School & District Management

Local Mass. School Board Seeks Standards Rollback

By Catherine Gewertz — January 31, 2011 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 5 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified David Kysilko. He maintains a database for the National Association of State Boards of Education.

At the behest of a local school board, three lawmakers in Massachusetts have drafted a bill that would override the state board of education’s decision to adopt new common academic standards.

The measure is part of a long-shot effort by the Tantasqua Regional school board to unravel its state’s embrace of the Common Core State Standards Initiative and reverse its pledge to use common assessments designed for those standards. The bill seeks to retain Massachusetts’ own widely admired standards and its exam, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS.

The move marks the only known instance in the country of a local board challenging its state’s adoption of the standards, according to national groups that monitor state-level activity on the issue.

Even the most ardent backers of the attempt admit that success is unlikely, however, given Democratic control of the state legislature and support of the common standards by the governor and the state’s two top education officials. But the skepticism fueling the move echoes doubts expressed in other states.

“We have some of the most exacting standards in the United States,” said James A. Cooke, the Tantasqua board member who initiated discussion of the issue. “Why should we use someone else’s standards?”

Mr. Cooke said he believes that in adopting the standards, the state board was motivated more by the prospect of winning the federal Race to the Top contest—which awarded points to states that adopted the standards—than by what is best for students. And Mr. Cooke worries that embracing the standards will mean loss of local control over curriculum.

He is a Republican, but his concern about local control is shared by board colleagues of other political persuasions. Chairwoman Kathleen M. Neal, who considers herself a liberal Democrat, said she dislikes the idea of replacing textbooks and changing teaching to align with standards and tests created largely by people from outside her own state.

Leaders of the common-standards effort have repeatedly said that while states and districts must see that students master the standards, they are free to shape their curricula as they see fit to reach that goal. Subject-matter experts and state education officials drafted the standards, coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

No Constituency?

The Massachusetts school board adopted the standards in July. All but seven states have now done so. Massachusetts also is one of the leading states in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of two multistate consortia working to roll out common tests by 2014-15.

The Tantasqua board governs one middle and one high school that receive elementary students from five towns in central Massachusetts.

Mr. Cooke first sought to bring a resolution before the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, a statewide group that represents school boards, to gain its support in opposing the standards in the legislature. His request at the annual delegate assembly was rebuffed on a technicality, although Glenn Koocher, the group’s executive director, said that not one of the 130-odd delegates present moved to enable discussion of the issue.

“There just isn’t a constituency around this,” he said. “We don’t support it, and we don’t see this legislation going anywhere.”

Led by member Michael Valanzola, the Tantasqua board amendedits original motion, asking legislators to file a bill to override the state board’s common-standards adoption and retain the MCAS. It was approved Dec. 21 on a 17-0 vote.

Rep. Todd M. Smola, a Republican and one of three state lawmakers who represent the Tantasqua region, filed the legislation Jan. 21.

“Since we set the standard in Massachusetts in so many ways, many people are asking why would we revert to common standards when things are going so well here?” Mr. Smola said. “What was the motivation for doing this? Would we have done it if there wasn’t Race to the Top money attached to it?”

Written Assurance

The other two lawmakers who co-sponsored the legislation, state Rep. Anne M. Gobi and state Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, both Democrats, reserved judgment on its merits, but said they welcome a public debate. They noted that under Massachusetts’ “right of free petition,” state lawmakers are obliged to file virtually any bill a constituent requests.

Sen. Brewer said he has asked for written reassurance from the state education department that local school boards will retain control over what they teach under the common standards. He considers the bill “placeholder legislation” pending such reassurance.

“They’ve said that school systems can tailor their curriculum and still meet these federal standards. I want them to put that in writing,” Sen. Brewer said. “If they don’t want the towns to pursue this bill, then just convince them that they have the ability to fashion their curriculum the way they see fit.”

State schools commissioner Mitchell D. Chester said he would be happy to provide such reassurance. Districts have the right to craft curricula under the common standards, just as they did under the state’s own standards, he said. The new standards, and the curriculum frameworks revised by the state in December to embody them, “very much” reflect the input and expertise of Massachusetts educators, he said.

Lawmakers said they had not had a chance to investigate whether state law permits the legislature to override decisions of the state school board. But David Kysilko, who maintains a database on state education governance for the National Association of State Boards of Education, said Massachusetts’ board was created by the legislature, so the legislature has authority to override its decisions.

Still, few considered it likely that the bill would win support in the Statehouse. Tantasqua’s superintendent, Daniel G. Durgin, said his board’s opposition is unusual, since support for the standards is “overwhelming” in Massachusetts.

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Local School Board in Mass. Seeks Rollback of Common Standards

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