John Thompson is a former Oklahoma historian and inner city teacher who is now an education writer focusing on inner city schools.
The accountability-driven school “reform” movement argues that schools are so broken that the only answer is rapid and “transformative” change. It seeks “disruptive innovation” to destroy the educational “status quo” i.e. education schools, school boards, and the teaching profession as it is currently constituted. The mistake of these reformers is that there are no quick and easy shortcuts to overcoming the educational legacies of poverty, no matter how “accountable” schools and teachers are to the results.
If policy-makers demand accountability without listening to the warnings of educators, many urban systems will be overwhelmed. For example. high-stakes testing pushed schools to narrow the curriculum, focusing on basic skills instruction and test preparation. Yet now teachers are supposed to implement the opposite policy, with critical-thinking and college-ready standards known as Common Core. Students who grew up on rote instruction for bubble-in tests are now supposed to adjust to assessments that are designed to be tricky.
The transition will be difficult, and giving schools the time and resources to adjust requires three essential steps. Fortunately for our students, Oklahoma may be the only state that is doing all three. The steps are:
- Make high-quality early education available to all students;
- Delay test-driven teacher evaluations, which use dubious statistical models to control for poverty, until our metrics for assessing teacher quality improve; and
- Delay or remove the stakes attached to Common Core assessments.
Oklahoma has already taken the lead in universal preschool. This is the most promising policy for improving schools. It requires patient and professional planning, coordination and implementation. That takes a lot of time.
As for step 2, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced that states can delay using test scores to dismiss educators for one year. Duncan finally heeded warnings that a disaster will occur if states have to implement Common Core at the same time as they begin firing teachers using old-fashioned bubble-in tests.
The slow-down is optional. Some states will continue to fire teachers with flawed experimental models. Others will delay until 2015. Duncan, however, merely allowed states to follow Oklahoma’s lead. We already delayed the punitive use of test scores until 2017, when we will have three years of data from the same assessments to feed into tested models. Oklahoma has the time to see whether we can devise valid metrics and see whether today’s models produce fiascoes in other states.
Related to step 3, Superintendent Janet Barresi announced that Oklahoma will pull out of the assessments process for PARCC, a consortium that is producing tests for Common Core. Since only 33 percent of Oklahoma schools are technologically prepared for PARCC testing, the exit is common sense. As Barresi said, “If we move ahead with this, we are going to be asking the state to drink a milkshake using a cocktail straw.”
We can debate whether test-driven reform ever made sense. Surely we can agree, however, that the rush to reform has undermined any potential it once had to improve schools. So let’s thank Dr. Barresi for listening. Educators who otherwise oppose her should give credit where it is due. The delays that have been granted to Oklahoma give our schools a chance to lay a foundation for real and sustainable school improvement. Together, we can implement high-quality preschool, use improved evaluations to dismiss ineffective teachers, and raise our learning standards. And together, we can neutralize the harm done by high-stakes tests.
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