News Analysis: Oversight or overreach by TRSU board

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

As the Two Rivers Supervisory Union prepares to return to its board on Thursday, Jan. 3 with a level funded budget for FY20, resistance to one item has cropped up over and over and that seems to be telling a larger story with larger questions. Namely, what is the role of the board in governing the school system it hires experts to run? This is especially applicable in the case of the Supervisory Union where the board’s financial decisions are not subject to approval by voters.

Even before the new, post-Act 46 TRSU board came into being in July, several board members had questioned the expenditure requested for Ogment, an online system for “curriculum mapping and management” developed by EvoText of Burlington, Mass., and championed by Curriculum Director Michael Eppolito.

At one point, board chair Marilyn Mahusky called the resistance to Ogment  “micromanagement,” but in the context of the past couple of budget cycles, board members’ questions fit into a larger sense that solutions to problems in the schools often involve additional expense on administration.

Ogment and the problem of curriculum

Curriculum Director Michael Eppolito shows the board the results of a survey of teachers after their first session with Ogment. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Curriculum mapping is a way of tracking how well what’s being taught aligns with learning standards or expectations. Ogment’s curriculum management functions allow a teacher to link to established standards, set goals and objectives and to develop curriculum by pulling from the teacher’s own work or from digital media including videos, articles, images and websites. It also allows the teacher to monitor the progress of the classes through the curriculum. And it enables teachers to share what’s been developed with other teachers in the district.

And it allows the school administration to see what teachers have developed and how they are using it and ensures that the school retains what’s been developed even when the teacher leaves the system.

For Eppolito, Ogment is the answer to a long-running problem; for board members, it prompts more questions.

“If I’m a new teacher at Mt. Holly, maybe it’s my first year and I walk in and say ‘what’s the social studies curriculum?’ … Currently the answer is ‘I don’t know’ and that’s completely unacceptable,” said Eppolito at the Dec. 6 TRSU board meeting.

“So a new teacher develops their own curriculum?” asked board chair Marilyn Mahusky.

Board chair Marilyn Mahusky takes a big picture approach to governance.

Eppolito told Mahusky that was indeed the case, particularly in social studies.

“So there’s no continuity year to year?” asked board member Joe Fromberger. “Because Ogment has not been invented there’s no continuity? How has it been dealt with before?”

“Well, we’ve never really dealt effectively with it before,” said Eppolito. “This is my answer to dealing with it effectively.”

“When I took my teaching position at Flood Brook, the teacher before me had all their stuff, they developed all their materials,” said Eppolito. “When they left, they took all that stuff. The new teacher comes in and there’s nothing there. We’ve made attempts in the past to create curriculum. The problem is we lose it because it’s in binders and no one pays attention to it. We’ve been in this cycle for years now and part of the problem is that the teacher creates their stuff so when they leave they take their stuff with them…my response to that is we need to have a system where they’re designing a place where I hold on to it, they don’t hold on to it.”

“So you have no curriculum as an organization?” asked Fromberger

“Aside from Everyday Math, that is correct,” said Eppolito, referring to the pre-K through elementary math program developed by the University of Chicago School of Math Project.

“We have nothing in the schools that says ‘this is the curriculum and this is how we teach?’ ” said Fromberger.

Shifting offers, required terms

Even before the green mortarboards of the GM class of 2018 had fallen back to Earth at commencement, the TRSU Executive Committee had held its final meeting before being replaced by a six-member board that was a result of the Act 46 mergers the previous spring. The new board consists of three members each from the SU’s two school districts.

Board members Joe Fromberger, left, and Dan Buckley, center, have called for teacher involvement in the selecting a curriculum program.

At that final meeting, Superintendent Meg Powden presented a plan to use the remaining $130,000 balance of a merger transition grant for a number of expenditures including $25,800 toward the proposed 5-year contract for Ogment.

According to Eppolito, if the SU committed to a five-year contract, Ogment would throw in a free year to start and discount the other five to $8,600 per year. Not surprisingly, the lame duck panel balked at obligating the incoming board to a $43,000 expense.

When the new TRSU board looked at the program in early September, several members wondered if teachers had seen it and were enthusiastic about it. Powden told the board that there had not been time. Members asked if teachers did not like the program could the SU get out of the contract. Powden said no, but by the November meeting, Ogment changed the offer to a year-to-year contract.

Board member Fred Marin notes that curriculum now sitting in binders could be ‘sitting in the cloud’ without teachers buying into the program.

Ludlow member Dan Buckley said that in his experience in the software industry, programs that get enthusiasm on “the ground floor” work while those that “come down from on high” don’t. Referring to the oft-mentioned “binders sitting on the shelf” containing curriculum, Fred Marin of Cavendish said that if the teachers didn’t like the program that information could end up unused “sitting in the cloud.”

Characterizing it as micromanagement, Mahusky said that the board had spent one-quarter of the scheduled meeting time talking about one expenditure and needed to have a conversation about what its role should be.

Buckley and Fromberger both said they would be more comfortable if the teachers had seen it and were on board.

