On May 6, 2020

A challenge for communities awaiting

By John Downes and James Nagle

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt of testimony given by John Downes and James Nagle to the Vermont Senate Education Committee on April 21, 2020. John Downes is the director of The Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education in the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont. James Nagle is a professor of education at Saint Michael’s College, and co-director of the Middle Grades Collaborative.

Our children will never forget this time.

A time when, for months, they couldn’t gather to play with their friends. When their sports seasons, their dances and proms, their graduations and holiday gatherings, their summer road trips and day camps were all canceled. When a third or more of working adults in their families and communities lost their jobs, and those who had jobs either were lucky enough to stay at home or risked their lives as “essential workers.”

Our communities and our schools have never been through anything like this. And it’s not ending anytime soon. This pandemic will inform who our children become, and what they believe about family, society, democracy, and the role of schools. They will learn all this not just by watching adults but also through the roles they play in addressing the challenges they and their communities will face.

What if we don’t give them a role? What if they learn only to be bystanders to the turmoil in their communities?

We have a choice in designing a response to the pandemic that allows our educational system to continue with the status quo or move in a direction that prioritizes community and the common good. For the former, it would look like “doing school” remotely—focused on grades, completing assignments, and academic achievement narrowly construed from standardized tests. For the latter, education would instead focus on students’ worries and needs, their loved ones and relationships, and the questions and concerns they have about their community, their futures and the world, in an equitable and sustainable way.

Fortunately, our state educational system already prioritizes learning in and with the community. In 2013, the Legislature passed Act 77, the Flexible Pathways Initiative, setting in motion the three pillars of personalized learning—personalized learning plans, flexible pathways in and out of school, and proficiency based assessment.

This vision of community-focused learning aligns with significant and common challenges Vermont’s communities now face. Most immediately, for instance, are the significant strains on our health systems, food systems, broadband and transportation infrastructures, and most fundamentally to school systems, the basic wellbeing of our children. The strains in these systems are exhibited both in terms of how services are provided but also in the many jobs they create, many of which are now at risk.

Addressing the systems challenges of our communities has long been the focus of educators at the forefront of personalized learning, even before Act 77. When teachers take on community challenges, they see students deeply engaged in focused, coherent, and collaborative learning. They see students and community partners embrace the converging interests and passions of youth and adults, schools, and communities. And they see parents, community members, school boards, and others awed by what young people care about and are able to accomplish in the world.

We suggest that an essential curriculum focused on core community needs is more important now than ever for many stakeholders. Teachers and families cannot sustain “doing school” remotely. The traditional school curriculum is untenable and inequitable under any circumstances. Pursued remotely, it will compound inequality to a degree we cannot accept.

Community members and organizations have much-needed expertise and capacity to engage with schools but often struggle to integrate into the overcrowded standard school curriculum. Yet they are the key to expanding students’ connections with caring adults, with mentors to see them through this challenging time, and with partners who model for them what professional and civic participation looks like under the most challenging of circumstances.

State leadership needs education to reduce inequality, promote more prosperous life outcomes for its youth, and contribute to long-term economic and social stability. State and local leaders need ways to engage and coordinate all available resources to address the crises in public health, the economy, and community. And they need schools to more directly address community challenges if they expect taxpayers to pass budgets under such dire economic circumstances.

At a recent news conference, Governor Scott wondered aloud what it would look like if we seized upon this moment to invent the schools we really need. For the last several weeks, schools and districts have wondered this as well, as they completed their Continuity of Learning Plans. Yet for most of us, this last month has been about trauma and triage.

As the depth of the crisis sinks in, and its horizon extends farther into the future, we must begin to map the longer term. The cracks in our society in general, and in our education system in particular, are revealed more clearly than ever.

The intense pressure on our systems and on our families, educators, neighbors and leaders is forcing us to decide what’s most important. Focusing on what’s best for our children can create critical opportunities to build more resilient, transformed communities and schools. We can begin that work now by nurturing community schools focused on an essential curriculum about core community needs.

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