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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

Creating a Learner's Bill of Rights—Vermont's Town Meeting Approach

By opening the curriculum planning process to the public, Vermont has crafted a powerful vision of what the state and its citizens believe are essential learnings for today's students.

Vermont's town meeting tradition is alive and well. It is also helping to determine the future of curriculum development for the half million residents of our state. Picture this:
On a beautiful Saturday morning in July, 40 students, educators, senior citizens, and business people in Bethel dropped plans for canoeing, gardening, and hiking to attend a focus forum at the town's high school. After a pancake breakfast, the group broke into small teams, each led by a fellow resident trained to facilitate discussion. By the end of the three-hour session, they had developed a direction for their school and redefined its relationship with the community and local businesses.
At the conclusion, a senior citizen stood to address his neighbors: I was very skeptical at the start. I guessed this would be just talk. But I've been thinking. Why don't we start a grandparenting program for middle and high school students like some places have for little children. I really want to help now. Please don't keep me out of things.
In the suburban community of Colchester on a different Saturday morning, 55 people representing a similar cross section of residents met. This time the school board, students, and superintendent acted as facilitators. Ideas on the future needs of learners flowed freely, just as they did in Bethel. And, just as in the earlier meeting, a new kind of support and connection to the school's mission emerged.
After the forum, a young mother rose to her feet, looked around the room, and spoke: You know, in this town there are two types of people, status people and people on the outside of things. This is the first time that I have felt listened to. It is the first time that I feel part of the community. I won't go back to the other way again.
The story of these meetings is central to understanding how Vermont's Common Core of Learning has developed over the past several years. We have attempted to bring as many people as possible into the process and use their ideas to create a powerful shared vision for the future.

Taking a New Direction

The Common Core of Learning project began in the late fall of 1990, just before my arrival at the Vermont Department of Education. Upon assuming my new responsibilities I learned that, as one of the two chiefs of the Curriculum and Instruction unit, I would lead this effort. A team of 40 teachers, administrators, students, business people, and Department of Education members had already been selected. How that group would proceed was unclear.
Having just left a position as Curriculum and Staff Development Director in Brandon, Vermont, I could easily imagine how this initiative might appear to educators in the field. A statewide effort to set curriculum direction could readily be misperceived as a dangerous intrusion. That kind of Common Core would be a lifeless document destined to gather dust. I knew that we needed the ideas, feelings, and inspiration that only a great many people could bring to a project.
I remembered some wonderful experiences that I'd had in schools where the staff and the community came together and planned for a new kind of partnership. These meetings, called focus forums, were developed by Ken Hood and several other friends from the University of Vermont. I learned just how powerful these experiences could be first as a participant in my own town of Middlebury, then as a facilitator of a group, and finally as a coordinator of a meeting attended by a hundred people.
Deciding to take a chance on the idea, I suggested at a planning meeting that we turn the normal process of state curriculum development on its ear. Instead of leaving the work to a blue-ribbon panel, we would go to the people of our state with a blank slate and use the focus forum process to ask some powerful questions about the needs of learners for the 21st century. In this way, committee members would shift their roles from writers to researchers and investigators. By bringing so many people into the act of inventing, perhaps we would have stronger results. Doug Walker—then head of the education department's Basic Education division and my immediate supervisor—heard me out, smiled, and said, "This sounds exciting. Let's go for it."

