A teacher's response to common core standards

By Faith Vautour | Mar 21, 2014

VillageSoup recently published an editorial online called “Standards: Enhancing Our Schools” by Assistant Superintendent Maria Libby.

In her editorial, Ms. Libby offers an explanation of the state’s new Proficiency-Based diploma law, the Common Core standards, and the ways in which standards are being addressed in the Five Towns. Although Ms. Libby’s column does accurately explain the requirements of the state’s new proficiency-based diploma law, I am compelled to respond to Ms. Libby’s editorial because so much of what she wrote reflects only a single perspective. It would be a mistake for the public to be led to believe that everyone in our schools – the teachers, the students, the parents, or even the administrators —“shares the exact” perspective that Ms. Libby articulated. Her opinion piece is just that — opinion. Ms. Libby has chosen to explain her perspectives, which is more than appropriate. My concern is that she is using her position as a district administrator to explain perspective as if everyone in the schools agrees with it. This action leaves any district employee who may disagree with her in an awkward position. Many people may shy away from publicly disagreeing with someone who holds such an important position at the central office. At the same time, their silence might be interpreted as being in agreement with Ms. Libby’s opinions.

While I respect Ms. Libby and value many of her opinions, I am compelled to respond to her most recent column. To begin, standards have been a cornerstone of curriculum in all of our schools since the mid-1990s, when the first edition of the Maine Learning Results, which I helped to write, was introduced. Since that time, the standards that schools are supposed to address have changed numerous times, and our schools have kept pace with those changes. At Camden Hills Regional High School, all departments have worked extensively over the years to embed required standards into our courses. Thus, standards are nothing new. Our courses are based on standards, and our teachers are quite seasoned in using them.

What is new, however, is the system of grading that Ms. Libby introduced to Camden-Rockport Middle School shortly after she became principal there. Variations of this system have just recently been put in place in the Lincolnville, Appleton and Hope schools. As many in our community already know, this grading system eliminated percentage and letter grades, and replaced them with a 1-4 scale for each “standard” that students were supposed to master. But beyond this, the new grading system rests on a philosophy called “Zeroes Aren’t Permitted,” which means that if students do not complete assignments, teachers are not allowed to give them zeroes for missing work. The idea behind this is that grades should reflect only a student’s achievement of “academic” standards, and that they should not be influenced by “behaviors” (like turning work in on time). Under this system, “time is the variable.” Students are supposed to be able to learn and complete work at their own pace. Grades are no longer impacted by attendance, punctuality, or class participation. These “behavioral” aspects of learning (and they are things that schools are supposed to help kids learn) are reported separately as “Work Habits.” Although Ms. Libby characterizes this as a positive change that is widely supported by many teachers, in fact there is a wide range of opinion among teachers in all of our schools about whether this philosophy has been beneficial. It is fair to say that many people do not share Ms. Libby's view of the impacts of this grading system.

Ms. Libby's viewpoint sounds very good in theory and she states that the transition to standards at Camden-Rockport Middle School “improved school climate, academics, and intervention.” Frankly, that is a matter of opinion. As a high school teacher in this district for 50 years, my perspective is very different. As soon as Camden-Rockport Middle School switched to this new grading system, teachers at the high school began to see a notable decline in the work habits of our incoming ninth-graders. Students have a great deal of difficulty adjusting to the traditional high school system of grading in which lateness causes a reduction in a grade. They are also coming to the school with an expectation that projects, essays and tests can be redone or resubmitted many times until the grades are improved. This is because they are used to the new middle school system in which “time is a variable.” I do agree with Ms. Libby when she states that, “there is a lot of concern about the potential implications for grading within this system.” Yes, there are.

Ms. Libby makes many other claims that are simply a matter of opinion. She implies that teachers widely support this change when she states: “There are highly effective veteran teachers at CRMS who feel the move to standards based grading has made them better teachers. They are more in tune with student learning and are better able to tailor instruction to meet student needs.” While her statement may be literally true, it is equally true that there are many highly effective veteran teachers in all of our schools who feel that these changes have lacked merit, and have in fact negatively impacted the quality of education we provide. Perhaps even more importantly, students at the high school have provided very clear feedback that the new middle school grading system is not working. Last fall, the high school administration surveyed all of the students about their transition from the middle schools to the high school. Several questions on the online survey asked the current ninth- and 10th-graders which grading system – the middle school standards-based system or the high school traditional, percentage system — motivated them to do their best work and was easier to understand. More than 80 percent of the students who had experienced both ways of grading preferred the high school system. Additionally, students at the high school talk frequently about their negative view of the new grading system at the middle school. Results of this survey were made available to the high school staff months ago, but I am not sure they have been made available to teachers in the other buildings or to the general public.

Finally, Ms. Libby states “Some people fear this transition, assuming the worst (e.g. schools becoming test prep factories).” It would be a mistake to conclude that people who oppose the changes Libby issued into the middle school are reacting from fear of change. This assertion really denigrates the professionalism of those who have a different perspective. Like many of my colleagues who do not agree with Ms. Libby about this matter, I am not afraid of change. I simply think that this particular change lacks merit. I would challenge anyone to find a comprehensive, peer-reviewed study that supports the fact that standards-based grading improves student learning at high-performing high schools because I am pretty sure that no such study exists. And unless it does exist, it seems foolish of us to be putting this amount of time and effort into an unproven initiative.

