MANCHESTER - On Monday, Manchester Elementary Middle School played host to important visitors from the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union and Vermont Agency of Education.

Rebecca Holcombe, the secretary of education, along with Daniel French and Jackie Wilson from the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union, from the toured the school and was able to witness some of the programs and classrooms. Holcombe observed classes at all grade levels and even put together puzzles in pre-kindergarten.

French is the superintendent of schools for the supervisory union and Wilson, a former principal of MEMS, is an assistant superintendent. They were joined by Sean-Marie Oller, a member of the state education board who is currently the chairwoman of the Mt. Anthony Union school Board in Bennington.

She started her career teaching high school and middle school and then later became an elementary school principal.

Vermont, Holcombe said, is a state that deeply values and cares about education and she believes this will be an asset when trying to improve the education system.

"I think the one thing we can try to do at the agency is to try and convene conversations...bring all these wonderful people together so that when we do the work we are doing so more systematically," she said. "And in a way that really builds on the tremendous strength that we see and showcases them...at the end of the day I think our goal is to help improve student learning."

Currently, in both the state house and school districts around Vermont, there is discussion about the possibility of consolidating supervisory unions and schools districts, in an effort to create a more systematic form of governance. Holcombe said what students need to learn has changed dramatically and the system in Vermont is one designed in the late 1800s - making it a challenge to effectively deliver what students need to be successful now. However, what she does not believe needs to be changed is the local participation in school boards across the state.

"What I think is one of the strengths of Vermont schools is strong local participation and involvement," she said. "I don't see it as an effort to remove community voice and input, I think what makes our schools so powerful is the very high level of parent engagement."

Instead, what Holcombe said she thinks would be the best model is one of strict control about Vermont's goals for students, but the local flexibility to implement those goals in a way that fits each school or supervisory union.

Consolidation is also under discussion due in part to the rising cost of education in the state, in a way that many lawmakers and educators believe in not sustainable. Holcombe said a restructuring of governance could help taxpayers and parents see the outcomes and also how effectively resources are being utilized to reach those goals.

The consolidation of governance is not the real goal though; it is instead giving Vermont's students the skills they need to compete in the job market of the future.

"It's really about trying to help kids become self directed learners. Because when they leave school, 60 percent of the jobs they will hold haven't even been invented yet," she said. "We can't train them to take those jobs because we don't even know what those jobs are. What we have to train them to do is to be able to continue to be able to learn and grow."

This, she said, is a huge change of what is expected of schools and teachers need the professional development resources and collaboration to be able to impart students with the skill set they will need.

This new skill set will be another part of the changes in education happening in Vermont. Another is the change from the New England Common Assessment Program [NECAP] to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium [SBAC]. Holcombe said because the SBAC is an adaptive computer test, it will provide better data in the areas it tests than the NECAP and this information will be used to help understand why, for example, the state of Vermont has an issue in educating low-income boys. 

"The test [SBAC] allows us to pull out patterns, so when thinking about personalized learning we can ask good questions, about how our system isn't [working for low income boys," she said. "What can we do to make it for that particular population so they can engage more."

However, like any test, the SBAC will not test in all the areas students learn - everything from civics to skills like problem solving and initiative are not included. Those skills can be seen in the classroom, like the second grade class at MEMS Holcombe observed was creating stores and building a town.

"[Watching the second graders] They were using spatial reasoning and mathematical computation, problem solving," she said. "When you actually look [at the students in the classroom] you can learn a tremendous amount about their resourcefulness and initiative and how they can integrate skills and leadership. That's the kind of learning in the new accountability model that we're always working on."

The accountability model Holcombe refers to is a part of the Education Quality Standards Vermont adopted a revised version of in late 2013. Performance assessments are one portion of these standards currently being developed that will help demonstrate mastering growth and student skills, she said.

Holcombe said that innovation will be used to help make sure these Education Quality Standards will be met. She said innovation will be utilized in many fashions including the bill Rep. Jeff Wilson introduced written by BRSU superintendent Dan French that would create "education innovation zones" in supervisory unions and districts, allowing for changes in policy while cutting through some of the bureaucratic red tape.

"We're acknowledging there's a place for local innovation," she said. "What's good for one school in terms of flexibility is probably good for another and in gathering evidence our hope is to showcase and curate [those innovations and changes] on the state level."