Vermont Abandons Race to the Top, But Embraces Common Core

Published August 14, 2010

Vermont did not reapply for the second round of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant competition, but the state’s board of education did take U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s advice to adopt the Common Core State Standards Initiative. 

Despite criticism from some reformers that the national standards are confusing and not as good as those of some states, Vermont officials found the Common Core standards to be a considerable improvement over their current English and math frameworks.

Poor Marks for Current Standards

A recent evaluation by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave the Common Core standards a B in language arts and an A in mathematics. Comparing state standards to the Common Core frameworks, the Fordham study concluded the national standards in English were stronger than those of 37 states and the math standards outdid those of 39 states, based on clarity and vigor.

The Fordham study gave Vermont a D in language arts and an F in math.

The Vermont standards were largely ambiguous, said Bruce Buxton, a former literature teacher at Cape Cod’s Falmouth Academy and professor of Education Leadership at Columbia University.

“[Vermont’s] standards floated lonely as a cloud,” he said. “There were no specific points of knowledge against which the performance they implied could be measured.”

Criticism Accepted

Fordham’s study criticized Vermont’s math standards for not being sequenced by grade level. The Vermont Education Department accepted the critique.

“Our standards and grade expectations define what students should have learned by the end of each school year, but don’t dictate a specific course sequence,” said Michael Hock, the department’s director of assessment. “Basic algebra skills are actually introduced in the elementary grades, and the expectation is that algebra is part of the math curriculum at every grade level.”

Hock also agreed with Fordham’s recommendation that schools teach algebra in 8th grade. “That would not be too soon if the students have the prerequisite skills,” he said.

Standards ‘Will Confuse Students’

Ze’ev Wurman, a former advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, says Common Core’s math frameworks fall short of excellence in several areas.

“A lot of bad things have improved since March; at the same time there are still inexplicable holes,” Wurman said. “They are trying to use a formal method that will confuse a lot of students.”

Wurman says Vermont may be disappointed with the way the Common Core standards build up to algebra, as there is little actual preparation for it in K-7 math. “The United States has been moving to algebra in 8th grade for 15 years. The national math panel published a report in 2008 and said yes it is important to do it,” says Wurman. “The Common Core standards essentially said no.”

Common Core ‘Kills Innovation’

Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, says the very standardization Common Core imposes is a bad choice.

“It makes little sense to expect all kids to master all the same things at the same rates,” McCluskey said. “All kids are different—they have different talents, desires, and abilities, and to impose one, ‘best’ progression on them is simply illogical.”

McCluskey argues national standards “prevent competition among curricula. And that, in turn, kills innovation, the lifeblood of progress.”

John McClaughry, acting president of the Ethan Allen Institute, Vermont’s only free-market think tank, lamented the state’s public schools “must use the same, uniform state standards, for better or worse.

“Many parents would doubtless prefer to have their children attend an independent school that taught to Virginia’s history standards, California’s math, Colorado’s geography, and Indiana’s science,” he said.

State to Revamp Tests

Vermont officials say they also plan to revamp the state’s testing program, possibly in conjunction with other New England states, and adopt a computerized adaptive test similar to the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) administered by the College Board.

“We are in the process of developing a new assessment system that can see gains in scores.… In this new model, we will measure specific student growth, and the new tests will be able to help do this better,” said Hock.

Evelyn B. Stacey ([email protected]) is a policy analyst in education studies for the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California.

Internet Info:
Thomas B. Fordham Institute: “The State of State Standards—and the Common Core—in 2010, July 2010”: