable.  Trump believes that scheduling classes should be flexible — where and when the large groups and small groups meet should be up to the discretion of the instructor. Again, this makes a lot of sense. Why should classes always last for the same amount of time?  We are so trained as teachers to fill the time we’re given — instead of teaching for the amount of time we need.

That’s a big, big difference.


The Four Kinds of Teachers

Trump doesn’t stop there.  Because this report is really about using staff more effectively, he drives deeper, proposing a new, four-tier model of a teaching force — one that looks much more like a hospital’s than a traditional school’s:

Regular teachers:  Trump advises two different levels here: teacher specialists and general teachers.  The general teachers only help with discussion sections and aren’t always full-time.

(This is interesting — the notion of two different levels of teachers.  Sort of like the distinction in some districts with “Master Teachers.”)

Instructional Assistants:  These people grade assignments, set up labs, confer with students about progress, provide the teachers with reports, and generally do what Trump calls, “aspects below the professional level of teachers.”

(This category sounds a lot like nurses, compared to doctors.)

Clerks:  These people make photocopies, grade objective tests, “keep records” (one imagines they could update gradebooks these days . . . ), take attendance (oh, god, please do!) and “other clerical duties.”

(Wait, teachers could have secretaries?)

General Aides:  These folks supervise students while they’re at school — during independent study, in the cafeteria, etc.

(This is the age-old complaint of every teacher who has to sacrifice an hour a week to supervise lunch duty: “Can’t we just pay someone to do this?”)


Once again, this section makes a lot of sense.  Can you imagine if teachers had someone to grade their papers for them?  I remember years ago reading off-handedly that the famous math teacher Jaime Escalante (he of “Stand and Deliver” fame) hired a grader out of his own money in order to free up time to prepare lessons.  Can you imagine — someone to grade our work for us?

I wonder:  Would teachers want this?

Sure, it would remove our biggest time burden, the part of teaching most of us hate the most.  But would it rob us of our familiarity with individual student learning trends?

(Well, not if these same assistants would be writing up reports for us to read about student progress, right?)

And can you imagine if we had someone to enter our grades for us?  It’s no secret that Proficiency Grading requires us to double and sometimes triple report — a huge tie-up of time for teachers.  If we could outsource this work to data entry managers, wouldn’t this save us tremendous time and annoyance?


The Trump Plan was amazingly influential.  By the early 1970s, fully 15% of American schools were using some variable — particularly the flexible schedule, which was termed the “flex mod.”

Of course none of these changes lasted.

By the late 1970s, the flex-mod schedule had almost vanished from U.S. schools.  So had any other vestiges of the Trump Plan. The problem of course was that the Trump Plan, while innovative and daring, in many ways represented the height of technocratic disconnection.  It looked great on paper, but out the real world, it fell apart.

I mean, how do think it went having 100 9th graders sitting in a room together listening to a lecture?  I’m going to go with, “A complete and utter disaster.”

Same goes for the flexible schedule idea, which sounds like a total logistical nightmare.  Our students struggle to remember what day it is (and sometimes, after a week with teenagers, I do too).  Inflexible schedules exist for a reason — they’re predictable. And when you’re dealing with crowds of moody adolescents, some small measure of predictability is, you know, kind of a good thing.

And what about the different levels of teachers?  

This never got off the ground.  Basic opposition comes from both sides.  The anti-teacher side says, “Teachers are menial workers anyway and don’t deserve secretaries.” This is a strain of thinking that fundamentally does not see teachers as professionals.

The other side, the pro-teacher camp, says, “This is just J. Lloyd Trump trying to deal with a teacher shortage by putting a bunch of less qualified people into our schools.  We need to circle ranks and make sure only certified teachers are in front of kids.”

For my part, I think that having too many cooks in the kitchen can be more trouble than it’s worth.  Imagine the discrepancies when you’ve got a major assignment given by a teacher that’s then graded by someone different, and possibly less familiar with the content and requirements.  And then a third person entering the grades? Sounds like it’s probably just quicker to do it myself.


The flex-mod schedule soon enough gave way to the Reagan Revolution and A Nation at Risk, which spawned a whole new “back-to-basics” era — more core classes, a return to traditional schedules, and a call for more teacher certification requirements.  By the 1990s, schools were experimenting with block schedules — a way for teachers to use time more flexibly within traditional classes, thanks to longer periods of time — while maintaining the predictability of a traditional bell schedule. Today, most schools in New England employ some form of this plan.

