Feeling around in the dark to understand the elephant of local control

The view from my new office.
Educationally, Colorado is a "local control" state, and I know this because I've heard many people say it. I once read something that said "there are only six local control states," and I assumed Colorado was one of them. (I also assume many more than six states would claim to belong on the list.) The document did not list the states or describe the difference between local and not-quite-local. But by all other accounts I've seen and heard, Colorado is a local control state.

Today was my first day in my new job at the Colorado Department of Education, and at almost every turn I was reminded of Colorado's status as a local control state. Before I go further, let me be clear: I see many positives in local control and generally favor it. I appreciate that historically and politically we've entrusted our schools to the communities they serve, and I cherish my rural school experiences where the tight bonds between the school and the community generate a special sense of pride and responsibility.

Local control is not to be confused with insular, however. I've never known a school district where teachers and district officials didn't seek resources and guidance from outside their boundaries. In my new job, I'm now one of those outsiders who can offer some of those resources and guidance. But as an employee of the state, I have to be rather careful about the resources and guidance I give, lest anyone be confused about whether control lies with the state or with the school district.

It's a bit awkward, as you might expect. And it's becoming apparent to me how local control influences the things a CDE employee decides they can and cannot say is, well, a little arbitrary. Maybe arbitrary isn't the right description, but rather there's some socio-normative set of unwritten rules guiding all this that aren't 100% logical. For example, we believe local districts have the power to make curriculum decisions, not the state. But what does that mean? For me, I know without a doubt this means I have no power as a state employee to require that a district, school, or teacher use a particular set of textbooks. Okay, that's clear to me, but can I recommend a textbook, while plainly stating that textbook choices are not the state's decision? Again, this is something we expressly avoid at CDE because we don't want to give districts the impression that they're not in control of their curriculum. Let's make this even fuzzier: If someone asks me what textbooks I've personally used and why I chose to use them, can I answer? I certainly hope so, as I'd feel silly not answering the question. But with my answer, I have to be cautious that what I say is not construed as some kind of state endorsement of a particular textbook. Why? Local control, that's why.

Yet, there are numerous areas where we, the citizens of Colorado and our elected representatives, have decided the state should have control. The state dictates sets of academic standards, which are accompanied by all sorts of supporting documents. The state also requires the administration of assessments that measure student performance towards those standards, and by law the results of those assessments are used to hold local educators accountable. Whether I approve or disapprove of these things is irrelevant in the current discussion, because I only name them to illustrate how the state has control over things that might not be textbooks or curriculum, yet have undeniable influence over local educators' choice of curriculum and related materials. We still claim to have a system of local control, but it shows that local vs. state control of schools is beyond a simple binary classification.

I'm reminded of a pair of sessions I attended at the Realistic Mathematics Education Conference in 2013. The first was from several people from CDE, who presented a series of standards implementation materials they developed in cooperation with local educators. The second presentation came from national curriculum developers from The Netherlands, who showed their new integrated STEM curriculum materials. Both groups sincerely wanted high-quality educational experiences for students, but CDE illustrated the more traditionally American approach of building out documents and tools to support local decision-makers, instead of developing student-facing curriculum materials, as seen in The Netherlands. Dutch schools are not required to use materials developed by their national curriculum office, so you can say there's still an element of local control there. But at a national/state level they do experience a broader set of options for what they produce for schools, and these options are supported by a different political and cultural climate than we generally find in the United States.

Without belaboring the issue much further, I hope by now you get a little sense of the tension I'm feeling in my new position. I'm grappling with my new role and how my actions and words will be shaped by issues of local control, this elephant in the dark room that I felt my hands on all day. A lot of "what-ifs" came to mind, and some of them yield unsatisfactory possibilities. I'm frustrated by thoughts of continually almost doing curriculum work, and I don't think anyone wants to produce supplementary documentation just for the sake of producing it. With what I currently see offered for mathematics from CDE, there's a lot of value in the details, but it's a pretty overwhelming mass of stuff at first (and second) glance. That's not going to change overnight, but for me, after Day 1 on the job, I think the best thing I can do is think openly about this and to explore the boundaries of what is reasonable and possible. Ultimately, I serve the teachers and educators of Colorado, and for now, I can be honest about the thought I put into these things, even if I don't anticipate easy answers anytime soon.