I want to talk for a moment about a fairly interesting and unique scenario in education, and the difficulty of applying the same kind of educational policy everywhere.
Let’s start here: my hometown has no high school.
The population of Vernon, Vermont is just over 2000 people. Fifty years ago it was only 850. We have a fairly good k-6 school, but there’s not much point in building a high school in a town that size. Two towns adjacent to Vernon have schools that take our students (Brattleboro Union High School, and Pioneer Valley in Northfield MA). Students from Vernon can attend either one, and Vernon’s property tax pays for those students’ public school tuitions. This is not uncommon across Vermont, and Maine has a similar program. It’s called a “tuitioning” program, or occasionally an “academy” system.
In fact, as a matter of Vermont state law, students’ tuition money may even go to a private school rather than a public one. That should be familiar for folks who work in education: these days the tuitioning idea falls under the umbrella of “school vouchers.” It’s a little ironic that something which originally came from a lack of choice (students who couldn’t go to school in their hometowns if they wanted to) is now in the same category as something whose entire goal is choice. Still, it’s not an inaccurate description of the system.
Vermont’s tuitioning system may be school vouchers in all but name, but it’s a very different environment from what one would see in an urban center. Check out a map of high schools in Washington DC; they seem to be maybe five blocks apart on average. School choice in that arena is very different from school choice in Vermont, where the map looks quite different. You might want to check the scale on that map if you don’t live in the northeast; people can get pretty sparse up here. Arguments about some schools drawing more students (or the “best” students, or even just drawing “all the math kids”) and other schools being left with few students become quite relevant in densely populated areas. I can see why school vouchers are a controversial educational program.
However – and I want to be very clear on this point, because it’s my main point today – an argument for or against an educational program in one region is not necessarily valid in another region. The best education system for one person, or for one city, or even an entire state, is not necessarily going to work well in other circumstances. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying; I think it may be very worthwhile to try it out, because that’s the only way we learn what works. All the political and economic rhetoric in the world is just wind. Without experiment, we have no evidence, no true understanding of the situation, and certainly no proof of our beliefs. Education is not like Physics; the same laws do not apply in all situations. Education is like Biology, where everything has its exceptions and the more we niches we look in the more we see it happening.
I understand being afraid of failure, being wary of its consequences. As teachers, principals, superintendents, state representatives, we must understand: we will not screw up someone’s education for life. Take a breath and relax. They will have other schools and other teachers. Vernon had a one-room schoolhouse once, and it wasn’t that long ago. My grandfather went there, and learned enough of the “three R’s” (god what a dumb term) to start a business that outlived him. We educators and policy-makers are important, but we’re not that important, ok?
If we don’t try new things and see what works, we will simply never find anything better than what we have.