State gains allies in modernizing education
By Thatcher Moats
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | June 30,2012
MONTPELIER — Vermont’s efforts to adapt its public education system to the modern age will get a boost now that the state is part of a national group called the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, says the state Education Department.
Vermont’s membership in the group’s “P21 Leadership State Initiative” — which includes 16 other states — was announced Thursday.
Membership will allow state education officials to exchange expertise with counterparts in other states that are also trying to find new ways to ensure that high school graduates are prepared for a job market that requires skills beyond what was needed years ago, said John Fischer, Vermont’s deputy education commissioner.
Fischer said businesses in the automotive, health care and manufacturing sectors have been saying for years that high school graduates need better math and literacy skills.
“The entry-level skills for those companies have risen so much over the last 10 or 15 years,” said Fischer. “The technical manuals are now beyond a high school literacy level.”
“It’s all computer controlled, all composite materials,” added Fischer. “It brings it to a whole level of knowledge and bodies of knowledge we didn’t teach 30 years ago.”
As officials like Fischer push for an evolution in Vermont’s education system, they are aiming to take traditional learning and use it to foster critical thinking, communication and collaboration.
“When we teach — and students learn — math content in whatever grade, it moves beyond just understanding how formulas work and how to get a correct answer on a math question,” said Fischer. “It moves beyond to critical thinking and analysis of why that answer is correct and where that formula might be used in a real world situation. It gets students thinking about the use of math rather than just rote memorization of math formulas.”
The school of thought the P21 group embodies is already making its way into Vermont education, said Fischer.
Some schools around the state are shifting to more individualized, project-based learning, he said.
And come 2015, the standardized test the state has used for years, the New England Common Assessment Program, will be jettisoned for a different computer-based test that can better diagnose the specifics of a student’s shortcomings in a given subject area, said Fischer.
The Shumlin administration has made a push to enhance math and science skills among Vermont students, citing the demands of the marketplace. He has proposed making algebra and geometry mandatory and has put pressure on the University of Vermont to make changes to maximize the public funding the school receives.
Fischer said the reforms under way in Vermont are balanced and not only designed to serve the business sector for a “utilitarian purpose.”
“One of the outcomes of this should be students get excited about digging deeper into problem-solving and really start with an inquiry,” said Fischer.