Common Core: The politics

Union Elementary School fifth grade student Alex raises her hand to ask a question while classmate Brian edits his report. Students are in Windy Kelley's classroom the Montpelier school. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

A student at Union Elementary School in Montpelier raises her hand to ask a question. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger


The Common Core State Standards arrive in Vermont K to 12 classrooms this week, and as the school year approaches, scrutiny of the Vermont State Board of Education’s process in adopting the standards has heightened. Four years after Vermont chose to adopt the national education standards, controversy swirls over what happened and when, and who had a say in the final decision.

In 2008, the National Governor’s Association — headed up by then-Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas — forged a bipartisan effort to create a common set of education standards to close disparities in the nation’s school systems. Working with the Council of Chief State School Officers, the NGA convened a group of education experts and stakeholders to design the standards. 

Gov. Jim Douglas reads to schoolchildren

Gov. Jim Douglas reads to schoolchildren.

In Vermont, the standards moved quickly through the State Board of Education’s approval process.

In May 2009, the State Board voted to allow then-Commissioner Armando Vilaseca and Gov. Jim Douglas to sign a Memorandum of Agreement to participate in the Common Core review and consideration process. In early 2010, Vermont got a draft of the standards. States had a few months to provide confidential feedback on the standards and in March of the same year, the State Board announced it would take public comment on the Common Core on April 2.

At that meeting, Sherry Gile, from Vermont NEA, “noted that there is anxiety in the field about this work and urged all concerned to increase communication and information on the topic.”

By May, the board had signed two non-binding MOUs with other states, one for the test, and one for the standards.

Only one member of the public – education advocate and former teacher Susan Ohanian of Charlotte — commented on the Common Core at an SBE meeting, according to State Board of Education minutes from 2009 and 2010. In August, on the same day the standards were adopted, Ohanian questioned the amount of public input in the adoption process.

“We publicized that we were looking at new states-led standards and the board spent a considerable amount of time on the topic,” Vilaseca said. “The board had this on the agenda on many occasions over a long period of time and always had opportunities for public input.”

Brent Kay, superintendent of the Orange Southwest Supervisory Union and former head of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said the association chose not to endorse the state standards. “There wasn’t enough information to support or not support the move in that direction,” he said.

The bottom line

No one at the AOE could put a number on the Vermont funds spent on Common Core alone. Implementation of the standards is not a line item in the state’s budget, and costs have fallen largely on the federal government and on the schools themselves. The state did receive funds for schools from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, though little of that $77 million went toward Common Core. The Professional Learning Network conducts most of the professional development trainings on the standards, funded by an annual contract of nearly $400,000.

Schools agree that there have been costs associated with the Common Core. But estimates vary widely: Montpelier didn’t know what total costs might be, Chittenden South’s investment came mainly in time, and Orange Southwest estimate over $1 million in expenditures.

Bill Mathis, a former Vermont school superintendent who is now a member of the State Board, called the development of the standards nationally “political football.”

He urged the State Board at the time not to go ahead with the Common Core.

“It wasn’t developed with educators input, and until we established the validity,” the state couldn’t verify the effectiveness of the standards, Mathis said.

Don Tinney, an English teacher for BFA St. Albans called the politics behind the Common Core the “elephant in the room.”

“Part of the problem,” he explained, “is that people are not saying, how did we get here?”

Vilaseca says the process was fast-tracked through the State Board decision-making process in part because Douglas was leading the initiative through the National Governors Association.

“I think the process went well even though there was less participation by educators and others than we would have liked, but not because the SBE did not invite or ask for input,” Vilaseca said.

Michael Hock, director of Educational Assessment for the AOE, said, “There was a big push by the National Governor’s Association and our governor was chair.”

But despite what Hock dubbed a “top-down initiative” in Vermont, “at the time, it made complete sense,” he said.

“We knew we would need new tests, so why not use the federal money to do the job right?” he said. “I don’t recall that there was an effort on the part of the board and agency to exclude (community input). Looking at things in hindsight, I can see how folks feel like they didn’t get a say.”

The board voted unanimously to adopt the standards on Aug. 17, 2010.

During the board’s consideration of the standards, said Pat Fitzsimmons, Common Core implementation coordinator, the AOE received input from a group of about 60 education representatives from around the state, who got together over the course of a year to look closely at the Common Core.

That group, which included schools educators, administrators, “people who really knew the standards,” suggested changes to the standards, many of which were adopted nationally.

“I saw the standards become more child friendly, more appropriate,” Fitzsimmons said.

After adoption, the AOE gathered another group, made up of superintendents, principals, and policy experts to discuss implementation.

“They really represented a variety of perspectives, so we could make some good decisions, as well as some policy changes,” Fitzsimmons said.

Across the nation, the standards were adopted by state boards of education.

Not long ago, Hock received a call from a student who wrote on the Common Core for his PhD dissertation at Harvard.

“His main point was that something as big and complicated as adopting the Common Core would never have made it through if they had gone through Congress,” Hock said. “It was not done with all the government oversight that usually occurs. … It wasn’t as typical, it was messy. The governors were pretty astute. They said ‘We’re going to try to do this because Congress won’t.’”

Until the U.S. Department of Education provided funding for implementing the standardized tests associated with the Common Core, the federal government wasn’t involved at all.

Does the adoption process set a bad precedent for future education reform? Hock said: “It may.”

“Years later, people are going to second-guess these things,” Hock said.

But before critics condemn the state’s adoption process, Hock encourages them to consider the resulting standards and tests. “I’m looking at the product that came out at the other end,” he said. “And I think they’re both pretty good. Definitely better than what we had before.”

Ken Page, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, says the new standards have changed how schools function, but “Vermont doesn’t feel threatened by the Common Core, we just want to do a good job.”

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