Merrill Vargo

Merrill Vargo

After a long period of hesitation, California has finally gotten serious about the Common Core State Standards. The $1.25 billion recently allocated for implementation of the new standards has sent a clear message to district leaders that California is committed to the Common Core. This funding is a start, but providing the tools districts will need in the time available will be a major challenge for state leaders.

How can the state support districts? In the past, the approach to curriculum reform was to create a state-funded support infrastructure. In one iteration this consisted of university-based “subject matter projects” and a County Office of Education-led California School Leadership Academy, or CSLA. The next time around, the counties took the lead in providing training (often called after the sponsoring legislation, SB 472) that was tightly linked to state-adopted instructional materials. Both of these models had strengths and weaknesses, but neither is reproducible in the time available or in the context of a Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).

Today policymakers face a new set of constraints – but also possibilities. The constraints are clear: Instead of going to a state-funded support infrastructure for Common Core implementation, resources are going to districts. The possibilities may be less apparent, but by providing resources for Common Core implementation and by passing LCFF to push expenditure decisions to the local level, California has taken the first step toward creating a real marketplace of improvement providers. Whether this marketplace functions well or badly will be a major factor in determining if California will succeed in its effort to transition to the Common Core. Creating an efficient and effective marketplace – one that matches district customers with the high-quality products and services they need – is a new but worthy goal for state policy.

What is required for an effective marketplace? As any Economics 101 student probably knows, effective marketplaces require demand, supply, and the free flow of information. The infusion of $1.25 billion into the system will create a demand for services, and demand creates supply. Superintendents already report that their inboxes are full of advertising from publishers, professional developers, technology vendors and others whose products and services are purported to be “Common Core aligned.” Many superintendents report being overwhelmed and unsure how to proceed; demand and supply are necessary but not sufficient to create an effective marketplace. Two other ingredients are needed: information, and an informed consumer.  Creation of these two key ingredients must become the focus of state policy.

This is urgent, and neither the goal nor the task will come naturally to many state leaders, whose experience will lead them to fall back on bureaucratic strategies and regulations. But we have abundant evidence that regulated marketplaces are not efficient; that subsidizing selected providers depresses both prices and quality; that state-led efforts to vet and approve providers have never been effective; and that tasking agencies – whether it be the California Department of Education, County Offices, or a new agency created for this purpose – to both do compliance and provide support inevitably leads to problems and even conflicts of interest.

What are alternative approaches for state policymakers? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Create a searchable database of products and services related to the Common Core, and then invite customers to rate them (think Yelp, Angie’s List, or TripAdvisor). This database should be comprehensive, not a list of “approved providers.” The point here is to give the superintendent with the full inbox a way to determine how long a provider has been in business, what their focus is, who their clients have been and what they think, and any evaluation data that is available.
  2. Use a simple, common planning template and encourage districts to post their plans to an online database so that districts’ planning decisions are transparent to each other. Local leaders often feel isolated and hungry to know what others are doing.
  3. Provide tools to support good decision-making at the local level: a rubric districts could use to review their own Common Core plan or a set of recommended (but not required!) processes for districts to use to select outside support providers.
  4. Ensure that any state rules, accountability requirements or state-level requirements for the expenditure of the $1.25 billion do not lock districts into a hastily created plan, but rather allow them to experiment, learn something and make adjustments.
  5. Encourage the foundation community to help by underwriting support providers’ efforts to develop, test and market high-quality training programs and materials to school districts. Publishers and technology companies don’t lack for funds for these purposes, but this isn’t equally true for nonprofit support providers.

These are sample recommendations that support a new policy focus that is clearly in line with the governor’s intent in advocating for local control. There are certainly others. What is key here is to connect the huge challenge and opportunity constituted by the Common Core with the major shift implied by LCFF. This is work worth doing, but it needs to start now.

•••

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement.


