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School petition seeks change on micro level in macro world

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Posted on September 24, 2009 |
By Angelo Lynn



A petition circulating throughout the UD-3 school district is imploring the Middlebury Union High School administration, board and teachers to “adopt a culture of excellence mandated at the highest administrative levels.” The petition has been greeted with enthusiasm by the board and administration, though early responses suggest that restricted finances will hamper how much can be done to effect changes on test scores that petitioners say are too low.
Certainly, current test scores validate the need for change.

According to an addendum to the petition, student performance in the ACSU district drops significantly from elementary school to middle school to high school. (See story on Page 1A.) An example are the test scores in science: In 4th grade, 61 percent of ACSU students meet the standard on testing, compared to just 41 percent at grade 8 and 33 percent in grade 11. In writing tests, 65 percent of ACSU students in grade 5 scored “proficient” or “highly proficient.” Test scores dropped to 57 percent in grade 8 and 46 percent for students in grade 11.

While the performance of ACSU high school students bested the state average, the drop in performance between elementary and high school is alarming and suggests a failure to achieve even the most modest of goals. Parents, teachers, administrators and students should note that another way of reading the statistics is by saying that 67 percent of juniors at MUHS fell below the standards of competency in science, while 54 percent of juniors at MUHS were not proficient in writing skills.

That’s dreadful.

What’s hopeful is that the board and administration are welcoming the petition as an opportunity to focus on academics, rather than other policy issues (like cutting sports teams, school discipline issues and other non-academic conundrums) that too often dominate the school’s time and attention. “I’m delighted that parents are getting involved in academic excellence in their schools,” said board chairman Tom Beyer. “We certainly greet them with great enthusiasm.”

Nor is the petition accusatory. “There is no reason for the teachers to be defensive,” said Michele Hernandez, one of the petitioners. “We don’t want anyone to feel under attack. We are just saying we have to evaluate ourselves to make changes.”

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While the petition mirrors a growing concern in Vermont — and across the nation — that American students our falling behind because of an educational system that hasn’t kept pace with the increased competition in a global economy, we worry the petition focuses too much on micro issues (low test scores and too few AP classes) and not enough on the macro issues the nation’s educational system faces.

We understand the concern of parents is personal: they are worried their children will not be able to compete in tomorrow’s job market and they want their school districts to provide the best education possible. But let’s also look at some of the larger, underlying issues.

When comparing what we ask of American students to other developed countries’ demands, for example, two noticeable differences are striking: the length of the school day and the length of the school year.

In Japan, for example, the school year is significantly longer (240 days per year), as is the school day (about eight hours.) In Germany, schools in year-around programs also attend up to 240 days a year with full eight-hour days, while students in Singapore attend year-round schools for 280 days per year. The average for European nations is 195 days of school with a longer day, while the average for East Asian countries is 208 days per year, also with a longer day.

On average, U.S. students attend school 6.5 hours a day for just 180 days a year. That’s more than a 30 percent difference with Japan. Can anyone doubt that a student attending class 30 percent more in a given year (let alone over 12 years) has a better chance of learning more?
Teachers’ unions wanting higher pay for longer hours and conservatives unwilling to spend more money on education, will argue that increased time in class doesn’t necessarily translate to better test scores, but common sense suggests that’s more of a political argument than a factual one. A more realistic argument centers on potential additional costs.

But before rejecting the idea as too radical, residents might contemplate obvious benefits: a longer school day allows for renewed interests in outdoor recess periods (morning and afternoon) where exercise and fitness are promoted (an obvious health benefit); a longer day allows parents to attend work with much less dependence (and cost) on child care and leaving older kids home alone (social service workers suggest a longer school day would solve a number of problems with teen-age students who are not now involved in extra-curricular activities — potentially preventing expenses in the criminal justice system); a longer school year also eliminates a chronic problem with America’s school system — our long summer vacation is faulted for having to re-teach subjects to students each fall (vacations could be broken up into two or three shorter chunks of time as they do in other industrialized countries); nor are summer jobs for teens all that common in today’s economy.

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We applaud the efforts of the petitioners “to adopt a culture of excellence” at MUHS, and we laud the initial reaction by the school board and administrative officials. And while we encourage the dialogue that will be discussed at these initial meetings — around current test scores and how to improve them — we hope the scope of the discussion will be expanded to include ways to substantially renew this state’s educational system. We need to focus on whether the school system allows our educators to adequately prepare students to compete in a global marketplace in a knowledge-based economy. Is it up to the task or is it falling short? And if it is falling short, are we willing to seek a sea change in scope and operations?

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