Dear Secty. Duncan: Find the Problem; Solve the Problem

Dear Secretary Duncan,

You can’t have it both ways: if the emphasis on testing is “sucking the oxygen” out of schools, delaying teacher assessments based on student testing for a year is not a solution. That is the same kind of push-it-down-the-road Band-Aid for which Washington DC has such a deserved, and unfortunate reputation.  Over-emphasis on testing is not going to get better, will not allow more oxygen into schools, in 2015 than it does in 2014.

I don’t damn the Common Core as severely as many of my thoughtful colleagues. The CCSS are better standards than in the past, and they provide greater flexibility for teachers to create authentic learning ecosystems. If CCSS are viewed as the floor, great educators and their students can set the ceiling as high as they like.

The bane of the Common Core or any other set of largely objective measurements is implementation strategies that require educators to teach to a test or suffer massive consequences.  I believe in accountability, and I believe that there is no place in the system for teachers who don’t perform.  But linking such performance assessment directly to test scores will ALWAYS suck the oxygen out of the system.

Is there a solution to this apparently intractable problem? Hard core unionists won’t support even reasonable teacher performance standards if they threaten even a few jobs. Hard core objectivists want a convenient boogieman at which to point the finger of blame for poor student performance. Hard core conspiracy theorists think a Washington cabal is planning the downfall of the Constitution using Common Core as the lever.

Of course there are solutions, right where we usually find them, in the middle, created and nurtured by thoughtful, rational educators who focus on one lodestar: what is best for the kids. Vermont has issued a manifesto of student assessment that finds balance; New Hampshire has committed to performance based assessments; Australia has built partnerships with universities so researchers can help build assessments of what we have come to call “21st century” skills; and many charter and private schools use blended models of assessment from which we can extract key elements. Just two weeks ago I watched the Superintendent and the president of the teacher’s union in Poway, California stand on a stage together and pledge to always solve their differences by asking one fundamental question: what is best for the students? These organizations may not have the perfect solution yet, but they are on a path.

As always, we won’t solve a problem unless we identify the right problem to solve. The problem is NOT that we don’t have perfectly workable, and evolving, models for student and adult assessment that blend content, skills, and performance. We do. The problem is scaling those perfectly workable solutions. That is a solvable problem, but it will require the hard core at all ends of spectrum to focus on the kids, not on their own selfish interests.

I applaud Secretary Duncan for admitting faulty implementation and for listening. But half measures and delays don’t work, at least for all the educators who have to suffer from the vagaries of conflicting political winds. Common Core standards are a half measure, but standards don’t kill good learning. Spending precious resources so students can regurgitate short term learning on bubble tests does kill good learning. Come on; solving that problem should not be out of reach for an entity with as much gravitational pull as the United States Department of Education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *