Vermont breaks with the federal government on education reform

Vermont’s educational system has received high marks for many years. It routinely ranks close to the top on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, came in third last year among states with a higher than 60 percent participation on the SAT test, and spends more per pupil than all but a few states as a percentage of per capita income.

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 last week. VTD file photo/Andrew Nemethy

Reinforcing its image, Gov, Peter Shumlin this week announced a $5 million federal technology grant to automate data collection. Two years ago the state’s application for the same funds was rejected. The new system will allow Vermont to track teachers, courses and student progress from kindergarten to 12th grade. Data collected in local school districts will go directly to the state and be immediately available for review.

In St. Albans, the Bellows Free Academy has meanwhile won a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant of $150,000 for Academy 21, a pilot program that focuses on mastering skills instead of memorizing content. The grant is part of $1.2 million in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for “blended learning” in high schools across the country. Academy 21 will use the money mainly for professional development and collaborative learning. For example, students will learn how to discuss concerns with their peers, and will even have the option of “firing” group members who don’t improve.

Despite the state’s reputation, however, it will not benefit from $5 billion in new federal “Race to the Top” funding to improve assessment, reward teacher excellence and help poorly performing schools. Last November Vermont was turned down for a $50 million early-childhood education grant, and has been unable to get a waiver from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

A new report card from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) meanwhile gives the state a “reform grade” of D+ and an F for “Identifying Effective Teachers.” Florida, which consistently ranks near the bottom in national assessments, received a B+ in the same report.

In early June Sen. Bernie Sanders complained to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the exclusion of Vermont and other rural states from Race to the Top funding. Sanders and Duncan also discussed the rejection of Vermont’s NCLB waiver request. Sanders argued that requirements of the Bush-era initiative are “fundamentally incompatible with the state’s educational model,” and described opposition to the law as “near unanimous.”

Dropping the waiver request

Vermont has been negotiating with federal officials to create measurement and accountability systems that rely less on standardized tests and punitive measures. But an April 17 letter from the U.S. Education Department, stating that Vermont’s proposed accountability system was not sufficiently detailed and failed to “ensure significant progress in improving student achievement,” was another setback.

Vermont’s submission combined what the Department of Education requested with an innovative spin on turnaround options for poorly performing schools that would avoid the dismissal of teachers or principals.

State Department of Education spokeswoman Jill Remick concluded that it had “become clear that the U.S. Education Department is interested in simply replacing one punitive, prescriptive model of accountability with another.”

“We cannot continue to expend energy requesting a detailed accountability system that looks less and less like what we want for Vermont,” she added.

Realizing that it would not be permitted to opt out of yearly standardized testing – even if a waiver was granted — the state Board of Education voted on May 15 to drop its waiver request.

Board of Education Chair Stephan Morse explained, “Our main interest was in being able to assess students in a more complete way and not have the arbitrary testing and all the repercussions from that, and that’s not what they meant by waiver.’’

The federal law states that all students must be proficient in reading and math by 2014. The waiver would drop that requirement as long as a state can demonstrate it is making some progress and provides an acceptable alternative.

Shumlin has argued that provisions of the federal law make it harder for schools to provide high-quality education. He has proposed instead that Vermont continue using benchmarks set in 2009 while developing a more appropriate assessment method.

Multiple choice test

Photo by albertogp123 / Flickr Creative Commons

Vermont’s waiver application specifically proposed biannual testing for grades 3 through 8. But that idea was not accepted at the federal level. After Vermont put annual testing back in its application, the next obstacle was a requirement that a significant portion of teacher effectiveness be measured by standardized tests. This did not appeal to Vermont officials.

Since the state dropped its waiver application Duncan has agreed to review the issue, promising that his department is “open for business” if Vermont wants to reapply.

Charter schools and the Common Core

One reason Florida received a higher grade than Vermont on the ALEC report card is charter schools. The sunshine state has more than a hundred while Vermont has none.

Some educational reformers claim that these schools – which receive public money, but do not have to follow all the rules and regulations that apply to other public education – foster innovation and competition. But most studies reveal no difference in tests, and some charter schools have scored high by excluding students such as English Language Learners (ELL) who tend to receive lower scores.

