K. Butler, right of Benton, Miss., and Lynn Wagner of Hickory, second from right, speak to students as they are guided past their Opponents of Common Core table in the rotunda of the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. . (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

This is the ninth in a continuing series of letters between two award-winning school principals, one who likes the Common Core State Standards and the other who doesn’t. The debate over the Common Core State Standards has become so polarized that it is hard to get people who disagree to have reasonable conversations about it. The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news Web site focused on inequality and innovation in education, is hosting a conversation between Carol Burris of New York and Jayne Ellspermann of Florida (in a format that Education Week once used with Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier as the authors).  The Report’s editors as well as both principals have given me permission to republish each letter.

Burris has served as principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York since 2000. In 2010, she was recognized by the School Administrators Association of New York State as their Outstanding Educator of the Year, and in 2013, she was recognized as the New York State High School Principal of the Year. Ellspermann is principal of West Port High School in Ocala, Florida.  She has served as a principal in elementary, middle, and high schools for the past 24 years and is the 2015 Principal of the Year for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

The first letter was written by Burris, a Core opponent, to Ellspermann, a Core supporter. Burris explained why she once liked the Core but changed her mind after New York State schools began to implement them several years ago. You can read her letter to Ellspermann here. Ellspermann’s reply letter, which you can read here, explained why she thinks the schools in her district benefit from the Common Core. In the third letter, Burris explains why she thinks Core testing hurts disadvantaged students. The fourth, by Ellspermann, says that critics should not blame the Common Core standards for bad implementation and she writes why she likes the English Language Arts emphasis on reading text rather than allowing students to rely on personal experience. In the fifth letter, Burris asked Ellspermann why she thinks she needs the Core. In the sixth letter, Ellspermann responds by discussing why she opposes the opt-out movement and how the Core is working in her school. Burris came back, in a seventh letter, explaining why she doesn’t think the Core will do for students what supporters say it will. The eighth letter, from Ellspermann, (which you can read in the post below this one) talks about why she believes all students should have the same standards. This is Burris’ reply, originally posted on the Hechinger Report on June 4.

Dear Jayne,

I appreciate your belief that all states should have the same or very similar standards. I also believed in national standards before the implementation of the Common Core. Now I believe that variation among states is a strength, not a weakness. If there are different models used by different states, we can evaluate the quality and impact of standards, with an eye to improving them.

You wrote that you are concerned that we have “inconsistencies throughout the country, within our states, in our school districts and even within our schools.” Jayne, the Common Core will not fix inconsistencies among schools and districts within the same state. The large NAEP gaps among schools in the same state indicate that factors beyond state standards are influencing student performance. The state standards did not create within-state performance gaps.

I am equally baffled that you believe it took the Common Core to move your teachers away from 50-minute lectures. “Talk and chalk” has not been the primary mode of instruction at my school since I became principal 15 years ago. Strategies such as cooperative learning, requiring students to justify their answer with text or reason and other active learning techniques have been known and practiced in good schools for decades. There was nothing in any state’s standards that forced teachers to lecture; and regardless of standards, bad pedagogical practices that do not promote learning, should have been discouraged long before the Common Core.

But we agree that factors that have nothing to do with the quality of standards have influenced the implementation of the Common Core. As you noted, high stakes testing –using tests for student promotion, teacher evolution, and even school closure – has certainly increased the controversy surrounding the Common Core.

Perhaps it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room – teacher evaluations.

[How students with top test scores actually hurt their teacher’s evaluation]

The New York legislature recently passed a bill that increases the impact of student test scores on teacher evaluations to 50 percent. The remaining 50 percent will be based on observations by their principal and now a mandated “outside observer”.

This promises to be a big change. We now assign 40 percent to student performance; half of which is based on district determined measures of learning. The district has also had the freedom to determine how points were assigned. In my district we minimized the test score impact and maximized efforts to help teachers improve their practice. As a result, our teachers never feared that struggling students or reluctant learners in their classrooms would jeopardize their career or evaluation.

Increasing the weight of test scores, along with state-level standardization of scoring bands, have not been welcomed by the vast majority of teachers, parents and administrators. We know this will result in increased teaching to the test and a curriculum that narrows to those Common Core standards that are tested. In districts and states that chose to rely heavily on test scores in their evaluations, that has been the observed outcome.

I [recently] received an e-mail from a South Side graduate who is now a high school teacher in Washington DC.

Here is an excerpt from her e-mail, which you can read in its entirety here.

“The teacher evaluation system in DC is a direct product of the damage that education reform is doing to real education…. Our value is based largely on test scores and our overall scores are calculated using a combination of a rubric and an “Individual Value Added” formula…. It’s a process that I think fosters a culture of “teaching to the test” rather than really teaching young people to think and be curious, innovative forces in the world.

So many teachers are so frustrated, but so many administrators are following along because this is the mandate that has been given. I have since moved schools, but common core hasn’t gotten any better. The PARCC exam left many of my students frazzled and discouraged. As teachers, we are struggling to keep up with what is required of us, both according to that test and our high stakes evaluation systems. It is clear to both us and the students that this just isn’t working, but it’s not a truth that many want to hear and/or face.”

We should not ignore this young teacher’s experience. School leadership scholar, Thomas Sergiovanni, wrote about the power of moral leadership, which can transform a school from an organization to a community. The voice of that young teacher is a powerful testament to how that sense of community is now being undermined. How can school leaders who know better, still “follow along” as though these high-stakes evaluation systems are valid and effective?

I bristle when I hear that evaluating teachers by test scores is needed to “hold them accountable,” as though teachers are outlaws or laggards. If there are some who are not doing their job, it is our responsibility as principals to address the problem. We should not destroy our schools to create a bell curve of accountability performance, which is created when we compare teachers to each other using student test score growth.

[Why the movement to opt out of Common Core tests is a big deal]

My sense as a principal is that most teachers feel profoundly responsible to their students, colleagues, parents and community. If we abhor the sorting of children (and I believe you do as well), why would we embrace the sorting of adults with labels like “highly effective” or “developing”? If we believe in collaboration, why would we undermine it with “pay for performance”? It is principals’ day-to-day supervision of instruction that helps teachers improve. Teachers feel responsible when they know that their principal expects them to do their best, and in return we principals give nothing but the best of ourselves.

In light of this, I have concluded that I cannot be part of reforms that eat away at the moral fabric of our schools. I cannot be part of a system that puts test scores based on a set of flawed standards before the interests of the whole child. All of these simpleminded, corporate reforms pushed by profiteers, politicians and the business community are putting our children’s right to a developmentally appropriate and enriched education at risk. Worse, their incentives put our very goodness at risk.

All year long I struggled with the thought of retirement, changing when that time might come on almost a daily basis. Every time I thought about writing my letter of resignation I would pull back. In the end, I decided that the new evaluation system was one in which I could not, in good conscience, participate.

June 30th will be my last day as principal, Jayne. I will continue to fight for our public school children and the profession that I love from outside the system. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on teacher evaluation and the effects of testing on the Common Core.

Carol