Published Online: July 17, 2012
Published in Print: July 18, 2012, as ECS Sessions Tackle Menu of Policies

Standards, Evaluations Hot Topics at ECS Forum

The impact of the Common Core State Standards and the future of teacher-evaluation systems were big topics for officials and advocates gathered at the Education Commission of the States' 2012 National Policy Forum in Atlanta last week.

Both were major features of the keynote speech delivered on July 11 by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has supported the development of teacher-evaluation systems around the United States. (The foundation also provides grant support for Education Week's coverage of business and innovation.)

Mr. Gates stressed the role of student surveys, classroom observations, and test scores as the three key measures of any good evaluation system. The most surprising finding of the foundation's work in teacher evaluations, he said, was that student surveys could produce very informative answers about teacher practice.

"Asking students the right question is very, very diagnostic," he said.

Mr. Gates also said that, even in difficult fiscal times, the development of teacher evaluations could be done at a cost of only 1.5 percent to 2 percent of overall education budgets.

But Sarah Brown Wessling, the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, said in a panel discussion with Mr. Gates that even as broad systems are being tested, individual teachers still do their own strong research on best practices.

"It's been on their own; it's been isolated research," she said.

Both she and Mr. Gates called for teachers to be heavily involved in creating evaluation systems.

Mr. Gates also called for policymakers to go "full speed ahead" on common standards in English/language arts and math, saying of the common core: "It is a substantial step forward in what should be taught."

Far-Ranging Agenda

The July 9-11 forum also included discussions about such topics as workforce readiness and America's "competitive edge" and its relation to education—along with plenty of sentiment that education policy work at the state level remains a hard slog.

State Rep. James Roebuck, a Pennsylvania Democrat and ranking minority member of the house education committee in that state, lamented what he sees as the rush to implement new policies and said they are implemented "erratically." He was critical, for example, of a Pennsylvania law exempting charter school teachers from new evaluations that take student performance into account.

"Once you get something in place, it's very difficult to remove," said Rep. Roebuck.

In a July 10 discussion about the connection between education and the perceived loss of the country's edge in economic competition, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, said that 3 billion people in the world are tussling for 1.2 billion jobs, and that teaching technical and practical skills is crucial for states in persuading companies to choose the United States over other nations for their operations.

"We are, in fact, in a global war for jobs, which really means that we are in a global war for talent," Gov. Markell told the audience.

But a dissenting note was sounded by E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, a nonprofit group that stresses the incremental growth of student knowledge across content areas. Mr. Hirsch argued that broad skills and knowledge are important for students, "so that you can have the flexibility to do a number of things."

Civics Education

One area where most U.S. students fall short is an understanding of American government, argued former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

In a July 11 speech, she cited data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2010 that most high schools seniors, 76 percent, were not proficient in knowledge of civics, despite research showing an overlap between the skills students needed in a global economy and ones they needed to maintain democracy in the United States.

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Justice O'Connor, who leads the advisory council to the Silver Spring, Md.-based Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, praised Florida's recent decision to eventually require students to pass a civics test in middle school.

"Our system of government is not just automatic," she said.

Comparisons to other countries also arose in a discussion by David Coleman and Jason Zimba, lead authors of the common-core standards in both English and math.

Stressing his opinion that the depth of the standards is the key to their success, Mr. Coleman—the incoming president of the College Board—said that the math standards in the common core would more closely match what students are required to know in high-performing regions like Hong Kong. He noted that the standards eliminate some topics and focus more on supposedly basic areas like fractions, a foundation for understanding algebra.

"It's actually the most demanding math," he said of mathematical topics like fractions.

Vol. 31, Issue 36, Page 22

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