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Of tests, teachers and Arne Duncan’s roiling of the waters

Did it not occur to anyone that it would be a mistake to roll out complex standards and teacher evaluations based in part on student achievement in the same year?

From the Department of Costly Political Miscalculations:

Did it not occur to anyone that it would be a mistake to roll out new, complex and tough-to-teach academic standards and teacher evaluations based in part on student achievement in the same year? Did it not occur to anyone that this would spur an anti-testing tsunami?

Anyone? Anyone? OK, so I’m talking to you, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. I’m not sure whether you’ve noticed, but I think you’ve shot yourself in the foot.

I know what you’re going to say, that the situation is not entirely of your making. That Congress has been stalled on education policy since you and your basketball buddy Barack Obama moved east. And that the Common Core, the standards everybody loved a couple of years ago and everybody fears today, are a creation of the states.

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True dat to both, and yet it’s also true that your marquee Race to the Top was the only money on the table during the worst of the recession, which meant states were too starved not to adopt the policies that would earn the cash. Which turned your beloved innovations, Arne, into federal intrusions.

And it seemed pretty clear back in the halcyon days of 2011 that both teacher evaluations and the new standards would generate better teaching. Not so much because Bad Teachers would be identified and dispatched with but because the associated data would identify great teachers and by extension their practices. And not because we’d get “higher” standards so much as standards that would require more dynamic teaching. 

Laudable goals all. And yet what we have today are teachers who are being asked to do something other than what they have been taught to do in the past, and to do it for the first time in the very same school year when it probably feels like an imperfect performance could mean a one-way ticket to the Bad Teacher guillotine.

You didn’t do it singlehandedly, Mr. Secretary. There is a long, long line of folks who either want you to fail for their own political reasons or who want to hoover up the money that will pay for the new texts and tests.

But you might have foreseen that in frightening teachers you’d frighten parents. And Democrats, who need teacher union support to make it through this year’s midterm elections. And that in frightening everyone you’d endanger the data stream — imperfect but getting better by the day — that underlies your beloved innovation.

I’ve read the news stories about the back-and-forth you’ve had with other states that have asked for opt-outs on testing with interest. And: What fat irony that states are asking for waivers from compliance with the testing and accountability waivers you’ve been handing out for the last two years.

But more to the point, and then I will leave you to your usual business, is there maybe an opportunity here to un-roil the waters? To articulate a vision? Just a thought.