Ohanian: 28 questions about the Common Core

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Susan Ohanian of Charlotte, a longtime teacher and author of 25 books on education policy and practice. Her website is at www.susanohanian.org.

Author’s note: North Carolina Lt. Gov. Daniel J. Forest wrote an open letter to the state’s chief education officer, asking 67 questions about the Common Core State Standards. That letter provoked my own open letter to Vermont leaders who make critical decisions about educating our children. Every Vermonter has a stake in their answers.

Dear Gov. Shumlin, Secretary Vilaseca, members of the State Board of Education, and members of the House and Senate Committees on Education:

The Common Core State Standards

1. In an August 2010 press release, Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca stated that Vermont had been “actively involved in the development and review of these new Common Core State Standards (CCSS).”

• Please provide the names of these Vermonters “actively involved” in this CCSS development; include minutes and materials.

• Please forward all CCSS-related correspondence between the Vermont State Education Agency, the governor, and members of the Vermont Legislature between January 2009 and June 2010.

2. Did the secretary, the State Board of Education and members of the legislative education committees examine dissenting views before adopting the CCSS?

• Please provide a list of individuals, groups, associations providing reasons for NOT pursuing CCSS.

3. Can you point to pedagogical research supporting the following CCSS directives (offered as tiny examples of inappropriate mandates)?

• Kindergarten: Isolate and pronounce the initial, medial vowel, and final sounds (phonemes) in three-phoneme words.

• Grade 6: Establish and maintain a formal style in writing.

4. In a commentary in VTDigger, Aug. 29, 2010, Secretary Vilaseca asserted, “The Common Core State Standards are comparable to the most rigorous international education standards.”

• Please name the international standards used as CCSS benchmarks.

5. The Vermont Agency of Education states that CCSS are needed “To enable students from the U.S. to compete with their peers globally.”

• Please provide research showing a causal relationship between any national standards and economic competitiveness.

6. What was inadequate about Vermont’s previous standards?

• Please provide evidence of Vermont schools not teaching our students to read, write, speak, listen, and learn math for the past several decades.

7. What is the cost of providing teachers with resources to make the change to CCSS?

• Is this cost the responsibility of taxpayers in local districts?

• Has consideration been given to what schools will have to sacrifice in order to meet the standards?

8. Were local school boards consulted before CCSS adoption?

• Please provide details of these discussions.

9. The Vermont Agency of Education recommended that teachers watch a video featuring David Coleman, a chief architect of the CCSS, advising students who read several grade levels below the complex text assigned to the class: “You’re going to practice it again and again and again and again … so there’s a chance you can finally do that level of work.”

• How does this CCSS approach fit with the personalized education for every student?

12. The Pioneer Institute estimates the cost to implement CCSS nationally at about $16 billion over the next seven years. Six Rockland County (New York) school districts estimate a four-year cost of $10,886,712. What is the cost projection for Vermont?


10. When Vermont adopted CCSS, what convincing information superseded the fact that the radical CCSS, written by non-educators, was not research-based, not field-tested, not proven effective?

11. The State Board can change/alter the CCSS by “15%” to accommodate local needs.

• What constitutes a percentage point when modifying CCSS?

• Who can request such modifications for Vermont?

• To whom does Vermont submit modifications?

• What happens if changes above “15%” are made?

12. The Pioneer Institute estimates the cost to implement CCSS nationally at about $16 billion over the next seven years. Six Rockland County (New York) school districts estimate a four-year cost of $10,886,712. What is the cost projection for Vermont?


13. How is the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) aligned to CCSS better than current assessments (which Vermont taxpayers paid a lot to develop)? Include correspondence, and documentation of Vermont participation in SBAC meetings.

14. Teachers and parents have expressed concerns about the length of the pilot tests. What is your best estimate for the time CCSS assessments will take from regular school studies?

15. How do you plan to address challenges posed by the lack of transparency in these assessments?

• Who will determine cut scores, the number of right answers students need on a test to be deemed proficient, on the new CCSS exams?

• What happens to students who do not meet these cut scores?

16. Why did Vermont decide not to field test CCSS assessments prior to the complete roll-out?

17. How will the CCSS tests affect students in alternative programs such as the Walden Project offered through Vergennes Union High School and other remarkable placed-based learning projects?

• Can you offer assurance that CCSS assessments will “test for grit, teamwork, communication, innovation, ambition and the like?” [See John Merrow Open Letter to Architects of the Common Core, May 29, 2013]

18. So far this year, Oklahoma, Alabama and Georgia have withdrawn from assessments associated with CCSS. Has Vermont looked into this as an option? Why or why not?

19. To accommodate just the technological requirements for CCSS assessments, Florida budgeted an additional $450 million and California an extra $1 billion. What has Vermont budgeted for technological improvements to ensure our schools meet the basic requirements for CCSS assessment?

20. Does every Vermont school have bandwidth capacity for the CCSS assessments? Please provide a list.

21. Will the implementation of new technology requirements to accommodate CCSS assessment require local schools to hire additional IT staff?