Let me close by stating that everyone, including Ms. Libby, wants to do what is in the best interest of our students. It is also fine for people to have different opinions and perspectives. I for one value rich dialog around sensitive and important issues. In my opinion, it is regrettable that a one-sided view of standards is being promoted in a vacuum, by a key member of the district. We need to handle differences of opinion professionally and on a level playing field. The fact that Ms. Libby has chosen to state her views publicly, and as the Assistant Superintendent of Schools, makes disagreeing with her very risky. I urge colleagues, parents and community members to get involved, stay informed and speak their minds on this and all significant educational issues.

The standards issue is extremely complex and important. Ms. Libby insists that “Standards Will Enhance Our Schools.” That is a bold and risky statement and Camden Hills has a lot to lose. According to US News and World Report, Camden Hills Regional High School is the No. 6 high school in Maine. We have a long history of academic excellence and student achievement. We have a dedicated and highly trained staff who work to ensure rigor, equity and compassion. While we agree that we can always improve, we believe we should approach improvement with laser-like precision – identifying our weaknesses using data that pertains to our schools and developing home-grown solutions that will work for our students.

Sometimes change is not a good thing and because of the movement to Ms. Libby’s standards based vision of schooling, I have decided to run to represent Rockport on the CSD Board of Directors when I retire at the end of this school year. It is very important that other perspectives and opinions on this issue are heard.

Faith Vautour has been a teacher at Camden Hills Regional High School for 50 years.

Comments (7)
Posted by: Charlene Mazzeo | Mar 26, 2014 11:55

I have to agree with Ms. Ledwith, at least insofar as it goes to accuse Ms. Libby of abusing her position. As a district administrator, it's well within her responsibility and obligation to inform the public that the state has mandated our school district to do this, explain this initiative, why she feels our district should do it, and to be generally transparent with the stakeholders of the community as to what the Central Office's vision is for the future.  Ms. Vautour is well within her right to disagree as a teacher, but to do it when she is retiring is not exactly courageous on her part, and it is inappropriate to accuse Ms. Libby of abusing her position because she is not.  For her to then go on and announce that she is running for school board and to suggest that she would use her position to express her own opinions from an even greater position of authority is downright hypocritical.  Does she think teachers and administrators do not fear publicly disagreeing with school board members?  Does she think it's the school board's job to micromanage the curriculum of the district? I don't think she thought that one through very clearly.  However, what I feel is most lacking in both Ms. Libby's and Ms. Vautour's essays is any discussion as to what grade reporting in a standards-based system looks like.  They harp on "time as the variable" and "work habits", but where is the discussion about how standards-based offers parents a superior level of feedback on the standards-based grade report? As a parent to a couple of kids at CRES, I would like to know more about what my kids can do rather than just see that they got a grade of "B" in math.  What does that tell me? I'd like to know the skills my kids excel at, and the skills where they need to improve, and that is the part of the discussion that is missing here. I would like to read a fourth installment from Ms. Libby on that particular part of standards-based, and I think do think Ms. Vautour owes her an apology, as well.  - Submitted by Matthew Mazzeo, parent and alumnus of MSAD #28 and teacher at RSU #13

Posted by: William Spear | Mar 22, 2014 19:23

I remember Ms. Vautour from the old Camden / Rockport high school. She liked standing in the doorway of her classroom when we changed classes. More than once I heard---SPEAR, TUCK YOUR SHIRT IN !!! She was known for that. To this day, even at home here now, my shirt is tucked in. Always. Maybe your shirt was always tucked in Kevin.

Posted by: Kevin Wilson | Mar 22, 2014 12:58

Having known Faith Vautour for over 40 years, I an not surprised that she's  stepped up to the plate and hit a homer with this thorough examination. She will make an excellent school board member, with her history with this school system .

Posted by: Jolinda Rockett | Mar 22, 2014 10:45

Ms. Vautour's illuminating article confirms suspicions that this new system is not going to prepare our youth for a world that expects results. [Grades are no longer impacted by attendance, punctuality, or class participation.] There are many other complaints that can be made about this new system of education but this alone is enough to question how far education leaders have moved from reality. Ms. Vautour kindly suggests this new education movement is an unproven initiative. I call it a waste of a child's precious learning years.

Posted by: Dale E. Landrith Sr. | Mar 22, 2014 08:18

I think Ms. Ledwith should read the article again.  Ms. Vautour is completely respectful of Ms. Libby's person and position.  The argument is against policy and it is not mudslinging.

Posted by: Dale E. Landrith Sr. | Mar 22, 2014 08:16

Right on.  We cannot water down personal discipline and expect superior results.

Posted by: Linnea Ledwith | Mar 22, 2014 08:14

Wow... No matter the stance on the issue being discussed, this sort of mud-slinging at an educator who deserves our respect in this community is uncalled for.  And, as it also comes across as being a stance and platform to run for the school board, badly done.  Ms. Libby is deserving of significant and public apology.

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