State Board affirms support for state standards, but DOE will proceed with informal review

Following up on what has been several months of public comment and debate, the State Board of Education will not be opening a formal review of the state’s College and Career Ready Standards for Math and English Language Arts (ELA). Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, who was present at the meeting, confirmed that the Department of Education will still proceed with an informal standards review.

“Tweaking” the standards

The Commissioner began the standards review discussion by proposing a review process to “tweak” the standards, saying that the approach is not designed to be disruptive. He said that it is designed to build upon work that districts are already doing, allowing them to implement the “tweaks” as they continually revise their curriculum.

“As we go through the process, we can have a best-of-both-worlds, where we can review the standards so that we don’t get to the point like we reached with Social Studies,” said the Commissioner. “Incremental change is a whole lot easier than big changes.” The state standards for Social Studies were last revised in 2006, while the Math and ELA standards were updated in 2009.

But a number of Board members disagreed that his proposed review would be incremental.

“I heard tweaks. Tweaks are within the framework of standards… What you’re proposing aren’t tweaks,” said Board member Helen Honorow, referencing a plan he handed out.

“I don’t think we’re talking about tweaks here, I think we’re talking standards and it’s a political decision. I know Common Core has gotten a bad political review. Letters, testimony, everything says please don’t let politics get in the way of what our schools need, what our students need,” said Board member Cindy Chagnon.

Chagnon continued: “These states that have made tweaks, they’ve spent a quarter of a million dollars. We don’t have that capacity. The local districts are the ones that look at that; we don’t need to be the force or dictator saying you need to change this this year and this that year. It creates chaos in the school. It’s a local control issue.”

“Our own legislature has stated in statute that it is my responsibility to review, on an ongoing basis, the standards,” responded the Commissioner. “I recognize the testimony [in support of the standards]. But there’s been a broader concern in the legislature… We have to reflect on the fact that voters spoke with some decisiveness to elect a Governor who ran on repealing Common Core.”

A four-point framework for standards review

At the beginning of the meeting, Commissioner Frank Edelblut provided a four-point framework for his proposed standards review:

  • Ensuring that the language of existing standards are accessible,
  • Looking at the Massachusetts state standards,
  • Researching the findings of the 21 other states that have identified changes to their state standards, and
  • Following up with superintendents that have made changes to their standards at the district level to share findings.

He estimated the review process to take about a year, where he would then report back to the State Board. There was no discussion about the resources necessary to do the review.

When asked if he would involve any members of the State Board, he said, “I’m interested in participation from broad constituencies. I’m not going to force anyone to come to the table.”

Member Bill Duncan reminded the Board that any person or organization can do an informal standards review–no prior authorization is necessary. However, only the State Board of Education has the statutory authority to open a formal standards review process.

Concerns with Standards Review

Board members expressed concern about the effect of a standards review on educators and administrators. The typical process for standards review, according to Ms. Chagnon, takes more than two years and includes stakeholder input, surveys, public hearings, meetings with schools, and more.

“There’s nothing more frustrating than engaging people authentically, only to archive the findings on the shelf,” said Board member Gary Groleau.

Ms. Honorow feared that if the Department were to open even an informal standards review, districts wouldn’t invest in professional development, technology, and curriculum materials out of fear that it would become outdated when the state implements new standards.

Other Board members said that it is the State Board’s job to review the standards. “It’s our job to review them. Our job might not be pleasant, and we might have some pushback, just like we had [with Common Core in 2009],” said Board member Ann Lane.

Social Studies Standards Review

Commissioner Edelblut said that Social Studies is “certainly on the radar to be updated.” He said that the Department of Education will be reviewing the standards at the same time that it will be reviewing the Math and ELA standards.

When talking about Social Studies standards, he made the point that they were implemented in 2006, while Math and ELA were implemented in 2009. “We heard a sense of urgency on Social Studies, but Common Core came to us in 2009… I’m trying to understand that urgency,” the Commissioner said.

During the public comment period, educators and administrators urged the State Board to reopen the Social Studies standards, saying they are in dire need of updating. The election of our first African American President, the capture of Osama bin Laden, terrorism, and other current events are not included in the standards, according to Superintendent Pam Stiles (SAU 72).

The Board’s decision to reaffirm support of the standards

Member Bill Duncan put forth a formal statement for a vote before the Board:

The State Board of Education recognizes that the Department of Education will undertake its own informal review of English Language Arts and Math standards. However, the Board agrees with feedback from teachers and business leaders, higher education, parents, and specialists, and the particularly strong stand of Superintendents that the standards are serving our students well and are not in need of modification. Therefore, the State Board of Education will not reopen the English Language Arts or Math standards. Only the State Board of Education has the statutory authority to open a formal review of the standards and will not do so at this time.

In her vote supporting the statement, Ms. Honorow said, “I’m not voting because I just want to say no. What I’ve done is what I feel is my job, and listened to overwhelming support for them [the current Math and ELA standards]… In this case, I don’t feel like we are using the traditional process, and it sends a confusing message to districts. We’re either doing the process, or we’re not. And this feels like a behind the scenes process that isn’t seeking that kind of input.”

The motion passed 3-1, with two members abstaining.