Reflections on my own public education

My mother recently asked for my opinion of the education I received in Vermont public schools. My elementary and middle school (K-8 in one building) focused on creative thinking, independent projects, student-directed learning, interdisciplinary lessons, and academic-level based classes for math and reading. My high school featured small learning communities for freshman, block scheduling, daily advisories, numerous AP and honors courses, and a required community-based senior project. All strategies that I now advocate for in my professional life.

While I think I received a great education, I now recognize that all of my classmates did not receive the same quality education. As a high school student, I didn’t realize how much tracking was used  until I took a non-tracked creative writing class my senior year. A few of us rarely attended class, as we did our homework (at home); the rest of the class used the class periods to do their homework. I wonder how many of those students had potential that should have been cultivated earlier on? What was the process for selecting students for tracking?

My K-8 school provided me with a number of useful life-long skills, including the ability to debate, the ability to lead, the desire to learn and to think outside of the box. But, the school was so focused on instilling a team structure (4 classrooms with one teacher from each content area) and self-directed learning that I never learned how to take a test. While I performed well on the state standardized tests, I dreaded the SATs, ACTs and the GREs.

I agree that the lifelong skills listed above are more important than learning how to fill in a bubble test, but until all states have aligned learning standards, colleges and universities will continue to use standardized tests (and rightly so) and students need to know how to take those tests. In the long-run, I am glad that I can determine and defend an opinion, but the memories of taking any standardized test still haunt me. Is it possible to find a better balance between both types of learning? And, for a student who received a slightly alternative public education – did standardize tests really predict my performance in college, graduate school, and beyond?

I should also note that despite the strong overall education I received (and some truly fabulous teachers), there were more than a handful of teachers who needed a great deal of help or who should not have been teaching. Even good strong school systems have weak teachers who need stronger professional development, coaching, content knowledge, and in some cases they should be removed from the classroom.

After this conversation with my mother, I wanted to know which Vermont schools receive School Improvement Grand funds. While some of the schools/districts were as I expected, I was shocked to learn that my K-8 is a Tier III SIG school. After further investigation, I discovered that while overall student performance is strong (75-80% proficiency), the performance of students with low Socio-Economic Status drops to 40-50% in both reading and math. The district “owns” the data and realizes that changes are necessary. But, their plan for the SIG funds lacks any real systemic or process changes. The district proposes additional training and coaches, yet does not address creating a better triage or early warning system for students (especially those with low-SES).

Even strong education systems have room to improve. This case also demonstrates why subgroup analysis is so important. On the surface, my old school may be doing well, but when you break down the subgroups, the school is not meeting the needs of a large percentage of the students. Student needs were not met at the elementary and middle school levels, so it’s not surprising that students entered high school with varying academic levels and were then tracked for the rest of their public school careers.

 

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