Origin of the Common Core

22. Do you think that the fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent several hundred million dollars to create and promote the CCSS, shutting teachers out of the process, puts the democratic process in jeopardy?

23. In his State of the Union address President Obama referenced CCSS: “We’ve convinced nearly every state in the country …” What form did federal “persuasion” take in Vermont’s decision?

24. In a June 2013 letter sent to the Chief State School Officers, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated, “The Department of Education (DOE) is open to additional flexibility for states in … one particular element of teacher and leader evaluation.”

• If CCSS and assessments are not federally mandated programs, why and how is the federal government able to offer flexibility to states?

25. Secretary Duncan: “Given … the dramatic changes in curricula that teachers and principals are now starting to teach, and the transition to new assessments aligned to those standards, the Department will, on a state-by-state basis, allow states up to one additional year before using their new evaluation systems to inform personnel determinations.”

• Exactly what does “evaluation systems to inform personnel determinations” mean in Vermont? What is the federal role in how we evaluate our teachers?

Data collection

26. InBloom, the national database of personal student information associated with the implementation of CCSS, states that it “cannot guarantee the security of the information stored, or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted.”

• Please detail any communication between representatives from inBloom and the Vermont Agency of Education.

27. What is your position on the lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) against the U.S. Department of Education for issuing regulations that fail to safeguard students?

• Please list what data points will be collected on Vermont public school students and shared with “contractors, consultants and volunteers.”

• Please provide the names of contractors, consultants and volunteers who conducted such research over the last two years.

28. Can Vermont parents and students “opt out” of the collection and storage of personal information in education databases associated with CCSS? If so, what is the process? If not, why not?

Thank you for taking the time to consider these questions. I believe every Vermonter has a huge stake in your answers.

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  • Linda Quackenbush

    The nationalized education reform known as Common Core was never put to public vote in Vermont. Why are we implementing a “one size” fits all education and accepting Federal grant dollars when we’re already paying for Act 60-68 thru property taxes? This is FRAUD…As Taxpayers we were never given the opportunity to vote on this enacted 2010 reform. Where is “all” the money going when there’s a consistent drop in student enrollment and a consistent increase in property taxes? There’s absolutely no accountability or representation by our government “for the people by the People…”

  • There is another question that fails to be addressed. In the Race to the Top and Waivers states had to get buy in from state higher Ed. This buy in means that they promise to use the CC PARCC ot Smarter Balance EOC tests in high school for entrance and direct placement into credit bearing classes. They are to evaluate these credit bearing classes in math and English to better align with the CC. It is in the federal registry vol. 75, no 68 on page 18172 and also in ur state RttT appl.

  • Dorian Yates

    I really hope that Susan Ohanian and all of us Vermonters get the answers to these questions and comments that we all deserve.

  • Janice Prindle

    I’m glad to see someone raising these questions, and not surprised that it is Susan Ohanian, always an outstanding advocate of what matters in teaching our children. I say this as a retired teacher. Before the original Vermont Standards were adopted(suspiciously like the standards in every other state, and also a “partnership” between business and the feds, but that’s another story), members of the general public and teachers heard lots about them. There was at least a show of getting public input, and certainly lots of effort from the DOE and school districts to work with teachers in getting acquainted with them and applying them to our work.

    Not so the Common Core. The DOE just announced them one day a little over a year ago, in an email to teachers on one mailing list that I happened to be on. In talking with some of my colleagues, I realized that many of them had not received a similar announcement. I had to do some checking around online to locate the Common Core standards and curricula for the different disciplines and grade levels. Make no mistake: this is a national curriculum. And for my discipline, at least (language arts), it is a disaster of developmentally inappropriate benchmarks for class reading, required writing genres and overall erosion of the humanities.

    There isn’t room here to explain all of the ways in which it reflects a narrow, reductionist view of what education is, and how children learn — in defiance of all we now know about the brain and the role of affect in education at all ages(emotions,connections between life and learning,dialogue and social context). To cite just one disturbing aspect of Common Core: there is a distinct de-emphasis upon cultivating an individual voice and purpose; an emphasis upon information, rather than interpretation and expression, in reading and writing. (Hence that “formal tone” for 11-to-12-year-olds, who will write mostly essays and business letters.)Translation: in the guise of “high” standards of “critical” thinking, the Common Core wants students to suppress their own voices and ideas, to learn to be part of a well-trained, docile work force, not creative, reflective people who can speak for themselves and challenge a status quo. There’s no evidence this approach will increase “critical thinking,” and plenty to suggest it won’t.

    Exactly what you might expect from a project funded by billionaires and pushed by politicians with no educational experience themselves, whose agenda is not truly pedagogical, but driven by their world view that the problem with America is that we can’t “compete” in global markets. People who have manufactured an educational “crisis” in public schools so that they can make money from peddling the “fix”: more testing, and more for-profit schools. People who have a vested interest in blaming teachers and their unions instead of facing up to the real problem: school performance is correlated to economic background.

