Editorial: Make the Common Core standards work before making them count

I am proposing that states and districts work with educators to develop clear tasks and a clear timeline to put in place the crucial elements of Common Core implementation. And until then, the tests should be decoupled from decisions that could unfairly hurt students, schools, and teachers.

When scores drop as sharply as they’re expected to, it will send an inexcusable message to parents: Your child is far from meeting the standards. And she needs to meet the standards to get into college. But we don’t have a plan, and nobody’s accountable for getting her there. Except for the teacher, who hasn’t been trained. And you can just imagine how that teacher feels.

…Let me be clear about what this moratorium is and isn’t: We aren’t saying students shouldn’t be assessed. We aren’t saying teachers shouldn’t be evaluated. We’re not saying that there shouldn’t be standardized tests. We’re talking about a moratorium on consequences in these transitional years.

It’s kind of amazing that it’s necessary to call on states and districts to implement the Common Core before making the new assessments count. But that is what I feel compelled to do today. Districts, states, and policy makers: Administer student assessments, perform teacher evaluations, but use them to understand and respond to student and teacher needs in this transition. Just like businesses let data improve products, let the data inform instruction and improve policy. That way we can help teachers and students master this new approach to teaching and learning, and not waste time punishing people for not doing something they haven’t yet been trained or equipped to do.

This moratorium—this transition period before high stakes are attached to the assessments—can’t be a period of inactivity. It must be a time of intense activity in order to properly implement the standards. In this time period, states and districts should put in place a high-quality implementation plan and field testing.

An implementation plan must include curriculum, professional development, and time—but they aren’t sufficient. A high-quality implementation plan also means involving the frontline educators who are responsible for engaging students in critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, and the other skills expected in the Common Core. And the plan can’t just be imposed from on high. It needs to be designed with and by teachers—ideally through their collective bargaining agent. The only way this will succeed is if teachers have input and ownership. Teachers rise to the occasion. The more input and supports they have, the more confident they are about mastering these instructional shifts.

Parents must be a part of this, also. Schools and districts must keep them informed and engaged.

And this transition requires dollars. A recent study, from the Fordham Institute, estimated that the cost of implementation could run as high as $12 billion nationally. And let’s be real: If funds can be repurposed, great. But remember, schools and students have already endured four years of deep cuts to education. And this year, funding has dropped yet again in more than half the states. While the sequester may no longer be causing headaches at airports, it’s taking a hatchet to education funding for poor children.

In sum, implementation plans must lay out what is needed, spell out how to get there, and make it clear how they will be supported, financially and otherwise, by teachers, political leaders, administrators, parents, and the community.

Let’s talk about field testing: We need to ensure that the standards, the curriculum, the teaching and the testing are actually aligned. Timelines will vary, but we are calling for at least a year to field-test a sound implementation plan.

Field testing is important any time a new process or product is introduced. Just ask successful businesses. For the Common Core, it would serve as a time when teachers can give and get feedback, share ideas, and try out methods of teaching to the new standards in their classrooms every single day. So if businesses field-test new products as a matter of course, why, in education, would we do something less, especially with something as revolutionary as the Common Core?

Once those two parts—an implementation plan and field testing—are completed, that’s when it makes sense to attach stakes to the assessments. But even then, let’s stop this out-of-control fixation on testing, test-prep, and paperwork.

There is still an opportunity to give teachers and students the tools and time they need so students can meet the new challenges and higher expectations with confidence. New Yorkers should insist on this, as should those in every state that has adopted these standards.

…When students complete only a small fraction of the tasks required of them, they get a failing grade. Yet when officials responsible for implementing the CCSS fail to do what’s required of them, it’s students, schools, and teachers who pay the price. That’s wrong.

Everyone who has a responsibility for our children’s education has to take responsibility for making sure the Common Core is supported, implemented, and then evaluated correctly. That’s what making accountability real means.

So I come back to these standards. Revolution? Or dustbin?

This is our chance to realize the purpose of public education—to instill skills and knowledge, a love of learning; to foster an informed and engaged citizenry; to build a stronger nation. This is our chance to ensure that every child can not just read, write and compute—but think, problem-solve, work in teams and be confident about their place in the world. This is our chance to reverse growing achievement gaps by attending to the huge opportunity gaps and giving all kids the supports they need to achieve these goals.

This is our chance—and it must be our choice—to get this right. Rhetoric about urgency can’t trump quality, equity, and sustainability.

…If we’re able to step on the accelerator of high-quality implementation and put the brakes on the stakes, we can take advantage of this opportunity and guarantee that deeper and more rigorous standards will help lead to higher achievement for all our children.

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