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Reformatting New England Schools

March 30, 2011 Leave a comment

This was widely circulated in Vermont in Spring 2011 in response to HB 153, the school consolidation bill. 

The best way to change the existing reality is to create a new reality

that makes the old one obsolete … Buckminster Fuller

 Executive Summary

This extended essay recommends replacing the current governance, administrative and organizational structure of small rural, graded schools based on the Factory Model with “Network Education Centers” (NECs) based on a Network Model. These NECs would provide individualized instructional support for students. The students would use distance-learning resources to pursue most of their studies independently and attend periodic seminars to reinforce skills taught online and to develop crucial communication skills. Teachers would staff the NECs, where they would provide individualized instructional support to students and also help coordinate wrap-around services. Those wraparound services could include: morning and afternoon childcare; social services; medical and dental services; mental health services; and other services children need or a community wishes to provide. These NECs would be administered and governed by Regional Collaborative Centers (RCCs). The RCCs would supersede SUs and their governing boards would supersede local school boards. The RCCs would provide administrative services and technical support to the NECs. The establishment of RCCs would accomplish Vermont’s goal of consolidating school districts without necessitating the closure of schools in small communities. This essay has five sections:

  • The Factory School Model describes the current organizational and governance framework for schooling and the deficiencies with that structure.
  • The Network School Model describes a new framework for schooling that takes full advantage of the technology available today. It provides an overview of the Network Education Center (NEC), which is the primary organizational unit of the Network School model.
  • The Administration of Network Schools elaborates on how the Network Education Centers (NECs) and Regional Collaborative Centers (RCCs) would be managed.
  • The Governance of Network Schools outlines how the Network Education Centers (NECs) and Regional Collaborative Centers (RCCs) would be governed.
  • The Urgency for Change describes the political and economic factors that make the need to abandon the factory model urgent.

The Factory School Model

The governance and organizational structure of public schools has not changed significantly since 1900. Elected or appointed school boards develop policy for their town or region, adopt budgets for the public to consider, and appoint superintendents who oversee the day-to-day operations of schools. During the era when our country changed from an agrarian to industrial economy the continuation of local school boards and the hierarchical organizational structure of school districts made sense. The continuation of local school boards made sense because public schools focused on the need to prepare students in their community for either higher education or for jobs in the local and regional workplace. The organizational structure of schools, modeled after the factories and mills that served as the backbone of local economies in the 20th century, provided the most cost-effective means of sorting students for group instruction at the elementary level and for sorting students at the secondary level to determine those who would qualify for higher education and those who would enter the workforce.

In the global information economy, however, the governance and hierarchical organizational structure of public schools no longer makes sense. The mission of public education today is to ensure that all high school graduates have the skills, motivation, and self-discipline needed to become lifelong learners. To fulfill this mission, public schools can no longer cling to the factory model of schools where students are sorted into batches based on age cohorts and expected to master skills in a prescribed time frame. Today, every child must be given the time and customized instruction required for them to learn-how-to-learn, to become flexible, creative, and adaptable thinkers.

Students from economically disadvantaged homes and homes where education is not valued pose an especially difficult challenge for public schools in their efforts to provide all students with the skills needed to survive in today’s economy. When these students attend schools that lack resources, the challenge is even greater. The social services in place today to support disadvantaged students are uncoordinated, often duplicative, and, therefore, inefficient. In many instances, this lack of coordination among service agencies adds another level of complication to teachers. To achieve the ambitious public expectations for schools, teachers will need find a way to coordinate their efforts with the service providers who support students.

The Network Schools Model

The optimal way to teach someone is by tutoring. Tutors can fully engage the student by matching their instruction to the student’s ability level, unique interests, and unique way of learning. Before Skype, YouTube, and the vast array of free online video instruction that emerged in the past five years, the notion of providing a tutor for each student was inconceivable. With this abundance of free instructional resources available online, there is an opportunity to abandon the existing model for schooling and replace it with one that provides instruction in a time frame that corresponds to each student’s readiness to learn and to his or her way of learning. The Network School model assumes that each student will develop the skills needed to become a self-actualized learner by progressing through a carefully conceived sequence of learning experiences. The grid on the last page contrasts the Network School and the Factory School in a number of dimensions. The broad goals of the Network School are provided below:

  • Pre-K through Grade 8: Provide individualized skill instruction (i.e. reading; writing; fundamental mathematics; factual content in science and social studies; etc.); provide small group instruction on oral communication, social skills, team building, and, where deemed most efficient, in content skill instruction; provide coordinated wraparound services needed for students and families. The ultimate goal of Pre-K to Grade 8 instruction is to ensure students have the skills needed to design independent studies and participate in seminar courses at the secondary level.
  • Secondary: Provide a means for students to complete self-designed independent study courses using a combination of online resources and seminar sessions in lieu of traditional direct classroom instruction. Also, during this phase of their schooling students could be released from studies to complete community service projects to help them see how they will be able to contribute to their communities’ well being.
  • Overarching Goal: The hybrid instruction offered by network schools will focus on the skills needed for each student to learn-how-to-learn, to be an independent thinker, to be a compassionate community member, and to determine the path he or she intends to follow upon graduation.

In the network school model, a Network Education Center or NEC replaces the school building. The mission of the NEC is to provide coordinated support services for each child in the community. The NEC could serve as the yearlong and before-and-after school child-care facility for the community. It could provide office space for social workers, medical providers, and other non-profit agencies that serve youth. The NEC could also serve as the technology resource center for those students or community members who do not as yet have ready access to the internet, or it could serve as the town library. Each community would be free to define the scope of services provided in the NEC. By determining the services at the local level, it will be easier to coordinate those services and eliminate duplicate or overlapping services.

