Education Funding Opinion

How to Drive Reform With Instruction Rather Than Testing

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — July 16, 2014 5 min read
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As I listened to the panelists at a recent Policy Analysis for California Education conference on implementing the Common Core, my mind kept channeling Michael Fullan’s admonition to drive reform with instruction rather than testing.

Fullan, of course, is the emeritus professor at the University of Toronto who has articulated the capacity building path that California has set upon. He’s an old guy who’s not grouchy. [See him at the EdSource conference.]

The lead-with-instruction theme flowed through the PACE conference. “For me, testing comes second. Implementing Common Core is about making sure that teachers have the professional development, the students have the books and materials... .having Common Core embedded in everyday classroom instruction is what matters to me,” said Rick Simpson, deputy chief of staff for the California Assembly Speaker’s office.

Slowing the Testing Train

One path to doing this is to slow down the testing train. Simpson said he wouldn’t mind if this happened, but the testing schedule is set for next spring, and California has agreed to it as a governing member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. The process of setting expected achievement levels is already started. If California pulls back, it would most certainly signal the demise of both SBAC and the Common Core.

But California can more easily modify how the scores are used. For the past three decades, the U.S. has followed the assumption that schools can get better based on a steady diet of negative feedback and sanctions. Currently, the state’s Academic Proficiency Index is on hiatus, and each school district is developing its own Local Control Accountability Plan. The state index might well stay dormant for a while longer. Reviving the achievement index too soon would likely swamp efforts to balance test scores with the other seven state priorities included in the 1,000 accountability plans that districts have been developing.

Delaying the index would give give Californians time to decide what weight to attach to the new tests. “I ask you all to suspend judgment,” said local union president and former state teacher of the year Shannan Brown. “If they [the Smarter Balanced tests] are good assessments, put them in the context of a good education system, and that’s where the LCAP comes in.”

Teachers, like Brown, are the key to the success of California’s Common Core and Local Control funding and accountability initiatives. Policy success hinges on their ability to teach to the new standards and to be explicit about the results they expect of themselves and their colleagues. And it also depends on teachers interpreting the Common Core to students and their parents. “Teachers are the most trusted messengers,” said Nancy Brownell, senior fellow with the state board and department of education.

The policy question is whether the state has a role to play in making teachers successful teaching to the new standards.

The PACE conference panelists and two reports—one from Stanford University and one from Pivot Learning Partners—provide some clues to how:

1. Make it easy for teachers to access, audition and curate learning materials.

Teachers have been placed in new roles of assemblers and testers of instructional materials. There is a mismatch between traditional texts and the demands of the Common core, as the Stanford report, written by Milbrey McLaughlin, Laura Glaab, and Isabel Hilliger Carrasco, notes. Both researchers and practitioners complained about publisher’s offerings. One superintendent was quoted as saying, “Publishers rushed, the materials really haven’t changed that much. The state-adopted materials are not that great.”

Or as Brownell said at the conference, “We’ve come off an era when the textbook was the good tool, and fidelity to the program was driving decisions about how we were going to organize lessons and units... . That model limits the capacity for teachers to have a deeper understanding.” She added later, “If you are looking for the perfect textbook, you are going to look for a long time.”

“The Common Core is the opposite of teacher proof,” said education journalist John Fensterwald, who has written about the Stanford report.

2. Make it easy for teachers to get differentiated professional development.

Paula Carroll, senior assessment fellow at the California Department of Education, spoke of a “different culture of on-line training: teachers from different areas having access to the same high quality modules of professional learning.” These teachers do not have to be in the same place or work at the same time. Their use of the materials can be facilitated differently.

But that’s not what districts are doing, said Brown. “A lot of districts are packing development and training of [all] teachers in the same way. Our teacher’s needs are dramatically different.”

The Role of the State in Creating a Powerful Learning Infrastructure

All this points toward a state role in creating a usable and powerful learning infrastructure. The state could gain huge rewards from a little investment if it connected learning resources to an inviting Internet portal. California has already purchased a digital library of Common Core and assessment resources. Understanding how teachers use this resource, and how they create networks with other resources, represents a substantial natural experiment that would tell state policy makers what teachers want and need.

Arun Ramanathan, CEO of Pivot Learning Partners, reported that relatively few school districts tackled English language development efforts with their initial Common Core strategies. Yet, as I’ve written earlier, the state should support a technological infrastructure for ELL students, where problems persist and where solutions have been historically expensive. For example, English Language Learners make up nearly a quarter of California’s students, more than 1.4-million of them. If an Internet-available learning infrastructure could help students gain English fluency and exit ELL status only 10 percent faster than they do now, the state would save tens of millions of dollars.

A well-designed statewide infrastructure project could add to capacity to lead with instruction with English Lanaguage Learners and in and other areas.

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