Saturday, March 10, 2012

What can Mt. Lebanon learn from school superintendents in Connecticut?

Via the Dangerously Irrelevant blog, I learned that Connecticut's school superintendents (CAPSS) have put forth a controversial plan to reform their public school system. From the plan’s introduction:
The public school system is not meeting the expectation that all children will learn what they need to know ... to lead decent and productive lives. The major reason for this is that today’s public schools are not designed to enable universal student success. Instead, they are still based on the mid-19th-century expectation of supplying universal access.... CAPSS and its members are excited about the opportunity to help transform the public school system to ensure that it better meets the needs of children well into the 21st century.
Unlike many plans to “fix” public education that we hear about in Mt. Lebanon, this one seems different in two ways. First, its authors seem unafraid to go after real problems, even if solving those problems is likely to shake up the current public education system and its politically powerful beneficiaries. Second, the plan embraces some things that our local school leaders suggest we ought to fear.

School choice, for example. The Connecticut superintendents see choice not as something to be feared but as something essential to offering a better education. They want families within a school district to have more of it, not less:
Needed Action: Allow students and their parents to choose from a menu of options, including magnet schools, charter schools, and vocational-technical schools as well as different schedules and curriculums, all within the jurisdiction of the local district.
And they challenge a lot of other educational sacred cows, too. Here’s how they contrast the status quo with their proposed recommendations:

Note that final row. In Connecticut, they seem to understand that modern information and computing technologies are not just improving but transforming the ways that learning happens. In the 21st century, education is becoming less about moving students to and from a centralized learning factory and more about letting students learn anytime, anywhere. (And, if you think a fancy new high school is an important part of meeting the challenges of our educational tomorrow, read the report. Bricks and mortar are hardly mentioned.)

If you’re at all interested in public education, the full report is worth reading. It’s certainly got its flaws – among them the apparent need to engage readers with contrived student vignettes and an over-abundance of warm-and-fuzzy photographs – but overall it’s a refreshingly honest look at the problems with public education in many of our United States.

And it offers one more thing: a sign that there are some people in public education who are willing to tackle those problems head on. In Connecticut, at least.

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Anonymous Richard Gideon said...

While I'm very glad to read about Connecticut's CAPSS plan, allow me to point out that the party has already started. According to Reason Magazine's Katherine Mangu-Ward (6 July 2011), "Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma have created or expanded tuition tax credit programs. North Carolina and Tennessee eliminated caps on the number of charter schools. Maine passed its first charter law. Colorado created a voucher program in Douglas County that will provide scholarships for private schools. In Utah, lawmakers passed the Statewide Online Education Program, which allows high school students to access course work on the Internet from public or private schools anywhere in the state. School choice proponents may have had their biggest success in Indiana, where Republican Governor Mitch Daniels signed legislation that removes the charter cap, allows all universities to be charter authorizers, and creates a voucher program that enables about half the state's students to attend public or private schools." Andrew Campanella, Vice President of National School Choice Week, calls the current public schools system " adult jobs program.." spoke with Campanella recently, and you may view a short interview at

While Mt. Lebanon schools may not have the kinds of scholastic problems that plague some districts, they do have money issues (as we will all soon find out), and despite what they say their entire system seems to be based on the John Dewey / Edward Bellamy model of education.

A gigantic shift in education is coming; one that will overcome the "government school" mentality of the MLSD - despite expensive new buildings and great athletic fields.

March 10, 2012 6:18 PM  
Anonymous Richard Gideon said...

Amongst the interesting points raised in Connecticut's CAPSS plan is its commitment to "Provide students and their parents with a menu of options, including magnet schools, charter schools and vocational-technical schools as well as different schedules and curriculums." This is good news for students wishing to pursue education and training apart from a four-year college program, although in Connecticut "vo-tech" does not seem to have the stigma that it has here in Pennsylvania. (Ironically, Connecticut's governor has made several elitist remarks condemning vo-tech education, saying "Connecticut has enough hair dressers.") As it is, Connecticut's vocational-technical schools are no longer places to warehouse unruly students or kids with IEP's; one must pass an entrance examination to get in, and there is a waiting list for available slots. Contrast this to Mt. Lebanon's myopic concentration on graduating students into college programs, and the fact that this seems to be the major factor in how the District measures its success. (Note to the Board: The next time you need an electrician call a BA in Music!)

There are a few things in the CAPSS plan that bother me; especially the goal of beginning school at the age of three. Concentrating on children below six years of age, a study by Durham University’s Curriculum, Evaluation and Management (CEM) Centre revealed that "A six year comparison of almost 35,000 children has shown that there has been no change in developmental levels of pupils entering primary school in this period, despite the introduction of several new early years’ initiatives over the past decade." "Head Start" is a classic example of early childhood education that has failed to deliver on its promises. Lisa Snell, Director of Education Policy for the Reason Foundation, referencing a January, 2010, report from the Department of Health and Human Services, writes, "The study randomly assessed more than 5,000 preschoolers. It found that by first grade not one of more than 114 academic and behavioral tests showed a reliable, statistically significant positive effect from participating in Head Start."

While Connecticut's CAPSS plan is worth studying and parts worth emulating, it does not go nearly far enough. Here are some other ideas being adduced in Pennsylvania and in other states: 1)eliminate the requirement for twelve years of 180 instructional days per year in favor of a system that measures students to see what they have learned, and let them progress at their own, natural rate; 2)attach tax funding for education to the student and not the district; 3)eliminate the classic "school district" as we know it (there are too many of them as it is); 4)hire teachers based on "their competency in their chosen fields" as the prime consideration; and 5)eliminate tenure.

(Richard Gideon is a former teacher with 23 years of experience in secondary and post-secondary education)

March 11, 2012 3:13 PM  

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