Still, the ideals of the Trump Plan live on in education today, albeit in much humbler forms.  I see echoes of it in the concepts of “flexible groupings” within whole classes. I see it in the advent of the “workshop model” in English teaching — with its division of class time into whole group mini-lessons, small group discussions among students, and independent work time — all divided up into small “modules” of time during a longer (70-90-minute) period of class time.  

This is the way of bold new innovations in education.  They burn brightly for a time, then seem to die out — only to be absorbed into the existing system, refined by busy educators eager to cull what works and apply it to what they’re already doing.  They rarely change the existing structure of the system, but modify it and enrich it in small but often meaningful ways.

That’s why, the next time that someone says education hasn’t changed in 100 years, you can just ask, “What about the Trump Plan”?

What kind of schedule does proficiency learning demand?

With the advent of Act 77 one question that many Vermont schools are asking themselves is: what type of schedule best supports proficiency learning?

Proficiency learning, after all, rids schools of seat time requirements, replacing them instead with simple, bottom-line subject area proficiency requirements.  The familiar phrase under this new system is, “Learning is the constant and time is a variable.” This surely implies that our daily school schedules must change — perhaps radically.  Yet few Vermont schools have actually changed their schedules. Nor have many schools in the other states that have tossed seat time requirements: Maine or New Hampshire. There are two classic high school schedules, and most schools in New England retain some version of one or the other: either a traditional, 7- or 8-period, 46-55 minute-long classes, or 65-90 minute-long, four period “block” schedules.

I must admit, up until this year, when, as part of my fellowship, I stepped up to co-chair the committee tasked with overhauling the schedule, I knew next to nothing about the subject.  Since we started meeting a month ago, I’ve gone straight down the rabbit hole of scheduling research, spending my time poring over old books, journal articles, and other schools’ schedules. What has surprised me most has been how fascinating it’s all been. I think that this is the mark that you have chosen the right profession: when you actually enjoy learning about the esoteric details, the nitty-gritty of whatever it is you’re doing. A kayak coach I knew once called this true enjoyment, “fascination with the process.”

What’s most interesting is that I finally feel as though I’m understanding the structures that have shaped my daily work for so many years without my knowing it. It’s like when you become a parent yourself and your own parents begin to explain their own parenting decisions — the philosophies and expectations that invisibly but powerfully shaped your own upbringing. Suddenly you’re on their level. I had no idea the debates that have been raging for generations about the use of time in schools. Now, finally, I’m starting to understand the limits I’ve been operating under for so many years in the several schedules I’ve been part of. It’s tremendously liberating. 

A year ago, when I was applying for my current fellowship, an interviewer asked me if my school had a “block schedule” and I stumbled over my words because I did not know what this was.  In fact, I even struggled to remember precisely how long our daily periods were. Now, almost a year later, through educating myself, I have become almost fluent in the foreign language of school schedules.  When I look at a school’s day, I can almost immediately divine exactly what is going on, what is being prioritized and what is not, and speak with the cut-to-the-chase jargon of a car mechanic speaking about cars or an accountant speaking about finances: “Oh, that’s a skinny Monday set up with an A/B block the rest of the week and an alternating thirty-minute intervention / advisory after lunch.”

I have learned the fascinating political history behind school schedules too.  The traditional, factory-model schedules of the mid-20th Century soon gave way to more experimental flexible schedules of the 1960s and 70s, before returning to traditional in the wake of the post-”A National at Risk” 1980s, and then morphing into block schedules during the 1990s and 2000s.  

But where does that leave us today with proficiency learning?


The notion of time being a variable implies a flexible schedule.  The elephant in the room is this: It might be very well possible to graduate in two years instead of four.  Or it may mean that other students, who might have snuck across the graduation stage simply on their daily compliance and work habits, will be newly exposed, taking five years instead of four to solidify truly proficient skills.  We’re not, in a basic sense, sure exactly what will happen. But we do have a feeling that we’re going to need something different in our schedule, something that more honestly reflects the flexibility the system demands.

What sort of schedule do we need?

One school of thought, perhaps the most radical, says that now is the time to “blow up” the traditional grammar of school — not only the traditional daily use of time, but the yearly use of time (semesters) and the division of traditional subjects in various separate classes.  Proponents of this approach are often interested in models like the one used by Colorado College. Here students take just one class at a time, for four to six weeks, all day, every day. Then they have a few days off, before starting another. The classes are project-based, interdisciplinary (team taught by several teachers), with work done in teams, often outdoors or at least outside of a traditional classroom.  “Intensives” they’re sometimes called.