Recent debate in Burlington over achievement gaps has focused on such students, who object to being judged on the basis of New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) test results. But Vermont will drop NECAP within two years, replacing it with a new nationally designed test and related Common Core standards that will be used to compare year-by-year achievement in math and reading.

Vermont’s Board of Education adopted the Common Core standards in 2010, with the intention of using them by 2015. But the decision was not completely voluntary. The Obama administration has pushed the Common Core through Race to the Top and has made their adoption a requirement to compete for future federal education grants.

The standards, developed by groups representing governors and top school officials, set requirements not only for math and language but also for literacy in history, social studies, science, and technical subjects. They basically define what it means to be literate in the 21st century.

Once a new computerized test is designed, a process expected to cost $160 million, it will provide almost immediately results allowing teachers to make rapid adjustments. Schools currently wait months to see NECAP scores. The new test will be given from third to eighth grade, and again in the junior year of high school.

The rub, however, is that the Common Core standards have not yet been implemented or tested anyway, and could potentially increase the achievement gap between high and lower performing students, particularly anyone struggling with English.

Tom Loveless, a Brookings Institution analyst, predicts that the standards will have no impact on student achievement. After they were adopted in Vermont, critics described them as another top-down move that intrudes into local education.

Failing schools and national security

Both the Common Core and charter schools are a response to the contention that the public school system is failing. This is not a new theme. Reformers have called attention to teacher performance and low standards for two centuries. In 1983, a presidential commission made essentially the same case in its landmark report, “A Nation at Risk.”

The argument, then and now, is that the U.S. faces peril due to “a rising tide of mediocrity.” In the 1980s the prescriptions included higher graduation requirements, more time in school, and higher salaries for teachers. Nothing was said at the time about evaluating teachers and schools on the basis of student test scores, a method at the center of more recent reform proposals. In the past the basic goal was to improve public schooling.

Today’s reformers instead stress competition, technology and privatization, and often suggest that public schools themselves are the problem. The emerging argument is that the alleged failure of public education, a point often made without much supporting evidence, threatens not just the economy but even national security.

The report’s three reform recommendations are adoption of the Common Core standards, along with an expanded curriculum geared to national security that stresses science, technology and foreign languages; competition-based changes like charter schools and vouchers that let students and families choose which schools they attend; and a “national security readiness audit” that holds educators and policy makers responsible for meeting national expectations.

That message comes through loud and clear in “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” a new report from the Council on Foreign Relations authored by a panel headed by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Joel Klein, chancellor of New York’s public schools. Klein has opened a hundred charter schools, in many cases ignoring community opposition.

“Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk,” the report states. While acknowledging the impacts of concentrated poverty, racial segregation, and unequal school funding, however, it offers no recommendations about those problems. Instead, it argues that the most serious shortcoming is that public schools are not preparing enough future diplomats, soldiers, and defense industry engineers “to ensure U.S. leadership in the 21st century.”

“Significant majorities of young Americans are unable to identify strategically or politically important countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, on a map of the world,” the report notes. “Enrollment in civics and government classes is declining.”

U.S. students spend fewer years studying a more limited range of foreign languages than students in most other wealthy countries, it also notes, and just 1.4 percent study abroad, mostly in Europe. Many students cannot pass military entrance exams.

The report’s three reform recommendations are adoption of the Common Core standards, along with an expanded curriculum geared to national security that stresses science, technology and foreign languages; competition-based changes like charter schools and vouchers that let students and families choose which schools they attend; and a “national security readiness audit” that holds educators and policy makers responsible for meeting national expectations.

In a dissenting opinion included at the end of the report, Stanford University professor Linda Darlington-Hammond challenged the assumption that competition and privatization are essential strategies. “It ignores the fact that the nations that have steeply improved achievement and equity and now rank at the top …. have invested in strong public education systems that serve virtually all students,” she writes. In education the highest performing countries are Finland, Singapore and South Korea, all allies that pose no threat to U.S. national security.

In contrast, she added, nations like Chile that have aggressively pursued privatization “have a huge and growing divide between rich and poor that has led to dangerous levels of social unrest.”

Another dissenting member of the report panel, Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt, pointed out that U.S. schools still rank among the top 10 percent of the world’s 193 nations. “There are good reasons to improve K-12 education, but an imminent threat to our national security is not among them,” he concluded.

