French on Act 46, declining school enrollment

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Dan French, Vermont's new secretary of education, is a big believer in personalized learning and technology. He also thinks the state's educational system is at a "tipping point" in terms of being able to sustain itself.

French is a veteran superintendent — he was named Superintendent of the Year in 2009 — who has worked in the Northeast Kingdom and Southern Vermont. Most recently, he was the coordinator of the School Leadership Graduate Program at Saint Michael's College, where he taught graduate courses on school leadership, management, and using data to drive improvements for schools.

He took over at the Agency of Education on Aug. 13. He sat down with VTDigger, a week into his new job, at his new office in Barre to talk about Act 46, school choice, the achievement gap, and what declining enrollment means for the state's schools. French succeeded Rebecca Holcolmbe

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Digger: You've been in Vermont for about two decades, but where are you from originally?

Dan French: I'm originally from Connecticut. I went to the University of Connecticut. My background is in Asian studies, actually. And I was interested in going to Asia, so I joined the Army, and I was a Korean linguist. Anyway, when I got out of the Army, I got engaged, and my wife and I, who is a teacher, didn't want to move back to southern New England. So we tried to find a job in northern New England — I always liked this neck of the woods. As a social studies teacher, it was hard to find a job back then. This was like, the early 90s. The only place we could find a job together was in the North Country, in New Hampshire. So I was a teacher in Colebrook, New Hampshire, which is near the Canadian border. And ultimately became a principal and superintendent in that neck of the woods. I crossed over the river at one point, and worked in Canaan, Vermont.

Digger: What's the biggest change you've noticed over your time in education?

DF: I'm also a technologist. There's a lot of changes due to technology. But from a Vermont perspective, I became a principal with the advent of Act 60. So that was huge in terms of changing the funding system and how we approached a lot things relative to the state. Act 60 also included mechanism around school improvement. So we had action planning, the idea setting goals and building that into policy approach. That was a revolution — the whole standards movement. And that's kind of what we're coming out the other end of now.

From a technology standpoint, the other big revolution that's kind of happened simultaneously is we probably have, for the first time, the tools to manage the personal learning of students. It's something that, if you look at the history of Vermont, we've always been interested in putting students at the center of the learning process. But I think from a technology standpoint, now for the first time, we really have the ability to manage that through personalized learning plans. We can actually design the system around student learning aspirations. And I think related to that is the technology points to a different way in how we organize teachers doing their work. Sort of our older model, was that we would have artisan teachers. Vermont is filled with very talented, artisan teachers, relatively working in isolation. What technology points us to now is really connecting those teachers together, and connecting school districts together across boundaries to work as a network and scale best practices across districts more rapidly.

Digger: What's the biggest challenge facing the Vermont education world?

DF: I think Act 46 is a pretty good expression of that. The preamble to Act 46 is sort of aspirational — it talks about our need to create a more responsive education system. And talks about, certainly governance, and creating a more sustainable governance structure so that local decision makers can do five things. And those five things emerge as priorities for me — better outcomes for all kids. And to that international context, it's not sufficient that we benchmark ourselves against other towns or other states. Really, our kids are living in a broader context than ever before, and we need to compare ourselves internationally. And this idea of efficiency - we're at a tipping point, I think, in our ability to sustain the current system.

Digger: Do you think schools can close the achievement gap?

DF: When you say "achievement gap," that's sort of an accountability issue. I think that's the fundamental role of the state, to ensure equal opportunity. I think, yeah, schools are the fundamental apparatus by which we try and do that. But I think where we're at, historically as a country, we've just finished up the No Child Left Behind Act, which by most measures was a complete failure. It resulted in Vermont schools pretty much uniformly being labelled as failing, even though we perform quite well on other measures.

But that whole approach to school reform has to change. We'll get certain amount of improvement in terms the achievement gap out of standardization and using standards, but I think we reached the limitations of that kind of reform. In order to get students and schools performing at higher levels, we really need to start building a system around students' personal learning goals, and relevance. We have to harness their innate curiosity and their interest.

Digger: Gov. Phil Scott wants to raise the student-to-staff ratio in Vermont to help curb education spending. Your predecessor, Rebecca Holcombe, has criticized that as being overly simplistic, because high-spending schools can have high ratios. What do you think of that?

DF: I would just back and up say that it's not the governor's idea to call attention to either spending or ratios. This has been a perennial issue.

We've had a significant decline in the number of students in the state. Back when I was a principal at my school, at the advent of Act 60, we had about 340 kids in that school, including pre-K. That school today is down to 200 kids. So the system hasn't been able to respond to that fast enough. And that's unfortunately the situation we're in. And that's given a lot of energy to Act 46. Act 46 has, in its policy goals, reducing the number of (full-time employees.) So the bipartisan conclusion of the legislature is that FTEs are an issue. So where we're at now is finding the right approach to resolving that, and that's where the differences you called my attention to are. I think there's a general consensus that we need to do something. And maybe there's a debate about how urgently that needs to happen. I know there are some people that would believe that Act 46 will resolve that issue over time. We just need to let that work itself out. I don't know I necessarily agree that that will be sufficient.

I think this is an issue that really needs attention. I think we have many goals for our education system — we want to see our students have expanded outcomes, we equity of opportunity, we want better pre-K, we want better high ed. All of those things are in jeopardy if we don't find a better way to allocate our costs.

Digger: While going through the Act 46, certain districts are floating switching to choice. That's brought up the public-private school tension again in Vermont. Do you think school choice adversely affects equity?

DF: I guess I don't have a philosophical approach to that, per se. As a superintendent (in the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union), I managed a very large school choice ecosystem. We didn't have our own high school, and had a very successful partnership with Burr and Burton Academy. I guess I look at it from a very practical standpoint — school choice is an essential aspect of our education system in Vermont. In Manchester, for example, they wouldn't build a public high school any time soon. It wouldn't make sense to do that. And in many cases our independent school model is a little unique as a result of our history and rural geography. It's a real viable way by which we educate our students.

Digger: But should more be done to encourage private schools to educate more marginalized kids — low-income students, kids with disabilities?

DF: I wouldn't say more, per se. But I think the state has an interest in ensuring that kids have access to a high-quality education, where it be independent or a public school. I'm concerned in large schools versus small schools, in terms of what they offer for our students. When I visit large independent schools versus large public high schools I often think they're comparable in many ways. I tend to be a little more concerned with the smaller schools, and what they offer and what they don't offer.

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