The Shame of the Schools

The great truths in education turn out to be half-truths in search of their other half.


On Town Meeting Day in March 2000, some four hundred legal residents of Lincoln, Vermont, elected me to a three-year term on the board of Mt. Abraham Union High School, located in neighboring Bristol. A few days later, I took my oath of office and settled into a schedule of biweekly meetings in the school library. Comprising grades 7 through 12, the school serves around nine hundred students from five rural towns for an annual budget topping $9 million under a board of thirteen elected members. Mt. Abe belongs to the Addison (County) Northeast Supervisory Union district. In March 2003, I was reelected to the Mt. Abe board and also elected to the district board coordinating six local schools.

During the first year I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of important and sometimes ominous decisions that engulfed the board. We dealt with school security, contract negotiations with teachers, selecting a new principal, Internet filtering, special education mandates, and preparing the all-devouring, seemingly self-propelled annual document called the budget to submit to voters. I thought I’d never catch on, never learn the names of all the key people plus the acronyms used to designate occult entities in the wonderland of education.

After forty years of college teaching, I had no particular agenda to promote on the board. Principally I was curious to find out what actually is being taught in this rural high school, which has the largest payroll within twenty miles. I soon learned that the board spends little time discussing curriculum. I was told that the best way to inform myself would be to visit a few core courses. I chose English and History, or rather “Language Arts” and “Social Studies.” (A return to the earlier names became the first item on my agenda.) Given a schedule by the department head, I visited about a dozen classes and was welcomed without fanfare or raised eyebrows. These visits gave me a vivid impression of overcrowding, of teachers without their own classrooms and pushing overloaded carts like the homeless, of poorly and noisily ventilated inside classrooms, and of the constant demands imposed upon teachers for patience, firmness, and imagination. But amid multiple activities in the classrooms I found it impossible to discern a coherent sequence of content guiding the classes, not even in different sections of the same course. It would require months of class visits to gain an adequate sense of what is being taught in my school.

It turned out that there was another road to take. I had volunteered to be the school board representative on the teachers’ curriculum committee preparing part of the self-study for our big ten-year NEASC accreditation visit. (NEASC stands for New England Association of Schools and Colleges.) This committee of eight teachers, chaired by the science department head, alerted me to four sets of documents dealing directly or indirectly with the curriculum. I made it…

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