Coincidence or not, the letter was issued a day after The Washington Post ran this story by Lyndsey Layton about how the Gates Foundation made possible the Common Core State Standards revolution by funding key organizations involved in the initiative. Part of the story discussed fears by some Gates critics that the Microsoft founder had become an unofficial, unelected education policymaker by using his vast fortune to fund projects he thought were worthwhile.
The letter was signed by Vicki Phillips, director of the U.S. education program at the Gates Foundation since 2007, a former secretary of education in Pennsylvania and a former superintendent of Portland Public Schools. It says in part:
The Gates Foundation is an ardent supporter of fair teacher feedback and evaluation systems that include measures of student gains. We don’t believe student assessments should ever be the sole measure of teaching performance, but evidence of a teacher’s impact on student learning should be part of a balanced evaluation that helps all teachers learn and improve.At the same time, no evaluation system will work unless teachers believe it is fair and reliable, and it’s very hard to be fair in a time of transition. The standards need time to work. Teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests, and offer their feedback. Applying assessment scores to evaluations before these pieces are developed would be like measuring the speed of a runner based on her time – without knowing how far she ran, what obstacles were in the way, or whether the stopwatch worked!Over the past seven years, we’ve had the privilege of working with extraordinary educators doing pioneering work to advance our common goals – improving student achievement with a focus on those students most in need. As I’ve talked with our partners over this past year, I have heard over and over again their wholehearted support for the Common Core and their very real anxiety about the challenges that come with change. The teachers’ anxiety is understandable: A rushed effort to apply the assessments could punish teachers as they’re trying new things, and any hiccups in the assessments could be seen as flaws in the standards.That’s why the Gates Foundation agrees with those who’ve decided that assessment results should not be taken into account in high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion for the next two years, during this transition.
The foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing teacher evaluation systems that use student test scores to help evaluate teachers, a controversial assessment method that many experts say is unfair and invalid. Test scores are also used in high-stakes decisions about whether to promote many students to the next grade, often from the third to the fourth.
The Common Core standards were adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia in 2010 and 2011, though states began implementing them at different times. Many teachers have said they haven’t had time to develop curriculum around the new standards, and say they need more time before new standardized tests, which will be unveiled in the next school year, are used to evaluate their effectiveness in the classroom.
A year ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan agreed to allow some states that received waivers from the most onerous parts of the No Child Left Behind law to delay by one year — until the 2015-16 school year — using student test scores to evaluate teachers. That was one of the requirements states had to agree to in order to receive a federal waiver from NCLB.
Phillips said in the letter:
It’s valuable for students to actually take the Common Core-aligned tests without consequences during this [two-year] period, so that teachers can get familiar with the tests, have a chance to offer their feedback, and get a feel for the students’ successes and challenges. It is an important part of the process of arriving at fair and reliable tests.
It will be interesting to see whether Duncan reacts to the Gates letter. Duncan and Gates have been in synch on a number of reform policies in recent years, and The Post story about Gates noted that the foundation worked with the Education Department on the Common Core initiative. Layton wrote:
Duncan and his team leveraged stimulus money to reward states that adopted common standards.They created Race to the Top, a $4.3 billion contest for education grants. Under the contest rules, states that adopted high standards stood the best chance of winning. It was a clever way around federal laws that prohibit Washington from interfering in what takes place in classrooms. It was also a tantalizing incentive for cash-strapped states.Heading the effort for Duncan was Joanne Weiss, previously the chief operating officer of the Gates-backed New Schools Venture Fund.As Race to the Top was being drafted, the administration and the Gates-led effort were in close coordination.An early version highlighted the Common Core standards by name, saying that states that embraced those specific standards would be better positioned to win federal money. That worried [Gene] Wilhoit, who feared that some states would consider that unwanted — and possibly illegal — interference from Washington. He took up the matter with Weiss.