Nevertheless, the clock is running

In response to board members’ desire to hear from teachers, Eppolito said he brought an Ogment team to do initial training but for a number of technical reasons the teachers didn’t get a full presentation and, in the end, had only just enough time to log into the system – 20 minutes.

At the end of the session, teachers were asked to fill out surveys with questions like “what do you like best about Ogment.” Eppolito noted that there was interest in using the program and he expected to see that increase “as we go through the year.”

Asked if Eppolito’s reference meant the “free” year had begun, Powden told the Dec. 13 GMUSD Finance Committee meeting that it was in fact under way. Powden said that teachers would be working with the program under a Memorandum of Agreement that does not obligate the school to the program going forward. The Telegraph requested a copy of the memorandum on Dec. 11, but as of Jan. 1 had not received it.

While the year is free – aside from some set-up expenses – the work teachers do on Ogment resides with Ogment. Unlike many other software applications used by the schools, Ogment is not purchased by the schools but is licensed and accessed online. All of the work created on it is stored offsite and available as long as a district or supervisory union continues to subscribe.

Sharing or going it alone

Board member Mary Alberty asks how many other schools in Vermont use Ogment.

Of the possibilities that intrigued board members whenever a presentation was made was the ability to share work and at the Dec. 6 TRSU board meeting that led Mt. Holly representative Mary Alberty to ask Eppolito Dec. 6 if other schools in Vermont use Ogment.

“We’re the only school,” answered Eppolito.

“How many in the nation?” asked Fred Marin. “I’ve searched for other places that use Ogment to see what their feelings are, I can’t find any.”

“That’s a good question,” said Eppolito. “I’ll have to ask Ogment what other school systems are using it.”

Ogment’s Facebook page – started in 2014 – doesn’t shed any light on Marin’s question. With 95 “likes,” it features links to articles and videos related to education, announcements of awards the program has won and announcements of conferences and trade shows where the company was exhibiting the program. The first mention of any school using its software appears on Dec. 10, 2018 with a photo of the Green Mountain Union High School sign on Rt. 103 and the caption, “Last week we braved the cold in Chester, VT and had a great time introducing teachers to Ogment!”

On Dec. 11, The Telegraph called Ogment’s parent company, EvoText, and spoke with co-founder and CEO Johanna Wetmore. She confirmed that TRSU would indeed be the first client in Vermont.

Asked how many school systems in total are using Ogment, Wetmore said it’s “less than a dozen.”  Pressed for an exact number, Wetmore she said she’d rather not say, adding that “it’s a new program” and was only rolled out in 2016. Wetmore also said she did not understand why the number of users would be an issue.

Finding the balance

Board chair Mahusky tends to take a big picture approach. She has said that it’s the board’s job to set policy and put together the budget. The board hires people with training and experience to decide what is needed in the schools and it supports their work.

At the same time, boards have an oversight function, asking questions about decisions and performance and separating “needs” from “wants.” Board members bring a variety of experience and expertise to the table and finding the balance between making certain the school system runs well and “running” the school system is part of the job.

While Ogment is not on the agenda for the Thursday Jan. 3 TRSU Board meeting, the board will discuss the FY 20 SU budget. Ogment is likely to be part of that.

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Filed Under: Act 46Education NewsFeaturedTwo Rivers Supervisory Union agenda

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  1. Tim Roper says:

    I’m no expert in software development and don’t fully understand what “Ogment” is designed to do, but it sounds like it’s basically a repository for curriculum. If that’s right, I think there are existing places where the curriculum (data) could be stored on the cloud at no cost, removing $40k out of what looks to be an already overblown budget.

    And this is nothing more than sales pitch talk. “…Eppolito said he brought an Ogment team to do initial training but for a number of technical reasons the teachers didn’t get a full presentation and, in the end, had only just enough time to log into the system – 20 minutes.

    At the end of the session, teachers were asked to fill out surveys with questions like “what do you like best about Ogment.” Eppolito noted that there was interest in using the program and he expected to see that increase “as we go through the year.”

    Let’s see the results of the survey rather than have the proponent of the software acquisition interpret that information for us. Please publish the full survey results for the public to interpret. Barring that, I think I smell something fishy here…

  2. W Schultz says:

    “So you have no curriculum as an organization?” asked Fromberger

    “Aside from Everyday Math, that is correct,” said Eppolito, referring to the pre-K through elementary math program.

    Please note: GM departments and faculty certainly ‘have’ and use curriculum. The published curriculums we in the World Languages department use – in combination with modules, activities and lessons of our own professional, experienced design – are a good variety of print and digital, and align with American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL) Standards as well as Common Core State Standards.

  3. Ron Jackson says:

    “Wetmore also said she did not understand why the number of users would be an issue.”

    It is an “issue” because if no one is using it, it’s likely because it’s garbage.

    As someone who has been in IT my entire career, this whole deal smells like garbage. If it’s good and you have lots of customers, share so we can get some references from current users.

    If it’s a “new program” and you want to get rolling, give GMUHS a couple years free. If it’s good, you’ll have us hooked as a customer willing to sing your praises.

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