Whether Vermont eventually moves toward a “national security readiness audit” may depend on whether that becomes part of expanded Common Core standards, and also whether it is linked to funding. But the state’s lack of charter schools is clearly a reason for its low score from ALEC, while its opposition to annual testing was a key factor in blocking the waiver from No Child Left Behind.

Instead, the state this year considered legislation to provide “flexible pathways to graduation.” They include dual enrollment, virtual learning and work-based education. The legislation did not pass, mainly due to disagreement about the funding source, but there was general support for the concept. The strategies include personalized learning plans, proficiency-based advancement, career and college readiness, 21st century skill development, and improved learning outcomes.

Another attempt to pass the proposal is expected during the next legislative session.

Greg Guma

Comment Policy requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Be succinct and to the point. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer. If your comment is over 500 words, consider sending a commentary instead.

We personally review and moderate every comment that is posted here. This takes a lot of time; please consider donating to keep the conversation productive and informative.

The purpose of this policy is to encourage a civil discourse among readers who are willing to stand behind their identities and their comments. VTDigger has created a safe zone for readers who wish to engage in a thoughtful discussion on a range of subjects. We hope you join the conversation. If you have questions or concerns about our commenting platform, please review our Commenting FAQ.

Privacy policy
  • Okay folks, let’s stop being stupid – and I do meant stupid.

    Apparently the state, feds, ALEC, Council on Foreign Affairs and other branded idiots (yeah – my terms here may sound abusive, but they are well deserved) believe only they have the answers, and it shows throughout this story.

    Starting at the end: why do we need legislative authority to do something called “flexible pathways” when we are already doing this thing called “flexible pathways”? Do folks not understand that places such as VTC and the University of Vermont are already offering courses at extremely reduced rates to high school students who are ready for those courses?

    In other words: we are way the heck ahead of you – please stop getting in the way. (By the way – we got way ahead of the curve under the now defunct Department of Ed – now the Governor can really screw things up with his newly minted Agency of Ed)

    Charter schools? Really? We have a really great model already set up for Vermont between our decades and decades long system of school choice towns and the more recent Burlington City system of “magnet” schools. If, once again, the state legislature, feds, and right wing anything to destroy communities “tanks” (no – they don’t think very well) such as ALEC or CFA would just get out of the way and let the gifted educators and administrators do what they’ve been pushing to do – we at the local community owned and operated level would be way ahead of where we are now (and referring back to the above we’re already way ahead).

    This is stupid – and it isn’t about improving education for the kids – it’s about political control and defunding the opposition.

    How much shouting does it take for the media (and I include VT Digger) to start paying attention to all that is going on at our local districts that still maintain local governance, local input and local accountability? Why is the focus always on what the command and control crowd spout? How about some real honest investigative journalism?

  • Ben Smith

    Thanks for this report. I’m a school board member and continue to be puzzled by this race to the top business. Why wouldn’t the feds want to support, rather than punish, those of us who are already at the top? Those of us who have invested in top-quality public schooling for generation after generation? Our schools certainly have many things they can and should do better,but they are not failing. To subject us to the same rubric as those states with truly failing schools makes no sense to me, and I worry that we run the risk of actually deconstructing what are basically quite effective systems.
    Thanks again, and please keep up the reporting on this crucial issue.

  • Wow – I’m kind of horrified here. This article devotes a lot of column inches to groups and causes practically irrelevant to the Vermont experience.

    ALEC – don’t you understand who they are? This is the “stand your ground” outfit serving up predigested far right corporate legislation under the guise of an ersatz conservatism. Who cares how Vermont stands on the ALEC report card? They are so discredited, and so inimical to the values of Vermont, that I cannot see why significant space was expended on them. ALEC does not add value here. Pure astroturf.

    The Council on Foreign Relations is a bunch of Bush II retreads spouting a tired 30 year old ideology which has done nothing but harm our schools. The cited paper was shredded by education historian Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books. Good journalism would have gone outside this single policy brief.

    In 1981, the commencement speaker at my college graduation bored us with a diatribe very much like “US Education Reform and National Security”. I wish somebody would put this absurd narrative out of its misery.

    Charter schools are an urban solution relying on a robust public transportation system, with a very spotty record. Too much is made of the influence of charters. The oft repeated assertion that a lack of charters doomed any Vermont application for Race to the Top is silly – it accounted for ten points of the total score.

