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Mark P. Murphy
Educational Leadership
The Pennsylvania State University

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Vermont Common Core of Learning: Process, Product, and Turbulence

The Vermont Common Core of Learning: Process, Product, and Turbulence
Steven Jay Gross,
Temple University
The Case:
This is an old event but one that still makes me wonder. In 1990 I became Chief of Curriculum and Instruction for the state of Vermont. As soon as I got to the post, the Commissioner called me into his office to describe a remarkable opportunity. I was asked to chair a new initiative called the Vermont Common Core of Learning. It was my job to identify the central ideas that all of the state’s 100, 0000 students needed to know and the skills that they needed to be able to perform.
I quickly saw the potential for trouble. For one thing our state’s culture of local control meant that ideas coming from above were automatically regarded with suspicion. Therefore, using the typical blue ribbon panel to draft the Common Core seemed a poor idea. Building on successful work already started at the University of Vermont, I supported the approach of training local people to facilitate focus forums around the state based on the model of the New England town meeting. Our central question was: ‘What do all learners need to know and be able to do in order to be successful in the 21st century?’
I was elated when the Commissioner and the state board went along with this approach. Using the focus forums, we gathered important directions for our state’s curriculum vision and reports from around the state were positive. I made it my business to lead many of these gatherings and it was powerful to see groups ranging from 30 to 120 community members work together in common purpose.
Then the trouble started. The first sign of a storm cloud came when we met with representatives of the state’s corporations. They had participated in the forums and seemed to appreciate the quality of our work. The researcher in me made the mistake of becoming exuberant over finding patterns among the growing number of focus forums. I naïvely told the group, “I can now almost predict what people will say are the four major categories of ideas they want all of our students to know.” I expected curiosity and a lively conversation. What I got was impatience. “If you can tell me what people will say, why are you still conducting these forums?” was the reply of one business executive. The Commissioner agreed. My protest that the process was critical to keeping the public engaged was barely tolerated and I left the meeting with butterflies. This episode was followed by other meetings where the Commissioner said such things as, “I am feeling trapped by this process.” Then came a newspaper editorial blasting forum results. We had run out of time. Before long, the work that my team and I believed in was considered passé by those in charge and the Department shifted its focus elsewhere.

The Values Audit:
Because I think a lot about turbulence, it may be easiest to start with Turbulence Theory as a way into this problem. First, I think that our focus forum approach was a good example of positive turbulence. By that I mean, we took a moribund issue such as statewide curriculum discussions and made it come alive by shaking up communities with a process that engaged many people who were rarely included in conversations of this type. We took a light turbulent condition (wherein few people debated the idea of statewide curriculum patterns) and raised the turbulence level to moderate. When the leaders of the Department lost patience with our work, the level shot up to severe, then extreme causing the focus forum process to end while other state-sponsored curriculum projects took its place.
Again, using Turbulence Theory, we can consider the underlying forces of stability, positionality, and cascading to go deeper. As Chief of Curriculum and Instruction for the state of Vermont, I had some authority and my support created enough stability for the innovation to launch and develop through the first several months. What I did not appreciate was how quickly stability could erode without the support of those above me. My position also colored my approach. I was deeply impressed with the level and quality of participation of community members in our forums. But the leaders of the Department had a different perspective that reflected their position. They needed to show what they considered to be results. Process to me was a kind of result. For them, it was only a route to something concrete. They seemed to feel if they did not accomplish their goals in short order, someone else could replace them who would. Finally, as one set of external power groups, in this case the business organizations, showed displeasure with our work, others joined in. The cascading of one negative opinion onto the next made it easier for the momentum against continuing the forums to gain speed. This made it easier for those at the top of the Department to lose the will to continue.
Using the Multiple Ethical Paradigms 1 I would say that I emphasized the ethics of critique, care, and the profession. I questioned the blue ribbon panel because I thought it was elitist. In that model, the public only gets to comment on the work of others, if that. The ethic of care kept me thinking of accessing all possible ideas for our curriculum and the ethic of the profession made the best interests of learners the central focus of all of our work.
I am grateful for the time that I had to pursue the Common Core focus forums. Groups including parents, community members, and young people were honored and engaged in the basic work of building Vermont’s curriculum. However, I also appreciate the fact that movements come along in their own season and that time runs out for each of them. Continuing the forums meant more than having a good idea and arguing for what was right for so many thousands of participants. Now I see the problem from other perspectives and the need to build coalitions to support this kind of innovation.

1. Space limits prevent me from a detailed discussion of the Multiple Ethical Paradigms. I would be happy to delve into that dimension should anyone in the project care to hear it


ECM said...

I definitely see the ethic of care and of justice in your approach to building the core curriculum. Communities want voice, especially as it pertains to education--this is evidenced by local response across the country to centralization and standardization. I agree with your final assessment that coalition building would have been beneficial for you and the communities that became invested in the project. Windows of opportunity in policy making are so fleeting, that without a coalition of support, they can close before any solution has been thoughtfully created.

Norm Miller said...

I enjoyed your post. Your use of the Turbulence theory in this scenario regarding the statewide curriculum and the discussions held helped me to better understand the theory and the application of it. It demonstrates how a negative opinion can quickly gain momentum and all but destroy an initiative. Your use of the ethics of care, profession and critique in the value audit make perfect sense in rationalizing the creation of the discussion forums. Thanks for sharing.

Chiachen Chang said...

This is a great example of how a critical incident could affect one’s personal values, beliefs and behaviors formation. The ethic-oriented decision you insisted on for building the curriculum is admirable. In addition, the Turbulence Theory applied in this incident to analyze the causation and coverage of the incident is cogently. The effectiveness of processing the inquiry in a forum could significantly affect the progress of the forum and the administrative decision-making. I also agree that understanding the stakeholder’s perspective in its entirety and shooting for identification and advocators are also essential components of succeeding the forums. Thanks for the great post.