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To Save the Common Core, Don't Fear the Moratorium

Note: Morgan Polikoff, assistant professor at the University of Southern California, is guest posting this week. You can follow him on Twitter at @mpolikoff.

In the past two days I've illustrated how U.S. educational performance has improved considerably in the past few decades and argued that standards-based reforms have played a substantial role in that improvement. This leads me to be optimistic about the effects of current standards-based reform efforts, including the Common Core. In today's post I'm going to talk about what I view as the biggest political threat to successful implementation of the standards--teacher evaluation. Tomorrow I'm going to talk about what I view as the biggest technical threats to implementation--assessments and curriculum materials.

Of all the current political threats to the Common Core, the one that strikes me as the most dangerous is the brewing backlash from the teachers' unions. To be sure, the GOP/Tea Party rebellion against federal intrusion is also threatening and holds the possibility of leading to repeal in several states. However, I don't view that threat as particularly solvable--there's no policy tweak or line of argument I could offer that would convince those folks to change their minds in any major way. In contrast, the threat from teachers and the unions is relatively easily solved.

Both major unions have been vocal advocates of the Common Core so far, including conducting polls showing most teachers support the standards and building partnerships with tech companies to spur implementation. However, there are signs that support is wavering. In particular, Randi Weingarten (head of the AFT) has been treading an increasingly fine line on Common Core--supportive of the standards, but also saying their implementation is 'far worse' than the Obamacare rollout and bashing teacher evaluation policies in the same breath as she critiques Common Core.

Let's be clear--the growing union pushback is to some extent about teacher evaluation (how much you think it's really about evaluation probably depends on where you stand on the unions more generally). But there is no inherent reason why Common Core and new teacher evaluation policies have to be linked with one another. One need not have common standards to redesign teacher evaluation, and vice versa. The major unforced error here was in the Obama administration's pushing these two policies contemporaneously. As a result, the policies have become conflated in ways that have undermined both of them--as some of us have been predicting for a while. There is the increasingly real possibility that teacher evaluation will destroy the Common Core in some places.

I happen to be a supporter of the use of student test scores for some evaluative purposes. I believe evidence that teacher effectiveness predicts long-term life outcomes, and I believe that teachers who are consistently underperforming in terms of both contributions to student learning and other measures of teacher effectiveness after chances to improve probably shouldn't be teaching. I also believe that most teacher evaluation policies have been fairly perfunctory and could certainly be strengthened. These shouldn't be especially controversial statements.

Unfortunately, I am not a believer in the kinds of teacher evaluation systems currently being rolled out across the country. That is, I am quite skeptical as to whether they will have a meaningful effect on student performance. I have the same kinds of technical and philosophical concerns that many others have expressed about these policies, including:
1) The scores tend to fluctuate a lot from year to year [this is true both for the test score components and for the other components of the evaluation systems (according to some unpublished work of mine)]. While instability is not inherently problematic, it can be confusing to teachers and undermine confidence in the system.
2) Large proportions of teachers are from outside tested grades and subjects. While alternative student learning measures can be used for these teachers, little is known about the properties of these measures.
3) A clear, strong validity argument for new teacher evaluation policies has not been convincingly made.
4) The methods for combining multiple measures of teacher effectiveness into a single score will increase the likelihood of questionable decisions being made (as with school accountability, I would generally prefer keeping measures of different things separate, rather than forcing them into a fixed-weight formula).
5) Rolling out the new evaluation systems at the same time as new standards and tests creates additional complications and requires additional assumptions [such as the assumption that the test doesn't matter (i.e., tests are tests and growth is growth), which probably isn't true].
6) So far, when these new systems have been rolled out, they still identify very few teachers as needing improvement, so it's not even clear all the Sturm und Drang is worth it.
7) The proper locus of control for these kinds of personnel decisions seems to me to rest more with the school or district than with the state (that is, perhaps a state could require strengthened evaluation and offer a number of approaches districts could take, but mandating a single approach makes less sense).

Given all of these concerns, in the forced choice between teacher evaluation and high-quality, common standards, it seems to me that common standards should win. Policymakers shouldn't be afraid of the high-stakes moratorium for teacher accountability purposes. In fact, I think they should embrace it. Delaying questionable teacher evaluation policies for a couple years won't cause massive disruption (indeed, it'll give folks the opportunity to reevaluate and improve these systems). Keeping the evaluations and risking the Common Core, on the other hand, would certainly disrupt the great efforts educators have been making to rise to meet the new standards.

--Morgan Polikoff

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