From the Vermont AOE website: The Flexible Pathways Initiative, created by Act 77 of 2013, encourages and supports the creativity of school districts as they develop and expand high-quality educational experiences that are an integral part of secondary education in the evolving 21st-century classroom. Flexible pathways also promote opportunities for Vermont students to achieve postsecondary readiness through high-quality educational experiences that acknowledge individual goals, learning styles, and abilities; and increase the rates of secondary school completion and postsecondary continuation in Vermont.

The 2013 passage of Act 77, Vermont’s education law requiring flexible pathways to graduation and personal learning plans (PLP) in public schools, started my journey to bring these opportunities to life for students. This experience has provided some of the most rewarding snippets of success, but has also had its share of frustration and resistance. The challenges of implementing the expectations of Act 77 has proven to be a process that is heavily dependent on the conceptual understanding of the law, openness to re-imagining learning, and consistent support of school leadership. The following thoughts are solely my opinion based on many observations, discussions and attempts to implement PLPs.

In my first meeting as a personal learning coordinator at a small, rural school in Vermont, I asked a group of eighth graders what they wanted to do when they grew up. After many responses, I asked how they thought they were going to get to all those amazing places. One student raised her hand and responded in a very impressive serious voice: “I will do whatever the school tells me I have to do”. Many nodded their heads in agreement. My thought about that response was that this is not ownership, but rather a process of putting their success (or failure) onto the school. Personal learning plans and flexible pathways have the potential to turn this around so that the new response may someday be, “With the help of my teachers and support groups, I will decide the best way for me to achieve my goals”.

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When I served as a high school principal, I was frequently asked by faculty members why standardized testing was necessary for our students when students in Finland did not participate in the same kind and frequency of testing and ranked among the highest in international standings. The question seems simple on the surface, but is actually quite complex.

To build a context for thinking about the question of standardized testing differences in Finland and in the United States, I began with a review the evolution of Finland’s current educational system. It is clear that Finland’s educational journey has been a complicated process characterized by deliberate practice that continues today:  development of a problem of practice, research review, implementation of an intervention, review of the data, reflection, and adjust intervention(s). Repeat, repeat and repeat again for decades.

Here is a brief historical view timeline of Finland’s process toward continuous improvement through educational reform:

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How do we strive to lead schools in a good direction, from whatever starting point?  That is the central question of school change, and it’s a complicated one!  


School change is cultural change.  It is challenging work; work, which includes the following elements (Tompkins, 2014):

  • Compelling, shared, positive vision

  • Supportive and distributed leadership

  • Goals focused on teaching and learning

  • Involvement of learners (teachers)

  • Cultivating professional community

  • Formal and informal training

  • Practice, coaching, and feedback

  • Models and exemplars

  • Aligned incentives

  • Sustained over time

  • Evaluation

Although there is no one right way to go about fostering school change, district partnerships can be a vehicle for this work.

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