Holcombe Defends Vt. Schools

Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe speaks with state Sen. Donald  Collins, D- Franklin, at the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Jan. 17, 2014. Holcombe was at the Statehouse to speak about adult learning. 
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe speaks with state Sen. Donald Collins, D- Franklin, at the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Jan. 17, 2014. Holcombe was at the Statehouse to speak about adult learning. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

Virtually every public school in Vermont has been labeled as “low-performing” under the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act, and the state’s secretary of education is outraged.

But Rebecca Holcombe is not angry about the seemingly poor performance of her state’s schools. Rather, she takes umbrage at an evaluation process she thinks is seriously flawed and is doing little to actually improve education.

“The Vermont Agency of Education does not agree with this federal policy, nor do we agree that all of our schools are low performing,” Holcombe, a Norwich resident, wrote in an Aug. 6 letter to parents. “This policy does not serve the interest of Vermont schools, nor does it advance our economic or social well-being. Further, it takes our focus away from other measures that give us more meaningful and useful data on school effectiveness.”

Under No Child Left Behind, schools are required to report their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) based on standardized tests taken by students in grades three through eight and in one high school grade. The test measures student performance in mathematics and English language arts.

In 2014, the standards for AYP in Vermont were raised to 100 percent — in other words, if even one student at a school does not score as proficient on the standardized test, the school will be designated as a low-performing school. There were 19 schools in Vermont that pioneered a new standardized test, and so the low-performing designation did not apply to them, but 290 of Vermont’s schools now face federal sanctions because of their “low-performing” designation.

Most states avoided Vermont’s situation by applying to the federal government for a waiver. Those states did not have to achieve the 100 percent proficiency standard, but in return agreed to implement a system of teacher evaluation based on student performance on standardized tests.

But Holcombe thinks the waiver would have required a bad trade-off for a state such as Vermont.

“When we look at the research, we see things that make us worry,” Holcombe said in an interview. “Standardized tests don’t predict teacher performance well for smaller classrooms. We think that’s 40 to 50 percent of our classrooms. In any given year, if we use these models, there would be a high probability that we would be misidentifying teachers as effective or ineffective.”

Holcombe’s letter reiterated Vermont’s commitment to improving education, especially for families living in poverty. She invited parents to be more engaged with their children’s schools and to be aware of how their children are learning. Holcombe also promised to use state resources to improve schools and make them more effective.

New Hampshire, on the other hand, has applied for the waiver. Mark Joyce, director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, said his organization supported the state Department of Education applying for the waiver.

“We have more than three times the student enrollment that Vermont does,” Joyce said. “What’s unique about New Hampshire’s model is that it requires that student performance be considered as only 20 percent of the total teacher evaluation. It also doesn’t specify a specific test, which gives local schools more autonomy.”

Joyce added that teachers are evaluated only at schools that have not achieved adequate yearly progress, which is only a small percentage of the schools in New Hampshire.

Many Vermont educators are applauding Holcombe for her outspoken and public denunciation of the latest application of the No Child Left Behind law. Bruce Labs, superintendent of the Orange Windsor Supervisory Union, said that Holcombe hit the nail right on the head.

“Vermont’s doing a lot better than most states as far as raising the performance of its students,” Labs said. “She’s pretty clear in saying that we can do better, but it’s not through blame and shame.”

Labs acknowledged that No Child Left Behind has been a useful tool in improving schools.

“I don’t want anybody to think that No Child Left Behind has been wrong from the beginning,” Labs said. “We are looking at data, looking at our standards and children and helping them get better. But to think that every student in every school in Vermont is low performing is not realistic.”

However much Vermont’s educators may disagree with the No Child Left Behind policy, they will follow the letter of the law. Rick Dustin-Eichler, principal of Dothan Brook School in Hartford, said that while the sanctions against low-performing schools aren’t stringent, they can be burdensome.

“There are steps that the schools need to take depending on how long they’ve been not meeting AYP targets,” he said. “They include guidelines around how we need to be using our parent notification, developing school improvement plans and using a certain percentage of your money for development in certain areas.”

John McClaughry is vice-president at the conservative-leaning Ethan Allen Institute. He thinks that No Child Left Behind has not helped to save public schools, and that the only thing that would improve education would be a free-market system. He says all students should be given vouchers, and that families should have the freedom to determine where their child will attend school.

“I don’t think there’s any systemic reform that will satisfactorily improve, by any measurement, the public school system here or anywhere else,” McClaughry said. “The only answer is to go outside the box and give responsibility to parents. Let the providers compete, and let the parents choose. And the providers that fail will disappear.”

Keri Gelenian, principal at the multi-town Rivendell Academy, questions whether the standardized tests required by No Child Left Behind can accurately measure a student’s performance and growth.

“A test given on one day of a student’s year — is that really an adequate way of capturing what students have learned, what they can do?” he asked. “They rarely capture a student’s ability to think. We have kids who test below proficient in some areas, and I know that they’re some of our strongest students. But because of the testing conditions, or how they were feeling that day, they did poorly.”

Holcombe said that the education department would help schools submit improvement plans, as required by No Child Left Behind. But she and other educators think that Vermont should be focusing on other educational opportunities and assessing students holistically.

Dustin-Eichler thinks there are better ways to measure student progress than Adequate Yearly Performance.

“It’s one dimensional,” he said. “It’s only based on one assessment.”

Labs agrees. He says that the techniques for measuring student performance have come a long way since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001.

“We need to have data systems in place to measure students,” Labs said. “The tools to measure student performance are so much better now. We have personalized learning plans and assessments to pinpoint students levels of achievement. It’s much more sophisticated than it used to be.”

Holcombe also questions if No Child Left Behind and AYP take into account the educational needs of a 21st century child.

“We also want kids to be literate and capable around scientific inquiry. We want kids to have citizenship skills and we want to teach kids 21st-century transferable skills,” Holcombe said. “We need to think more broadly about what it means to educate kids for civic life.

“This law doesn’t account adequately for differences outside of school that might make it harder for kids to learn. More and more children are living in poverty and struggling with the challenges that places on them.”

At the end of the Aug. 6 letter, Holcombe calls on parents and educators to help collect information about student learning and use that information to develop personalized plans for each student — “to work together to build great schools that prepare our children to be productive citizens and contributors to our society.”

Dustin-Eichler said he was encouraged by the gist of Holcombe’s message.

“Secretary Holcombe is asking a lot of these questions and starting to look at alternative models,” he said. “I feel pretty good about the direction that our state leadership is trying to move us in.”

Lauren Bender can be reached at lbender@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.