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Gates Foundation: Wait Two Years Before Attaching Consequences to Common Core

By guest blogger Andrew Ujifusa. Cross-posted from State EdWatch.

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 coreThe 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. 

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."

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.

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. 

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."

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:


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