Gates Foundation Backs Two-Year Accountability Delay Under Common Core

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 10, 2014 8 min read
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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced its support for a two-year moratorium on tying results from assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards to teacher evaluations or student promotions to the next grade level.

The June 10 statement from Vicki Phillips, the Gates Foundation’s director of college-ready programs, said that while the common core is having a very positive impact on education, that doesn’t mean teachers and schools shouldn’t be given more time to adjust.

Phillips stressed that the Gates Foundation has repeatedly heard that teachers are simultaneously enthusiastic about the common core but anxious about the challenges associated with the standards.

“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,” Phillips wrote in her letter.

The news was first reported in the morning newsletter of Real Clear Education.

The announcement comes on the heels of a June 8 Washington Post story detailing Gates’ involvement with spreading support for the common core. The Gates Foundation, which has doled out some $2 billion for K-12 education since 2008, has been a staunch supporter of the common core, helping to finance both the development and implementation of the standards.

The June 10 announcement isn’t the first time Phillips has expressed support for taking a cautious approach to tying high-stakes accountability to the common core.

Similar Statements

In a guest blog post in January on the Eduwonk blog, she wrote that in an “appropriate implementation” of the common core, “The key principle is giving teachers and students time to adjust to new expectations before they face serious consequences for not meeting them.”

For teachers, Phillips said in the January post there should be “a baseline and several years of data” from tests before making personnel decisions based on test scores. And Phillips said that no schools should be newly identified as low-performing or needing improvement until teachers have had “a few years” to get used to the standards and tests.

In a subsequent Eduwonk guest blog post in February, she reiterated this theme, saying it was crucial to “ensure that teachers and students are truly prepared before consequences for not meeting the standards are implemented.”

However, in an interview last year with my colleague Stephen Sawchuk, Melinda Gates, when asked about the idea of calling for a halt to evaluation based on the common core, responded, “Do I think we should pause on evaluation? No. I think we need to keep going on evaluation, but we’ve got to get the evaluation piece done right.”

The Federal Role

Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, the president of the Business Roundtable, a coalition of private-sector executives supporting the common core, said he supported the foundation’s newly stated position but didn’t think it was particularly newsworthy.

He argued that such discussions are ultimately secondary to whether states continue to implement the common core and use the standards to improve student learning. While he conceded that “every time that Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation speak, they give fuel to some opponents,” he ultimately didn’t think the announcement would damage the common core in any way.

At the same time, he expressed concern that the attention paid to the Gates Foundation’s announcement, along with the Washington Post story, would further the mistaken impression some have that philanthropic foundations and the federal government are the driving forces behind changes in education policy.

“The Gates Foundation has a lot of money, and at times they’ve got a lot more money than common sense,” he said. “They I think should recognize that education is an area where everybody in America has an opinion ... It is a local and state activity, which I think sometimes gets lost in Washington.”

Ultimately, however, any moratorium is going to be up to the U.S. Department of Education. The feds have required states that want waivers from many of the mandates of the outdated No Child Left Behind Act to put in place standards that will prepare students for college and the workforce and begin assessing students on those standards next school year. States are also supposed to evaluate teachers using data from those assessments.

So if there’s going to be any change or moratorium, the Obama administration would likely have to initiate it. Already, the administration has given states flexibility on teacher evaluations linked to high-stakes tests, allowing states a longer time frame than originally proposed to tie hiring and firing decisions to the new evaluations.

The U.S. Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the foundation’s position. UPDATE: In a statement, the federal department noted the flexibility it has already offered to states, but said the best strategy will be to make decisions on a state-by-state basis. “A blanket moratorium is not the best approach - just as a one-size-fits-all timeline is not the best solution. Our students should not have to wait for schools to ensure they are prepared to succeed in college, career and life,” the department said.

As Phillips indicated, some states have already taken action in this vein, citing Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Maryland in her letter as examples. Lawmakers in Florida and Ohio have approved various “pauses” in their accountability systems for the 2014-15 academic year regarding school accountability.

Still, it’s not exactly clear how much the Gates Foundation’s new position will influence officials’ positions and actions on accountability.

For example, Dan Thatcher, a senior policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that for the most part, state legislators aren’t as connected to the Gates Foundation’s work as some state superintendents and other influential education officials and advocates. For that reason and others, he argued, the announcement from the foundation probably won’t greatly affect state legislators’ thoughts on the matter of accountability.

What’s more important is for state leaders to get the details of their accountability systems right and take more time where needed, said said Carissa Miller, the deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which along with the National Governors Association oversaw the development of the common core.

“From my perspective this is just a statement about timing. It’s not about whether there should be accountability or whether there should be teacher evaluations,” Ms. Miller said.

Specifically, she noted that some states might need additional time to put in accountability systems that use student growth on assessments as a key metric. Without a baseline and multiple years of testing data, she noted, those systems won’t work.

Unions and Polls

Of course, Phillips is hardly the first key voice in education to call for suspending consequences for high-stakes testing as states navigate the tricky transition to the common core.

Both national teachers’ unions have called for slowing down implementation. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has supported a moratorium on attaching consequences for teachers to tests as schools get used to the new standards. And Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, recently said stakes should not be attached to new, common-core-aligned tests until 2015-16 at the earliest.

In a statement, the AFT praised the Gates Foundation’s announcement, saying it is in response to the “very real frustration of parents and educators over a badly mismanaged implementation of the standards—ignoring the real needs of kids, failing to provide the supports for teaching to the standards, and fixating on testing instead of teaching.”

A public-opinion poll of 800 registered voters last November conducted on behalf of Achieve, a Washington-based group that contributed to the development of the common core, showed support for a moratorium in general.

In response to the question, “Knowing that test scores may drop as these new standards and tests are implemented, would you favor or oppose giving teachers and students time to adjust to the new expectations before there are consequences for test results?” 81 percent of all respondents said they were in favor of such an adjustment period, while 54 percent said they strongly favored it.

Specifically, 31 percent of the respondents said they favored a one-year “adjustment” period, 27 percent of those responding favored two years, and 18 percent favored three years or more.

Not every common-core supporter reacted positively to the foundation’s announcement however.

New Mexico Secretary of Education-Designate Hanna Skandera said that she was still wondering whether such a pause would be in the “best interest of kids.”

“I question whether this is about adults or kids when we’re talking about delays,” said Skandera, who is also head of Chiefs for Change, a group of seven state chiefs who back the common core and accountability systems based on test scores.

Skandera indicated she had no plans to support such a moratorium, and worried that the AFT and NEA would use the foundation’s announcement as political ammunition to resist accountability in principle.

Others welcomed the announcement but questioned its motives.

Susan Ohanian, a critic of the common core and of the Gates Foundation’s involvement in public education, said that the foundation’s announcement could at least help broaden the support for delaying consequences linked to common-core tests in a way that other opposition hasn’t.

“It might convince the public, who really don’t know much about the whole thing, that there is something wrong with the testing,” Ohanian said. “Teachers can scream this all they want and they’re accused of having this vested interest against accountability.”

But she also said she suspected that the foundation’s move was “all politics” with public relations as “the primary motive.”

Read Phillips’ full letter below:

Assistant Editor Alyson Klein also contributed to this blog post.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.