ST. ALBANS — Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe Wednesday night laid out for area school directors some of the challenges facing Vermont’s children and schools.

The presentation covered new approaches to evaluating schools, new understanding of how students learn, and the possibility of a change in national polity that would allow Vermont to more fully pursue its own ideas.

As an example, Holcombe said that all Vermonters who seek to evaluate their schools soon will be able to examine both a digital snapshot and the results of a qualitative review performed by a team of educators that includes interviews with students and visits to the school.

The new quality reviews are being done at 21 pilot program school districts, she said at a regional meeting of the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA).

The visits, said Holcombe, will include direct observations of classrooms, hallways and the cafeteria; climate surveys; data analysis and interviews with staff and students.

The student interviews have been one of the most exciting parts of the process, she said. “These students are on point. They will hold us accountable,” she added.

In addition to school evaluations, the hope is to identify what is working within each school and to share that information with other schools. Educators visiting one another’s schools as part of the evaluations will give them new insights, explained Holcombe.

Holcombe described a visit to a school in New York that, without success, was focused on improving education for African-American students. The visitors asked the students to bring their graded papers with them to their interviews. What the visitors found were differences in how student work was being treated by teachers. The African-American students, especially the boys, were less likely to receive in-depth written responses to their work than white students. They were getting less encouragement and less useful criticism to help them improve than white students were.

As Holcombe noted, the teachers were unconsciously recreating the kind of bias they were attempting to counter.

As in this case, one of the reasons for the visits is to help schools achieve their own goals by bringing an outside perspective on what they’re doing, she explained.

“These kids have one shot at an education, and if we don’t help them when they’re young, it’ll effect them for the rest of their lives,” said Holcombe.

The visits will take place every three years. Annually, the state will provide a digital snapshot of the school using data already gathered by the Agency of Education (AOE). The areas included in the snapshot will be: academic achievement; personalized learning; safe school climate; high quality staffing and financial efficiency.

The state is currently working with web designers to present the information in accessible ways.

Congress is working on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which in its last iteration was referred to as the No Child Left Behind Act. One of the proposed changes, according to Holcombe, will allow states to develop their own accountability standards and systems. The quality evaluations being developed by the state would likely become Vermont’s accountability system, replacing the current, federally mandated one, based almost entirely on test scores.

Vermont’s educational quality standards are broader than the federal standards, including not only math and literacy, but scientific inquiry and knowledge, artistic expression and creativity and global citizenship.

Vermont’s standards also include transferrable skills such as the ability to reason from evidence or sort through a complicated situation with multiple solutions. “That’s what our kids need to be able to do, because that’s what will make Vermont stronger,” said Holcombe.

Access to a wide variety of in-depth learning opportunities, including applied learning, is central to Vermont’s quality standards. Applied learning, which gives students a chance to get their hands dirty, sometimes literally, develops high-level skills and motivates students who don’t do well in traditional settings, explained Holcombe.

“Different kids need different kinds of support,” said Holcombe, and Vermont’s schools are being required to move away from models in which all students are treated the same to develop personalized learning plans for students. Their success at doing so will be one of the standards on which schools are judged in the evaluation process.

Schools also need to focus on proficiency – on whether or not the student has mastered the skills and learning the class is designed to impart – not on simply the amount of time spent sitting in a chair in a classroom. “It’s not about how long you stay in school,” said Holcombe. “It’s about whether you learn something while you’re there.”

“Forty years ago we didn’t expect all students to graduate,” said Holcombe. But now they’re being asked to do things their parents and grandparents were not. As a consequence, students are more skilled than they’ve ever been, she said.

Part of that is because educators, too, know more. “We know a lot more about learning. We used to think you’re smart or you’re not,said Holcombe. Now educators understand that all children can learn, but they can’t all learn the same way, so educators need to employ different approaches with different students.

But increasing levels of poverty and addiction are creating new challenges for students and their teachers. Forty percent of the children in protective custody in Vermont are ages zero to five, she said.

When teachers report seeing situations they’ve never seen before, they’re telling the truth, according to Holcombe, who said the new challenges are showing up in data gathered by AOE statewide.

“When they’re presented with students with challenges they’ve never seen before, suddenly they’re not skilled anymore,” said Holcombe of teachers, making it even more crucial to support the continuing education and professional development of teachers.

While new research has made it clear just how much poverty impacts children, even at the level of the brain, research – and the work done in some Vermont schools — has also shown that quality education can overcome those effects, explained Holcombe.

Holcombe also addressed the fiscal challenges the state is facing with declining enrollments in most of the state, with the northwestern corner of the state being the only area where the student population is growing or remaining steady.

“Even though we’re educating fewer students, we’re actually spending more and more to do so,” she said.

Smaller school systems around the state are more vulnerable to fiscal ups and downs, such as losing a few students or having an expected building repair, or an increase in high school tuition, than larger ones, said Holcombe. “It’s really forcing some very hard choices for some of our schools,” she said.

Pointing to an unnamed supervisory union with a K-12 school district, two K-8 districts and a K-6 district, Holcombe noted that tax rates and per-pupil spending were higher at the schools paying tuition than at the K-12 school.

School boards across Vermont are considering what to do in the face of Act 46, which provides financial incentives for school districts to combine into larger districts. The law gives the state board of education the authority to order schools that have not voluntarily merged with another district by 2018 to do so.

Holcombe urged school boards and communities wrestling with Act 46 to consider the question: “How do you preserve what you care about given the fiscal realities you’re in?”

She drew specifically on the example of Bridgewater, which chose to close its school of less than 40 students and send those students to Pomfret. In order to preserve the connection between the community and the school, they’ve focused on building partnerships between the two, said Holcombe. Bridgewater, she suggested, preserved what mattered, the community-school connection, while reducing their education tax rate 26 percent and securing more educational opportunities for their students.