The Pioneer Institute released a report last week entitled How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness At Risk. As the title suggests, this is the latest in a series of Pioneer broadsides against the Common Core. Readers who find their way through the reflexive criticism and confusing presentation will be rewarded with some genuine insights into how to get implementation right. Unfortunately, because that guidance is buried deep amidst a sea of misrepresentations and sometimes inflammatory rhetoric, it is unlikely to further the discussion of how best to implement the CCSS.
The authors hammer home their message with all the subtlety of a wrecking crew.
The authors hammer home their message with all the subtlety of a wrecking crew: The Common Core English language arts expectations are poor—far lower in terms of content, clarity, and rigor than the Massachusetts English language arts standards, they clearly believe—and their adoption in states across the country “places college readiness at risk.”
The reality—as evidenced by the substance of the report, if not its title—is far more nuanced. And the authors of this report, Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky, have much to contribute to the discussion of how best to implement the CCSS.
For starters, and despite the promotional material Pioneer has issued surrounding this publication and its associated event, Huck Finn is not in at risk of disappearing from high school English class. At least not any more so today than it was the day
Systems over substance: Why top-down teacher evaluation reforms are unlikely to boost student achievement
Thanks in part to the requirements of the Federal Race to the Top program, since 2010 states and districts across the country have adopted teacher evaluation systems that use student achievement as part of the assessment of individual teachers’ performance. Given the amount of energy and political capital the education-reform community has put into developing, negotiating, and implementing these plans, you would think it’s a sure fire way to boost student achievement. Unfortunately, the top-down nature of these changes may very well be undercutting any chance they have to make a real difference for kids.
Top-down systems that bypass or undermine school leaders rarely produce excellence in the classroom.
The problem is not about the details of these evaluation systems—although clearly some are better than others—but rather who should be in the driver’s seat in making the decisions about how to hire, fire, and evaluate teachers. And the reality is that teacher-evaluation reforms are unlikely to succeed for reasons education reformers should know well: Top-down systems that bypass or undermine school leaders rarely produce excellence in the classroom.
It wasn’t that long ago that education reform was driven forward by a commitment to freeing determined principals who had a vision for excellence from the constraints that prevented them from developing the teams and practices they needed to drive school-wide change. Today, by contrast, reformers seem to have lost faith in the transformative power of school leadership and are now pushing teacher-quality reforms directly
Thanks to the Chicago Teachers Union strike, 350,000 of some of our nation’s neediest children have missed school this week. While it sounds like the strike may be close to an end, its impact will likely be far reaching and linger long after the teachers go back to work.
According to the unions, the fact that Chicago children have been denied the education they deserve is unfortunate but necessary to stop what they perceived as an unfair and unjust evaluation system that “would rely heavily on student standardized test scores.” One of key talking points being thrown around by the media is that student performance on standardized tests would account for as much as 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, something that even many reformers can’t stomach.
However, a close read of the final teacher-evaluation proposal from the Chicago Public Schools reveals a very different picture. In fact, the CPS proposal is more thoughtfully crafted and balanced than the rhetoric suggests, using a well-developed and tested teacher evaluation rubric, peer evaluation from master teachers, and student performance on teacher-created and teacher-scored performance assessments.
In fact, according to the final proposal, student achievement on standardized tests will never account for more than 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. And, even then, the district ensures that the often-derided state assessments—which, as critics note, are in desperate need of improvement—will not be used to judge a teacher’s effectiveness.
According to the CPS proposal,
Perhaps the most seductive trap in all of education reform is the idea of replication. A charter school is high achieving? Turn it into a CMO! A curriculum is achieving big results? Bring it to every classroom in its district! An instructional strategy is clicking with teachers? Take it nationwide! In theory, this makes sense. We should, after all, learn from the best, and if something is working, why not replicate it?
Copying success doesn't always lead to success.
Photo by Andre W.
Too often, though, replication falls short of these high expectations. It ends up more like an old-fashioned Xerox, where each new copy is a little worse than the one that came before.
In education, the Xerox effect often stems from a shift in focus. In the high achieving schools and classrooms so many seek to copy, teachers and leaders work together with their eyes firmly focused on the goal of improving student achievement. In replication schools, however, that focus is too often diverted from student outcomes to the faithful implementation of “proven” programs, systems and tools.
What’s more, feedback in replication schools too often becomes unidirectional and is aimed at how well the program is being implemented, rather than on whether—faithful to the program or not—teachers are
About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.
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