University of Vermont

UVM Partner Profile: Tammy Kolbe, Ed.D.

Tammy Kolbe
Photo by David Seaver

Tammy shared the story of how she made her way to teaching at the University of Vermont (UVM), her current work, including the Study of Vermont State Funding for Special Education, and what's next for her, the university, and for Vermont.

How she got here

Before working in higher education, Tammy pursued a master’s degree in Policy Analysis and Evaluation and worked in multiple state governments as a fiscal policy advisor and analyst. “I’ve always been interested in these questions of resources and thinking carefully about doing the best we can with the scarce resources we have,” Tammy said. Working in government perpetuated that curiosity: “I became really interested in these questions of what works, how, and why? It seemed as if we were always trying to make decisions on how we spend money, but we really didn’t have the answers to those kinds of questions.” In search of the what, how, and why, Tammy switched her focus from working in government to working for research organizations, and eventually she pursued her doctoral degree in education policy here at UVM. The focus of Tammy’s dissertation research was on Vermont’s educational reforms. “I was thinking about the intersection between how we fund educational support systems and how they operate in schools,” Tammy said. In many ways, this work wound up being a precursor to the special education funding study she and colleague Kieran Killeen submitted in 2017, as it all stems from that same question: How do we do the very best job with the resources we have? “If we want to have these wholistic models of serving students, but we fund them with strictly categorical programs,” Tammy posited, “we’re never going to get wholistic policy because we’re still going to silo things off.”

After completing her doctorate, Tammy left Vermont for a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship in education policy at the University of Maryland. Tammy was also a faculty member in educational policy at both Florida State University and the University of Connecticut before returning to UVM. 

Her current work

Tammy is now in her seventh year teaching at UVM. She is an Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies within CESS and currently acts as the coordinator of the Master’s Program in Educational Leadership. Her teaching and research focus on evaluating existing policies and developing frameworks and new knowledge that help inform future policies. Additionally, Tammy teaches classes in education policy, data-based decision making for educational leaders, program evaluation, and inequality in educational systems.

In 2017, Tammy and Associate Professor Kieran Killeen submitted the Study of Vermont Special Education Funding to Vermont’s Agency of Education, which led to the passage of Act 173 (H. 897) earlier in 2018. This report, which informed the state’s decision to switch to a census-based based funding model (block funding), was requested by Vermont’s legislature. While the question of whether or not Vermont was overspending on special education was one consideration in this request, the legislature was also concerned about a misalignment between state-wide initiatives for best practices and what actually occurs in schools.

Vermont works to embed a framework within schools to provide universal educational, behavioral, and accommodation support to all students, and then offers more intensive supports to the students who need them. This framework is called a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS). Encouraging schools to use a comprehensive method like MTSS to make sure all kids can be successful together, while also providing a separate funding source for special education creates a gap in practice. In this gap, there is room to assume that the cost and efficacy of a service are one in the same, which may lead people to believe that the most expensive supports are the best supports.

“When you’re a parent of a student with a disability, you want the very best for your child,” Tammy offered. “Individualized attention, individualized programs, things that protect them, oftentimes feel like the best. It can be really hard to give up some of that control to a school or a teacher about deciding what’s best for your child.” Tammy also pointed out that this is not only a common thought process for parents, but also for teams who put together individualized education plans (IEP) for students with special education needs: “We know well-intended educators don’t necessarily put best practices on IEPs.” The remedy for this is not necessarily more dollars for special education, but better training and technical assistance.

In the Executive Summary of the 2017 report, Tammy and Kieran expressed that to successfully move to a system using block funding, the transition must “be tightly coupled with shifts in practice and service delivery models.” In other words, changing the funding alone won’t help anyone. Instead of letting the fear of something different stifle progress, the report encourages Vermont to use this as an opportunity to do the very best we can for our students. This will drive schools, districts, and the state to assess their methods and see if they are “using the most efficient and effective practices out there,” Tammy added. 

Her Motivation

This pursuit of effective, efficient, and equitable practice also drives Tammy to push herself to evaluate policy, make change, and teach others to lead in the same way. Coming from a family of educators, Tammy’s curiosity and passion were sparked at an early age through dinner table conversations on special education and policy. Not one to be content in learning solely to know more, Tammy’s motivation is fueled by action. “I’m just not interested in doing work that doesn’t have impact,” she declared. It is no wonder Tammy found her home within UVM, an institution she believes has “a real commitment to impact.” Tammy elaborated: “We are not an institution about doing research and work that sits on a shelf. That’s exciting and important to me.”

Tammy remarked that it is quite literally the mission of CESS to make a difference. Working within a college that pledges to do so in a wholistic and comprehensive manner is also a motivating force for her: “We’re one of the few places in the country where a college is intentionally designed and intentionally recognizes the intersection between education and community, and structures its programs, research, and service in ways that support these important ties between schools and families and communities.”

Being able to write the study on Vermont Special Education funding is, of course, one example of making a difference, and the significance of this effort may not be exclusive to Vermont. Tammy noted this as a distinction between UVM and other institutions: “People nation-wide are looking at us saying, ‘hmm, that [report] is pretty interesting.’ How many places do you get to do that? Not many.”  

What she sees ahead

With local and national attention, there’s no doubt the implementation of Act 173 will be a big focus in the coming months and years. Tammy agreed there is a lot to be done. On top of the training and technical assistance required to transition schools to this new policy, assessment will be paramount.

“There’s no such thing as perfect public policy,” Tammy stated. “Whenever you make a big change, I think you have a moral obligation to evaluate that change and make corrections.” She also recognizes that it is natural to have fear or anxiety about any modification in services and that we should not let those stress signals blind us to our human rights. “Schools will always, always be on the hook to implement IEPs,” Tammy affirmed. “There is nothing in this funding bill or any other funding bill that will absolve a school from doing the right thing.”

Tammy is hopeful that through acting in a way that does not separate education, special education, and social policy, Vermont has a better chance of making systemic change. Of course, in this process we have to pay attention to any bumps along the road and work to fix them. “We have a real opportunity here for doing a great job to improve things for kids,” Tammy said.

In addition to policy, Tammy enthusiastically spoke about the continuing growth of her college and the possibilities to come. In 2017, the college launched a new strategic plan that emphasizes impact, Vermont distinction, and academic enhancement. This semester, CESS is touting new faculty, higher rates of diversity, and more offerings for students, including a new American Sign Language minor. Tammy lauded the faculty and staff within the college for their hard work and dedication to putting this plan into action. Additionally, she highlighted the good work of Dean Scott Thomas, for providing the college with such a powerful vision that operates well within CESS’s mission of working at intersections.

Tammy believes CESS now has “a great opportunity to bring really smart, talented, and committed individuals” into the college. Regarding education and social policy, it is unlikely Tammy’s work—or impact—will slow anytime soon. For the next few years, Tammy’s policy work may be in the spotlight, but there’s no telling how expansive the impact of her students will be: “I have the opportunity to work with amazing individuals who are deeply committed to developing knowledge and skills to do terrific things in their schools and communities. It is really amazing.”