Education Department listens to (some) reason

Education Secretary Arne Duncan
Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Education Secretary Arne Duncan bowed to (some) reason Tuesday and announced that he was giving states some flexibility in regard to when they had to use student scores from new Common Core-aligned standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

Duncan said that he was giving the 37 states, plus the District of Columbia, which had won federal waivers from the most egregious mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, an extra year to implement teacher evaluations linked to new assessments that are supposed to be aligned to the new Common Core State Standards. This means the states have until 2016.

According to the Associated Press, he told reporters:

Ensuring that educators are well prepared to implement those new standards is critically important. After listening to teachers and education leaders, we are providing additional flexibility to states.

Duncan had been hearing concerns about the timing of the implementation of the Common Core and high-stakes consequences to aligned tests from teachers and activists, most notably American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. In April, she publicly called for at least a one-year moratorium on the high-stakes associated with the Common Core-aligned tests in regard to teacher evaluation because teachers had not had enough time to absorb the material. Furthermore, the Common Core-aligned assessments being developed by two federally funded consortia of states have not even finished designing the tests.

Weingarten  released a statement Tuesday that said:

With today’s announcement, Secretary Duncan recognizes that the Common Core State Standards are too important to focus first on high stakes before getting the standards implemented properly. If we believe the Common Core State Standards are essential to teaching students critical-thinking and problem-solving skills and persist to get there—and we do—then we actually need to prepare the people who will be helping students master these skills.

The secretary created an opening for states, and we’re heartened that he listened to the tens of thousands of teachers, parents and others who told him that they believe in the new standards but are concerned about teachers’ having the time to prepare and the supports to teach to the standards. The challenge now will be for states’ education chiefs to also listen, to show leadership, and to work with their school community to support this shift. Teachers need the resources, aligned curriculum, time and professional development to support great instruction to help all kids succeed.

The ball is now in the states’ court to take advantage of this opportunity, to work actively with teachers in the trenches, and to engage parents to make sure this rollout is successful — district by district, school by school.

Duncan’s offer of flexibility is only for a year and would become moot if Congress were to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind bill before then. There are competing Republican and Democratic bills now in Congress, but nobody believes legislators will actually reach agreement on this anytime soon.

Psychometricians have warned for years that linking student standardized test scores to the evaluation of teachers and principals is an unfair and invalid way of assessment, but it has become popular among school reformers who believe that the “data” from the test results — when plugged into a complicated formula — can tell how effective teachers really are.

The Common Core initiative has run into opposition lately from both conservatives and progressives, and some states are pulling back from implementation, or considering it.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · June 18, 2013