Administration of Network Schools

Individual Network Education Centers (NECs) would require minimal oversight to function. The NEC administrator would be responsible for coordinating the services provided in the facility, including the oversight of instruction provided to students. In small rural NECs, the administrator might also serve as a teacher or case manager. The NECs would be managed by a Regional Collaborative Center that would provide them with technological and administrative support.

The RCC’s technological support could take the form of managing and administering the technology infrastructure required to provide online learning opportunities to all students. That technology infrastructure would include the management of data warehouses and the development of reports drawn from instructional software.

The RCC’s administrative support could include:

  • Budgeting (e.g., budget development, purchasing, payroll, issuing reports, auditing)
  • Personnel management (e.g., hiring staff for NECs, negotiating and administering RCC-wide contracts)
  • Compliance monitoring for state and federal guidelines (e.g., completing required state reports, ensuring all compliance with all standards), and
  • Logistics (building maintenance; transportation; bulk purchases, supply storage, etc.)

Executive Directors who would perform the tasks currently handled by Superintendents would lead the RCCs. They would report to an RCC Board (see Governance section, below) and serve as liaison to the State Departments that provide education, health and social services to students.

Governance of Network Schools

The governance of public schools in Vermont and New Hampshire is archaic, inefficient, and ineffective. Two factors complicate efforts to reform the current structure. The first, as discussed in earlier sections of this paper, is the notion that schools operate like factories with “graduates” being the product and standardized tests administered to age-based cohorts the basis for quality control. The second complicating factor is the view that the town is the primary unit of governance. This town-centric perspective when combined with the factory school model contributes to inefficiencies such as the duplication of administrative services, low pupil teacher ratios and the resulting high per pupil costs. The town-centric perspective also results in small secondary schools that cannot offer a wide array of courses to their students, disparities in the tax bases between districts, complicated transfers of payment among districts, and wildly disparate learning opportunities for students.

The implementation of the network school model would necessitate a change from the current governance structures, moving away from the town-centric perspective toward a regional perspective. As noted in the previous section, Network Education Centers (NECs), which take the place of “schools,” are managed by Regional Collaborative Centers (RCCs). Instead of having multiple elected boards governing independent school districts, elected board members drawn from the catchment area would govern the RCCs. Instead of being governed by elected boards, the NECs would develop advisory councils to help determine the scope of services to be provided in each town.

The RCC catchment areas could be defined voluntarily. They might defined by existing vocational center boundaries, by existing regional collaborative boundaries, by existing social agency boundaries, or by county boundaries. Large single town or city districts who are not involved in formal tuition agreements with neighboring towns would replace their elected schools boards with elected RCC boards, thereby facilitating coordination of services among various agencies serving children.

Urgency for Change

The network school model is evolving in adult learning and among home school parents who have withdrawn their children from public schools. In job-site training, webinars are replacing seminars and remote links are replacing large group meetings. Many graduate schools offer asynchronous online courses in place of the traditional courses offered only on campus in the past. Home school parents are using inexpensive online lessons that engage their children. They are also accessing free instructional materials in every content area at all levels. Through social media home school parents can arrange ad hoc opportunities for their children to connect with their peers to work and play together.

While this evolution toward network schooling is taking place outside public education, we who work in public schools spend countless hours debating over how many desks to have in each room, which textbooks to buy, and how much to pay our employees. Our students have cell phones with apps and we have blackboards and worksheets. Given the pervasiveness of online learning, the gutting of programs in public schools, and the limited revenues on the horizon, it is easy to envision a future where homeschoolers abound and the cost per student gets even higher.

Electronic learning is here now. We need to begin talking about how we can make it a reality in our schools.

Factory School

Networked School

Purpose of Schooling Finding an appropriate vocation: “…develop in each individual the knowledge, interests, ideals, habits, and powers whereby he will find his place and use that place to shape both himself and society toward ever nobler ends” Becoming a self-actualized learner, independent thinker, and compassionate member of society

Student Grouping

Age cohorts By mastery cohorts, if at all
School Organization By grade levels By mastery cohorts

Rate of instruction

Mean rate of cohort Individualized: Based on Student Learning Profile (SLP) developed by parents, instructor(s), and, if applicable, case manager
Method of instruction Approach that meets the needs of majority of cohort Individualized: Based on SLP developed as above
Delivery of instruction Large Group based on common text(s) Individualized: web-based, tutorial, and small group

Motivational Theory

School-wide system of rewards and punishment Individualized: Based on SLP developed as above

Definition of Intelligence

Velocity: The rate of learning Capacity: The amount a student learns

Basis for Student Assessment

Norm Referenced: Comparative ranking based on rate of learning as measured by tests 

Academic: All student performance measures based solely on academic

Criterion Referenced: Mastery of learning objectives defined in SLP developed as aboveHolistic: Student SLPs would incorporate some means of measuring “self-actualization, independent thinking, and compassion”

Basis for School Assessment

Norm Referenced:Comparative ranking based on percentage of students scoring above minimum cut score Criterion Referenced:Description of services, standardized report on parent, student satisfaction

Daily Schedule

Six hours for all Customized, flexible

School calendar

Agrarian for all Customized, flexible

Provision of Social Services to Students

Fragmented – Each agency gathers student information independently, treats student in isolation Integrated – Teacher/case manager serves as single point of contact, teams with other providers to share information, provide integrated services

Implicit Values

Compliance, conformity, competition, consumerism Independence, initiative, interdependence, introspection