Advocates of this approach feel that true proficiency learning is multi-disciplinary, student-centered, and project-based.  Behind their reasoning, I believe are several ideas:

1.  Proficiency learning prioritizes skills over content.  Instead of requiring students to be able to name the historical eras of American history, they must be able to solve problems and to communicate.  Content’s taught in a classroom, but skills — especially the sort of “real world” skills proficiency aims at — are best taught outside in the “real world.”

2.  Going along with that, proficiency learning is biased toward doing, rather than knowing.  It’s designed to measure the performable (“performance indicators”), the demonstratable.  Think of it as the part of your driving test where you actually have to drive.

3.  Because there are now flexible pathways to pursue learning, students should be allowed to roam free from traditional curriculum to demonstrate proficiencies in new ways.  Not just some students but all students should be able to do this say advocates.

On the other side of the spectrum, the most traditional thinkers believe that a school’s schedule should stay largely the way it is, with one exception: it should allow for periods of flexible time (“flex time”) to reperform, to reteach, to personalize instruction as demanded by proficiency learning.  Advocates of this approach generally prefer one of two ideas: either a daily period of flexible time for students to meet with teachers, or a weekly “flex day” allowing for the same, in longer blocks.

Behind this reasoning, I believe are several different ideas:

1.  Owing to a variety of administrative and logistical realities, classes themselves should not attempt to be variable lengths of time.

2.  Student-led teaching, project-based learning, and other pedagogies implied in proficiency learning are very possible to conduct well within a traditional classroom setting, and in fact should be taught here, owing to the above-mentioned variables and realities of running a large school.

A number of schools in New England already incorporate 30-minute flexible daily periods (often called “Callback” or “Flex Block” when students can check in with teachers) — with varying success.  A few schools already employ flex days, during which students can work on remediation or enrichment or proficiency based project learning. (One influential model seems to be the one coming out of Baxter Academy in Portland, Maine’s first charter school, called Flex Friday, during which students work on “student-managed, long-term projects that are relevant to each student’s interests and goals.”)

A final idea about how to divide time comes from proponents of something in the middle of the previous two approaches.  These advocates promote a schedule in which the length and frequency of classes themselves are flexible from day to day or week to week.  There are two ways of doing this:

1.  The “team” model — in which four or five content teachers teach on a team together and are thereby free to combine together for projects or to set the schedule flexibly depending on what each class is doing.  This approach, while popular in many middle school models (often called the “core” model) tends to only work in high school for freshmen, owing to the number of electives and tracked classes.

2.  The flexible schedule, which was tried extensively in the United States in the 1960s, often called a modular schedule, or a flex-mod schedule.  In this set-up, the day is divided into short 30-minute “modules” and each class can elect how much time it needs weekly: 30 minutes, 60 minutes, or 90 minutes.  

The flex-mod was no joke.  By the early 1970s, it had been adopted by as high as 15% of all American high schools.  But ten years later, it was almost gone, largely due to several questions that lurk behind any such flexible use of time:  

1.  To what extent can students, particularly less academically motivated students, handle unstructured free time during the class day?  

One of the reasons cited in the article above for dropping the flex-mod was student “abuse of time.” And one of the big questions of the flex-mod was how to supervise large numbers of students in order to free up teachers to meet individually with small groups or with individual students.  Do you let them roam the halls? Put them in study halls in the library? Supervised by whom?

Most adults I know, for example, struggle to be productive during their free time.  Yes, we may tell ourselves that if we only presented more interesting lessons and projects to students they would use their time well, but again, even adults shirk their responsibilities in favor of time-wasting diversions, and many of us, I believe, deep down crave some kind of deadlines and “supervision” to force us to get down to business during the work day.

2.  How many logistics can you make teachers responsible for before they get burned out?  

Most teachers I believe, and I surely count myself in this, are fairly amenable to the time constraints we’re given.  I’ve taught in 45 minute blocks, and I’ve taught in 90 minute blocks. I can make it work. But the idea that teachers will be responsible for crafting lessons fitting into different blocks of time each week, I believe, is to hand already busy teachers another logistic that they don’t need.

This gets to the larger point as well: managing 800 teenagers and 65 staff in a single building requires some level of predictability and organization.  We beat up on schools for batch-processing, for being too regimented, but the fact remains that schools require some level of structure and supervision.

In the end, I don’t think anyone has the answers about what the new proficiency system will require in our use of time during the school day.  But it remains an exciting time in Vermont to explore fundamental questions that have captivated the minds of educators for many generations. I never thought I myself would become so captivated by something so seemingly pedestrian as scheduling.  But we value what we give time to — and so far from being a dry study of minutes and hours, scheduling is truly our utmost expression of philosophy and values.