How Focus Forums Work

The idea of asking for community involvement to initiate school change is neither new nor universally successful. Some events turn into shouting matches or tedious discussions about the evils of teenagers or the laziness of teachers. Others fall victim to a few individuals who are passionate about a single issue. Therefore, we designed the focus forums to encourage everyone to participate without letting anyone dominate—and to center on the needs of learners.
First, we met with members of the community planning team, who were responsible for arranging the forum and facilitating the process. To gain wide representation at the forum, we suggested that they select participants at random from the local voter registration rolls. We also encouraged them to invite people by telephone because it was much harder to turn down a personal appeal than a notice that came in the mail. Some teams also placed ads in local newspapers. Because of this hands-on approach, the community planning team members started to enjoy the process and their role as organizers. Their enthusiasm was an essential ingredient in our success.
In instructing members of the planning team, we simulated the forum approach to help them understand how the participants would feel. We also explained that as facilitators, they would need to honor certain rules, such as keep things moving, write clearly and quickly, avoid editorializing, and project confidence.
On the morning of the forum, the site leader explained how we would use the results of the meeting. Then each small group convened, and the site leader read the first question: "What skills, knowledge, or abilities will all learners need to be successful in the 21st century?" Each participant recorded his or her first three responses. Facilitators clarified each person's answers and helped the group find patterns among their ideas. Calling time after 45 minutes, the site leader asked all facilitators to report their group's results. People were often pleasantly surprised at the similarities in their views of what learners need.
To make a bridge to the present, we asked the groups a second question, "What programs do you know, either here or elsewhere, that are in harmony with the ideas you just invented?"
I remember getting to this question during a meeting of business executives. One vice president of a large international corporation shook his head and scowled, "This is your typical educator's whitewash. What you should be asking us is what is really wrong in the schools and why teachers are blocking progress." I told him that the reason many meetings about schools never end productively is that they get sucked into a tailspin of blame and antagonism. We were trying to create a positive model, and I assured him that his group was probably aware of many successful activities. They went to work and came up with 27 exemplary programs. Later he smiled and said, "I guess we are not at baseline zero." I think that is a great way of putting things.
The third question was designed to close the small group part of the meeting with a call to action: "What one concrete activity can the school, local businesses, and the community undertake right now that will make a difference?" Suggestions included community service projects, tutoring programs, and job site visits. These cost little yet may be crucial in binding schools closer to their communities.
At the conclusion, everyone formed a large circle to reflect on the morning's work. One prevalent sentiment was, "This was a great morning. It feels wonderful to be heard and to see that we do have something in common, but let's not fool ourselves. This is only the start."

The Big Picture Emerges

As information from the forums came in, the Common Core committee began the difficult work of assembling the pieces. When we compared forum results with the best ideas from across the nation, four large themes surfaced. We call them Vital Results because they represent the skills, knowledge, and abilities that our people believe all learners need. Under each of the Vital Results are five clarifying statements. Here's a sample from each set.
Under Communications: Listens actively for a variety of purposes (for instance, recognizes bias and stereotyping).
Under Reasoning and Problem Solving: Can apply logical strategies to solve problems (for example, uses mathematical models, facts, and relationships to explain his or her thinking).
Under Personal Development: Demonstrates the skills necessary to participate in the workplace (for instance, understands current trends in the workplace and society).
Under Social Responsibility: Understands how change occurs, how to create it, and how to deal with it successfully (for example, exhibits self-confidence and willingness to risk mistakes in order to learn).

From Vital Results to a Framework

At its August 1993 meeting, the Vermont State Board of Education officially adopted the Common Core, making this standard, set by the people of Vermont, the cornerstone of our educational system. We had inspired thousands of Vermonters to imagine a future where everyone would be prepared. We translated that vision into clear Vital Results and forged a relationship between those results and three interdisciplinary areas: Science/Mathematics/Technology, Arts/Humanities, and History/Social Science. These areas grew out of our belief that the Vital Results are always learned in a context and that the disciplines are the most likely place to create that context.
Some of our schools were so far along in their own restructuring that they knew just how they wanted to use these general concepts. But we knew that we had to become much clearer if all of our schools were to bring the Common Core to life. Judy Carr, a respected Vermont educator, took on the job of organizing an integrated framework to connect the Vital Results to the Fields of Knowledge. We convened one commission in each of the three areas to define content standards, student performance standards, and essential learning experiences. This work resulted in a document entitled, "Content Standards for Vermont's Common Core Framework for Curriculum and Assessment."
By this time I had left our state department of education to join the education faculty at Trinity College in Burlington, Vermont. While my direct responsibilities for the Common Core were over, I remained on advisory committees and have emphasized the Common Core in all of my courses.
  • "The Go-Cart as a Vehicle: Integrated Mathematics, Science and Technology"
  • "Exploring the Mechanics of Physics through Dance"
  • "The Common Core as Prevention Groundwork: Practicing Prevention in Your Classroom Without an Extra Program"

Facing the Future

The Vermont Common Core is a compact for the next century that sets rigorous expectations for educational planners. Two challenges are particularly clear. First, the process needs to remain open to new ideas. As one curriculum director recently reminded me, the world has changed during the half decade since we began our community forums, and the Common Core would benefit from an updated perspective. Re-igniting dynamic involvement by educators and the public might also increase grassroots support at this crucial time.
Second, those interested in the ideals of the Common Core need to get the message out that these standards are higher than anything we have tried before. They not only include the traditional basics, but they go much further. Increased communication with the public might help here as well.
Preparing ourselves to face the future in these turbulent times is a daunting task. The traditional democratic values of openness, involvement, and flexibility have typified us at our best and will be essential if the Common Core is to realize its great promise as a Learner's Bill of Rights.

Steven J. Gross has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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