$5 million grant will streamline education data for state

Brian Townsend, Armando Vilaseca and Peter Shumlin

Left to right, Brian Townsend, IT manager for the Vermont Department of Education, Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca and Gov. Peter Shumlin talk with reporters about a new $5 million education technology grant announced Wednesday. VTD/Andrew Nemethy

Vermont has won a $5 million grant that will allow the state’s education community to share data and better track academic trends in its 277 school districts.

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca announced the three-year $4.95 million data collection grant, which was awarded by the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, at a press conference Wednesday.

Calling it a “big deal,” Shumlin said the state will gain “a central, single 21st century data collection system” that is automated and will ease paperwork for teachers. It will also give schools and the state a diagnostic tool to pinpoint where students are excelling or falling behind, and allow it to use that information “in real time” to learn what methods work or provide aid where schools are struggling.

At his weekly press conference, the governor also lambasted the aging Vermont Yankee Nuclear power plant, which had to reduce power because of an electrical issue Tuesday; praised a Vermont Public Service board approval of the merger of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service; defended state emergency streambed alterations made in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene; and reiterated his support for bringing the new F-35 fighter aircraft to the Vermont Air Guard at Burlington International Airport.

Education Commissioner Vilaseca said the $4.95 million grant will streamline existing processes for Vermont schools and cut their workload on data already being provided to the state. He said a key aspect is that the data will extend to the pre-K level, allowing the state to identify and track the impact of pre-K and kindergarten programs on school learning.

Vermont was rejected for a larger but similar grant two years ago, the governor said. It won this grant in competition with 24 other states.

Brian Townsend, who handles the education department’s information technology systems, said the system essentially will use new software to allow the state to automatically collect existing information staff sometimes now have to input by hand, easing their workload. The grant, which runs out June 30, 2015, will also pay to make technology changes and for training and staffing to upgrade the system.

A new governance committee with school and state education officials will be created to give districts a voice in the programming of the new system, Townsend said.

Shumlin, noting Vermont was one of nine states that had not received a technology grant until today, said it would help Vermont deal “with all the junk they throw at us” in terms of federal requirements to track student progress under No Child Left Behind.

In response to a question, Vilaseca said he likes his job but declined to say if he intended to stay on as the state makes the education department a full-fledged agency with a secretary appointed by the governor. The Legislature approved a governance change last session, removing the commissioner’s appointment as a responsibility of the board of education and upgrading the post to cabinet status.

Vilaseca said the appointment process has not been worked out yet under the new governance structure but did say, “I enjoy what I do.”

In other comments:
• The governor, a longtime critic of Vermont Yankee in Vernon, said the latest electrical issue at the plant that prompted reduced power on the hottest day of the year, reinforces the need to close the aging nuclear facility, which began operating in 1972.

“When you continue to run an aging plant beyond its design life, it’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “She’s old, she’s tired, she should have been closed down in 2012,” Shumlin said.
“I find it absolutely astonishing that we sit in this country in the 21st century acting as if we can continue to simply run our aging nuclear power plants, built in the 1960s, forever without challenges, and I don’t want those challenges in Vermont.”

• Shumlin said criticism of the Vermont Public Service Board’s decision to permit the merger of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service and not return $21 million directly to CVPS ratepayers is misguided.

He said Vermonters will get “extraordinary savings” of $144 million over 10 years and $500 million over 20 years as a result of the deal, which will provide “huge benefit to Vermont ratepayers” and help create jobs. The deal will also consolidate bureaucracy and put money in ratepayers’ pockets.

“I think the board did a great job in sifting through the complex questions of the deal,” he said.

• The governor said he thought comments by Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz had been “misinterpreted by the press” on the subject of river work done after Tropical Storm Irene.

Markowitz was quoted last week as saying the Shumlin administration sent the wrong message in the way it allowed stream alterations and river excavations after the storm. Shumlin said clearly some stream and river gravel extraction actions “were not perfect” but said his priority was “getting Vermonters out of harm’s way” after Irene. Noting 13 communities were entirely cut off by washouts and emergency efforts were essential, he said, “We made the right decision, I would make them exactly the same way again.”

• Shumlin said he welcomed “good and honest Vermont-style debate” by Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski on whether Burlington International Airport and the Vermont Air Guard should host the new F-35 fighter. All three communities have expressed reservations about the noise of the new fighter. But he reiterated his support for the aircraft, noting it is faster so the noise would decrease more quickly, and less polluting than the current F-16 aircraft, which should be weighed with noise concerns raised by towns around the airport.

“With a decision like this there are pros and cons almost every time,” Shumlin said.

“All I can say is I am very supportive of bringing in the F-35s to Vermont,” he said.

Andrew Nemethy

Comments

  1. Thomasina Magoon :

    Let’s really look into what “they” (big government) will be using this data for?

    Data collection—which was mandated by the federal government and tied to recent education funding, requires the collection of data that has no significance to track the success of Vermont students. What it will do is unfairly assess teachers based on test scores and/or grades. Is this philosophically wrong—the teacher data will be public information, but the student data will not. This information will list teachers’ names—essentially creating a “lynch mob” effect for teachers assessed as “failing “teachers.

    Let’s just say a veteran teacher is assigned to teaching the “difficult” learners (emotionally, mentally, or behaviorally challenged students). These students will probably not test well, and certainly their grades may not reflect “whatever the Fed’s say is a ‘above the bar’”—but this veteran educator makes a difference in these students lives. Offering more than the teaching, but confidence, self-esteem and respect for themselves and others? Is this a “failing” teacher….I pose the question—what is this data for?

    If Vermonters really understood the ridiculous testing standards (especially in math), and accurately looked at Vermont students compared to the rest of the country, we’d realize that there is no “education crisis” in Vermont—while there is always room for improvement, Vermont continues to be an exceptional state to educate our children and this mandated federal data collection is only a way to bring more negative misinformation to the public, at the expense of our dedicated educators.
    What if the 5 million was directly applied to instructional teaching in Vermont?

    Thomasina Magoon
    Otter Valley Union High School Director

    • Lester French :

      If you consider Vermont to be an exceptional state to educate our children Vermont and the country are in serious trouble. As a parent and grand parent with experience in the two different school districts, I have seen some of what is happening to our children. Federal and State mandates have created a system where the needs of “normal” children are not being met in order to accommodate special needs children. In some schools the administration appears not to support the teachers in enforcing discipline in the classroom. Behavioral problems affect the entire class. Bad teachers are allowed to continue because they are not being evaluated (with the excuse that they are “union”.) I believe that many school directors have no clue about how to direct a multi-million dollar business. The “no child left behind” is really “every child left behind”. Real changes need to be made, not revised reporting on a broken system. If parents are fortunate, they will be putting their children into private schools.

  2. I applaud Ms Magoon’s statement above – absolutely correct. Now allow me to put this in the context of mandated school consolidations:

    A 2009 Dept of Ed commission report that called for school district consolidation

    followed by Act 153 of 2010 that mandated consolidation of some of the most important aspects of local districts such as curriculum, staffing and special education up to the SU level

    followed by a 2012 vote by the House AGAINST local schools, local governance and local input (final tally was 210 against and only 21 for)

    followed by a 2012 law that did away with the semi-autonomous Dept of Ed and created a wholly Governor owned subsidiary Agency of Ed

    to soon be followed by a massive consolidation of supervisory unions (see above) to as few as 16 or so.

    I have the details in a rather length piece at this link: http://connectedvermont.net/the_blog/129/stairway_up_to_opportunity_or_down_to_consolidation

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