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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Cassidy: Act 77

Vermont’s new law promoting the consolidation of school-districts is generating a lot of conversation and anxiety. Act 77 is getting less public attention, but it’s also bringing radical change to Vermont schools. The law mandates Personal Learning Plans, or PLPs, for every student in Grades 7 through 12, to document each student’s individual pathway to graduation.

The Agency of Education’s on-line explanation of graduation standards is not easy to understand. It says, “Cross-curricular graduation standards highlight the transferable skills necessary for success in the 21st century. Performance indicators provide the detailed descriptions and measurable language associated with these skills.” But that dense language contains some truly radical ideas - and some enormous problems.

Vermont School Board rules say that standards will be “cross-curricular”, so that students can demonstrate “transferable skills”, and the list of those skills includes communication, collaboration, creativity, innovation, inquiry, problem solving and the use of technology.

Furthermore, if schools issue credits, those credits will no longer represent the work of a semester or a year; instead credits must represent specified proficiencies that students have demonstrated. And most importantly, in order to graduate, students must demonstrate proficiency not only in the transferable skills, but also in the traditional areas of literacy, math, science, history, civics, and a second language. Taken together, these rules mandate a seismic shift in how Vermont schools organize and evaluate students’ experience.

I applaud the new focus on demonstrating actual skill rather than time in a class as the basis of high-school credits. I also applaud the emphasis on transferable skills – but the problem is assessment. Each school is left to define all those skills and assess them for every student – leaving me to wonder how teachers will be able to do that, especially across the curriculum.

In my French classroom I can see whether and how students are collaborating and communicating in that specific situation. However, defining all these skills across the school's curriculum, quantifying each student’s performance, and certifying whether or not each student has demonstrated them well enough to graduate, will require teachers to spend enormous amounts of time away from working with students.

I wonder if teachers' time would be better spent working directly with students on developing those skills before it’s time to graduate.

Maggie Brown Cassidy recently retired from teaching French at Brattleboro Union High School. She was also a teacher trainer and founder of the BUHS Swiss Exchange, which provided homestays and immersion experiences for hundreds of students in Vermont and Geneva. She continues to teach adults and has written many features for the Brattleboro Reformer.
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