    We’ve know this for decades: School districts where the vast majority of kids come to school well-nourished, with a rich vocabulary from years of reading aloud, family dinner talk, and outings, tend to be school districts with money to spend on decent buildings, books, technology, and teachers enough to keep class sizes small. And those are the schools who students perform well on standardized tests. Schools where the majority of students come from families struggling to feed them or pay rent,let alone prepare them for schooling; students who live daily with the brain-eroding effects of stress and trauma of economic insecurity and the physical dangers that exposes them to; students whose schools lack proper heating or air-conditioning,, books, computers, staff or even unbroken windows…don’t do well on test.

    Common Core won’t make a dent in this. It’s an expensive smoke screen.

  • Yvonne Siu-Runyan

    I thought the people of Vermont were smarter and are more independent thinkers than to buy into this lunacy. This is sad.

  • Relevant to this discussion:

    California’s test scores: the real problem and the real solution
    Published in the Los Angeles Times, August 11, 2013

    John Rogers, quoted in “State sees a surprise drop in test scores” (August 9) is right: There shouldn’t be too much concern about blips, tiny changes, in standardized test scores.

    If we are interested in real gains, let’s attack the real problem: Poverty. Nearly 25% of students in school in the US live in poverty, which means inadequate diet, lack of health care, and little or no access to books. The best teaching in the world is of little help when students are hungry, ill, and have nothing to read.

    Forget the untested, expensive common core: Let’s invest more in food programs, health care, and libraries.

    Stephen Krashen

    original article: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-test-scores-20130809,0,5883250.story
    this letter posted at: http://tinyurl.com/m583s6x

  • Also relevant to this discussion:

    The common core only prepares students for taking tests.
    Sent to the Yakima Herald August 13, 2013
    The cartoon accompanying “Common Core standards will help prepare students for real world” (August 12) shows a parent asking a child what she learned in school today. The answer is a multiple-choice bubble sheet, a perfect response to the article.
    Not mentioned in the article is the fact that the common core is calling for more standardized testing than we have ever seen on this planet, far more than the already excessive amount required by No Child Left Behind. In addition to final tests, there will be interim tests given throughout the year and perhaps even pretests in the fall. Instead of only testing math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once in high-school, the common core will test more subjects and more grades. I estimate at least a 20-fold increase in standardized testing.
    The common core will not help prepare students for anything except tests.
    Stephen Krashen
    Source: Krashen, S. 2012. How much testing? Posted on Diane Ravitch’s blog: http://dianeravitch.net/2012/07/25/stephen- krashen-how-much-testing/
Posted on The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post blog: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/
    Original op-ed: http://www.yakimaherald.com/news/yhr/sunday/1391393-8/common-core-standards-will-help-prepare-students-for

  • Margaret Maclean
    • Thanks, Margaret,
      I didn’t know this funny/appalling/accurate video on Common Core formulas.

  • Dave Bellini

    It’s playing the game to get federal money. Another reason to abolish the U.S. Department of Education.

  • Ed McFarren

    There are lots of questions but there won’t be any answers from a Secretary who is on his way out. The State signs on the Common Core and then pushes through something called flexible pathways to graduation. Just how is a teacher supposed to meet the standards with half the class not there. Bumbling bureaucrats. Do any of them know what they are doing!

  • Smarter Balanced is the testing consortium Vermont chose to deliver Common Core-aligned assessment tests. I just took some of their tests.

    Take a look at what $191,749,539 in our Federal tax dollars has bought us. And that’s only half. We paid about the same to the other testing consortium, PARCC. It’s called ‘state choice.’ And there will still be the enormous cost for our local districts to administer these tests.


  • Carla Sorrell

    I am an educator from Georgia. When PARCC was being explained, I had concerns about costs as well as the validity of tests given to computer illiterate students. Some counties still use chalkboards. Some counties have cut their school calendars from 180 days to less than 150 days. For the past three years I have gotten pay cuts. Yet, we continue ton spend millions on new hardback text books. The costs associated with training for the National Common Core are astronomical. The college and career ready initiatives are training students for obsolete college classes and obsolete careers. How do we train students to be creative, take chances, work cooperatively, etc. Someone mentioned an international common core… what is next? Intergalactic common core. Teachers… need to be trusted. the individual teachers… one by one make a difference. They make the difference that prepare American students for success.

  • Carla,

    Well, they can take away your pay but they can’t trim your humor. Thank goodness for that! Don’t tell Bill Gates about “intergalactic common core”; he’ll do it. Of course I agree:individual teachers make a difference. . . one by one. Two weeks ago I drove over 300 miles to attend the surprise 50th birthday party for one of my 8th graders. Once I recovered from the shock that Emily was 50, how could I not attend? I wonder how many teachers to obey the Common Core will receive such an invitation.

  • You can read Education Secretary Vilaseca’s response at

  • These questions need to be posted nationally! Like Luther’s indictments on the church door.

  • Thank you!
    I think the questions have gotten more attention from out-of-staters than from Vermonters.

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