Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Last week, Gates Foundation education chief Vicki Phillips wrote a “letter to our partners” urging that states give students and teachers time to adjust to the new Common Core standards before using those standards as factors “in high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion for the next two years, during this transition.”

Earlier today, writing on behalf of the reform-minded “Chiefs for Change” group (seven current and six past state superintendents), New Mexico education secretary Hanna Skandera politely disagreed. Common Core implementation is well begun in many places, she noted, with some states having already worked at this for as long as four years, and states should decide for themselves whether they’re ready to attach consequences to student and school performance vis-à-vis the Common Core. “We must uphold our commitment to our students,” she wrote, “by ensuring the standards are measured and results are used to build a world-class education system….”

Call me a wimp, caught between two powerful women whom I like and respect, but honestly, they’re both right, albeit in different ways.

Attaching consequences to student achievement is always touchy, tricky, and technically complex, whether we’re talking about promoting and graduating kids, evaluating and rewarding (and retaining/dismissing) those who teach them, or giving grades (and interventions) to entire schools and districts. The data may be shaky, the analyses precarious, and the consequences almost inevitably unfair to some.

Change the standards, the curriculum and instruction, the tests and cut scores, and all such actions become even more challenging. And it’s no secret that educators are less happy being “held to account” for pupil results in the midst of all this change than they were under the old standards and tests (though many were plenty cranky on this topic before the standards changed!). They legitimately point out that in many states the new assessments aren’t even visible yet and in many districts the new textbooks aren’t even available.

And yet. We have plenty of stark evidence that real change in student, teacher, and school performance doesn’t come from standards or tests alone. Sure, the data feeding back into the system are apt to produce slow improvement as more educators become more adept at applying that information to their classroom practice and building leadership. But consequences are what really get people’s attention and prod them to make real-time changes that they might not otherwise be willing to make: The kid working on homework instead of playing an electronic game, studying for the end-of-course exam rather than partying, going to summer school rather than being held back. The school that is awakened and moved to action by its “D” grade—and loss of pupils—leading to structural and staffing changes that were otherwise just too painful. The entire state seeing its performance rise—this accounts for the “Massachusetts Miracle,” insists former commissioner Dave Driscoll—once everyone realized that students really, truly had to pass those tests in order to graduate.

Yes, it’s behaviorist, and few educators lean in that direction. But it’s real.

That doesn’t make it easier or fairer to attach consequences to new standards, tests, and classroom practices. But if the head of a state education system believes that her (or his) state is prepared (or obligated) to stick to its guns and benefit its pupils by persevering with wrenching changes that make some adults uncomfortable, that’s the state’s prerogative. That’s why we elect leaders: to make tough decisions. And there’s a pretty good chance that it’ll turn out to benefit the kids.

The Chiefs for Change are less patient than Ms. Phillips. That doesn’t make her wrong. And states that lack the readiness—or gumption—to proceed swiftly to adjust their accountability to the new standards probably should hit the pause button she is recommending. But places that are ready should move forward, not dither. Nobody’s child has the luxury of a two-year moratorium on his own school experience—or the life that follows.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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