    Common Core State Standards are an interesting case. At best they may contribute modestly to student learning, but everything depends upon state and local implementation. Our state board of education adopted these standards it seems virtually without consideration of the capacity of our system to implement them effectively. I have heard VT DOE officials make the preposterous claim that we were required to adopt the CCSS by the Federal government – no, CCSS were entirely self-inflicted.

    Compound this by the fact that administrators seem to have little idea how to implement – I’ve heard an administrator assert at town meeting that CCSS are “a national curriculum,” something forbidden by the legislation that established the US Dept. of Education in the 70’s. Not to mention that standards and curriculum are two very different things.

    We are reduced to scenario where individual teachers will figure it out, aided by a patchwork of consultants – a poor excuse for policy. It does have the advantage of being cheap. As the adage goes: fast, cheap, effective – pick any two. Vermont seems to have picked fast and cheap.

    At worst, CCSS will be a boondoggle for corporations such as Pearson, the Halliburton of the education world. I think this will prove the likely scenario. CCSS and the related computer assistive assessments will produce billions of dollars of revenue for Pearson and their ilk. In addition to the tests themselves, everyone will need new textbooks. Already, nearly every new series from every publisher is “Common Core aligned” whether or not that is true. Oh yes – what about the tech infrastructure to support the new assessments? Billions more in computers, routers, etc. Follow the money.

    You could probably put all the people in Vermont capable of having an intelligent conversation about Federal education policy at a single (very small) table. The general level of ignorance at once insulates us somewhat from the national foolishness and leaves us extremely vulnerable. It also goes a long way to explaining the low quality of this article. I suggest you locate and talk with a few more of those people – and read a bit more than ALEC and CFR for background.

    Yes I agree that Vermont, rightly, is moving in a very different direction. But this article does little to illuminate the nature of, or reasons for, that direction.

  • As the communications director for Vermont-NEA, I appreciate Greg Guma’s pointing out why Vermont’s State Board of Education has rejected much of what is coming out of Washington. Working with us — the men and women who are in the classrooms everyday — they correctly noted that the “reforms” would disrupt what we have built over decades: a locally accountable, locally responsive school system. In fact, we have what the privatizers and neo-reformers actually want: small schools that are accountable every year to parents and taxpayers. Of course, such a system makes it impossible for for-profit charter schools to make a foothold here.

    The article is troubling, however, in even considering ALEC as a credible source for evaluating public schools. As the article correctly notes, the states that receive the highest marks from this pro-privatization group tend to be those with the lowest achievement scores but the highest concentration of privatized schools. In fact, Vermont should be worried if we ever received a “good” grade from ALEC.

    Of course, it bears repeating that ALEC itself has been widely exposed to be a charade: unlike the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, ALEC purposely pushes model legislation that would turn over most functions of government to private, for-profit entities. And, given ALEC’s recent defections — Coca Cola, Pepsi, Kraft, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Wal-Mart and many others — many private, for-profit entities want nothing to do with the organization.

    Public schools everywhere — here included — can always improve. Our members are dedicated to making our schools remain among the best in the nation. But the path to further excellence is not to turn over our schools to profit-making enteriprises; it is to emulate countries like Sweden and South Korea that invest heavily in their schools, and most especially in the men and women delivering the education.

  • Julie Hansen

    As the Director of a small independent school, my views are slightly different from those above. This is one of the most important discussions that a town, a state, or a nation could have, but we won’t get very far with if the starting point is name-calling.

    That said, the one area I would like to address is the Common Core. For the sake of clarity, this is not a national curriculum. It is not even a curriculum. Standards should not be confused with curriculum. The Common Core is a set of standards that suggests greater emphasis on skills that are specific to each discipline of study and push the demonstration of critical thinking and analysis.

    We do need to talk about the achievement gap in Vermont, but we first need to suspend the idea that children’s education is bound by the economic status into which they are born. I have heard too many representatives from the Department of Education confidently say that teachers can tell by the third grade which students will succeed academically. I find that idea counter to everything education is about. It is a specious argument that prohibits progress toward ensuring an excellent education for all children.

    Let’s have a symposium. Let’s actually talk.

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Vermont breaks with the federal government on education reform"