Postponing 'Stakes' for Common Core Won't Work
Putting the brakes on common-core stakes could stop the clock on progress
President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers recently proposed a moratorium on "high stakes" related to the Common Core State Standards, positing that the standards will either lead to a revolution in teaching and learning or end up in the dustbin of abandoned reforms. She is right that the potential for a transformation—one of particular benefit to children who are not well served by our current education system—is real. But a moratorium would be a mistake.
The common core is not just another reform; it is truly a revolutionary development. But it is also a package deal in which next-generation assessments will inform and improve instruction in ways that make far more sense to teachers than the current "bubble tests" that are often disconnected from what they teach and what their students need.
The common core defines critical, real-world understandings that students need for success in college and career, broken down by grade level. Until the development of the common standards in English/language arts and mathematics, teachers have been expected to cover a surfeit of material. The common core reduces this load, but in return demands that teaching be pursued with increased rigor, depth, and relevance. This call for excellence has been met with great enthusiasm from teachers and students alike. Best of all, all students will benefit from this standards push, and the increased rigor across the board has the potential to catapult our schools—particularly schools in states that do not currently offer a rigorous curriculum to all students—to levels of quality and equality of opportunity that have not yet been reached.
Already, the common core has ignited a revolution in classrooms, according to the more than 6,000 teachers nationwide who have participated in common-core conferences convened this year by my organization, Teach Plus. Thanks to the common core, for the first time in history, teachers across the United States are united in a way that opens the door for the use of massive online open courses, or MOOCs, as professional-development tools.
This means some of the nation's best teachers can lead online professional development for thousands of their peers for a particular grade level on a particular standard. As Latisha Coleman, a 2nd grade teacher in Washington's Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School, put it during a recent meeting convened by Teach Plus: "Common core has created a common language for teachers. It has broadened our ability to share best practices across schools and across systems." This could have a revolutionary impact on the teaching profession.
Of course, enthusiasm for the new standards doesn't mitigate all concerns. Like Weingarten, many teachers are rightly worried that, in an effort to speed implementation, districts will fail to provide the level and quality of support that teachers need. But delaying something is not the same thing as improving it. Instead, districts should find ways to empower and invest in teacher-leaders, who would make ideal trainers for their colleagues. This would enable teachers to learn about the standards from in-the-classroom experts they trust, instead of outsiders. Hybrid roles for teacher-leaders, so that they can teach part time while also coaching colleagues, is one way we can invest in teachers as experts to make the common-core rollout a success without wasting time.
The teachers we work with in my organization are enthusiastic about the standards because they offer opportunities for cross-country collaboration on best practices and for high expectations for students' critical-thinking skills—the learning that matters most.
Likewise, many teachers are eager for the new assessments that will accompany the common core because they squarely address the biggest complaint against No Child Left Behind-era tests—that the focus on multiple-choice standardized tests has made a test score, not authentic learning, the goal of education.
The new, computer-based assessments aligned to the common core are as far from fill-in-the-bubble tests as this nation has ever seen. Many of the questions on them are open-ended, and the assessments share an emphasis on showing an understanding of ideas, not just identifying an answer. Best of all, they are designed to measure deep knowledge and complex, higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills. No doubt the new assessments won't entirely rid our schools of the occasional lousy (and sometimes downright irresponsible) use of testing; policy is never fool-proof. But that alone is not a reason to "put the brakes on stakes" (as moratorium proponents put it) just at the moment when new assessments are finally going to be far better measures of student learning than NCLB-era tests ever were.
Teaching to the improved standards without the aligned assessments—or with assessments that don't "count"—would lay the groundwork for shortsighted decisions to skip the assessments altogether or the continuous delay of that magic day when they will count, in an endless quest to attain perfection. The bumpy road that led to recent steps forward in developing evaluation systems that are based in part on student learning gains could be erased.
When asked about the proposed moratorium, New York state Commissioner of Education John King quoted Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail": "Frankly, I have yet to engage in a ... campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly. ... For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear ... with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' " Children who are still waiting for an education that prepares them for success in college and careers cannot afford the risk of continued delay.
But Randi Weingarten is right that supporting teachers every step along the standards path is essential. The federal government sends states $2.5 billion each year for professional development for teachers and gives great latitude to states and districts on how they spend those dollars. Rather than delays or moratoriums, there is an opportunity for leaders like Weingarten to help states figure out how to squeeze every possible dollar to fully prepare teachers and schools for the common core and to ensure that the transition to new standards-based assessments, currently slated to begin in September 2014, goes well.
Among many teachers nationwide, a clear pattern is emerging: The more they know about and use the common core, the more excited they are about its promise. Many say the standards will enable them to finally do what they envisioned doing when they first got into teaching: get students excited about learning. One Indianapolis teacher told me she had been so discouraged before the common core that she "had one foot out the door" and was considering another profession. Thanks to the common core, she now wants to stay. Let's not make her wait any longer for the standards, assessments, and professional development that, taken together, can have exponential impact in helping her lead her students to success.
Vol. 32, Issue 33, Pages 28-29Published in Print: June 5, 2013, as Why a Moratorium Won't Work