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  1. el 3 years ago3 years ago

    Whether or not County Offices of education are a good and effective place for curriculum selection is probably dependent on the size of districts and the size of the county. In Los Angeles county, doing it at the county level would be ridiculous. But up here in the rural north, where we have smaller counties in both area and population, and many small school districts, I expect we will want to continue using the County … Read More

    Whether or not County Offices of education are a good and effective place for curriculum selection is probably dependent on the size of districts and the size of the county. In Los Angeles county, doing it at the county level would be ridiculous. But up here in the rural north, where we have smaller counties in both area and population, and many small school districts, I expect we will want to continue using the County office as a nexus/organizing point to try to coordinate curriculum choices and training opportunities.

  2. Paul 3 years ago3 years ago

    Merrill, I wonder how you feel about the quality of this marketplace. I don't believe that superintendents can order Common Core readiness. Math teachers, for example, have to go through a period of introspection, checking whether their math knowledge goes beyond procedure and then beefing up their understanding where necessary. I'd go so far as to argue that working with a coach or attending an active workshop might prompt a teacher to hide gaps in his … Read More

    Merrill, I wonder how you feel about the quality of this marketplace.

    I don’t believe that superintendents can order Common Core readiness. Math teachers, for example, have to go through a period of introspection, checking whether their math knowledge goes beyond procedure and then beefing up their understanding where necessary. I’d go so far as to argue that working with a coach or attending an active workshop might prompt a teacher to hide gaps in his or her knowledge, for fear of being perceived as incompetent. What’s more, coaches and trainers can present information, but the recipient alone must do the work of receiving the information, thinking about it, practicing with it, and revising prior knowledge. This is a fundamentally individual process.

    After achieving deeper mathematical understanding, a teacher needs access to lessons and problems designed with the Standards for Mathematical Practice in mind. To pick two big ones, deliberate invocation of sophisticated patterns in lessons and problems, and scrupulous use of mathematical notation, will be new to many teachers. Anyone who doubts me need only walk into a classroom and look at the board or sample the students’ papers. Do the steps in an algebraic expression simplification problem start with equals signs, clearly establishing that each new expression represents the same quantity as the one before? Are the answers to elementary arithmetic problems left dangling in pre-printed boxes or on pre-printed lines, or are students expected to produce complete mathematical sentences, emphasizing that 2 + 3 = 5 = “five puppies” = 1 + 2 + 2 = 9 – 4 = “four fewer than nine” = 1 x 5 = 15 / 3 = 7 + (-2) etc.?

    Very few outfits can be said to have experience with the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice. In math, the experienced outfits are ones like the CPM consortium, which superintendents derided before the approach was called “Common Core”. I watched Dr. Denis Byas unilaterally toss out CPM Algebra I, mid-year, in San Lorenzo. He told me that a colleague of his in a district with a didactic algebra curriculum happened to be seeing higher algebra scores. We teachers — never consulted — were hastily sent to AB 472 training. There, it became apparent that we’d have to supplement the new textbook if we still wanted to deliver a deep, sense-making program.

    Another district where I taught — this time a “nice”, high-performing one — maintains two separate math programs. The superintendent points parents, most of whom care only about direct instruction, to the officially-adopted textbook and the high average CST scores. (A student who knows integer arithmetic, the order of operations, and brute-force substitution — mere procedures, none of them introduced in Algebra I — can correctly answer most CST Algebra I questions without knowing the MEANING of expression equivalence, equations, or systems of equations — key concepts proper to Algebra I.) She points board members, accreditors, and peer districts to a series of workshops and worksheets provided on contract by a math consortium of average quality. (These materials attempt to use a few Common Core Practices, such as multiple representations.) Students’ actual experiences vary, but this district’s centrally-imposed rapid-fire pacing guides and CST-style benchmark tests/final exams pretty much rule out use of time-consuming Common Core-style practices in the classroom.

    I fear that the marketplace will be saturated by unqualified upstarts who SAY the right things, while superintendents continue to ignore qualified providers who have been DOING the right thing for many years.

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