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Principal: I’m retiring because Common Core puts test scores before children

Photo of Carol Burris

Core Debate

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Dear Jayne,

I appreciate your belief that all states should have the same or very similar standards. I also believed in national standards before the implementation of the Common Core. Now I believe that variation among states is a strength, not a weakness. If there are different models used by different states, we can evaluate the quality and impact of standards, with an eye to improving them.

You wrote that you are concerned that we have “inconsistencies throughout the country, within our states, in our school districts and even within our schools.” Jayne, the Common Core will not fix inconsistencies among schools and districts within the same state. The large NAEP gaps among schools in the same state indicate that factors beyond state standards are influencing student performance. The state standards did not create within-state performance gaps.

I am equally baffled that you believe it took the Common Core to move your teachers away from 50-minute lectures. “Talk and chalk” has not been the primary mode of instruction at my school since I became principal 15 years ago. Strategies such as cooperative learning, requiring students to justify their answer with text or reason and other active learning techniques have been known and practiced in good schools for decades. There was nothing in any state’s standards that forced teachers to lecture; and regardless of standards, bad pedagogical practices that do not promote learning, should have been discouraged long before the Common Core.

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But we agree that factors that have nothing to do with the quality of standards have influenced the implementation of the Common Core. As you noted, high stakes testing –using tests for student promotion, teacher evolution, and even school closure – has certainly increased the controversy surrounding the Common Core.

Lawndale Elementary Assistant Principal Ian Shumpert uses his iPad to conduct a teacher evaluation at the school. (Photo by Thomas Wells)

Perhaps it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room – teacher evaluations.

The New York legislature recently passed a bill that increases the impact of student test scores on teacher evaluations to 50%. The remaining 50% will be based on observations by their principal and now a mandated “outside observer”.

This promises to be a big change. We now assign 40% to student performance; half of which is based on district determined measures of learning. The district has also had the freedom to determine how points were assigned. In my district we minimized the test score impact and maximized efforts to help teachers improve their practice. As a result, our teachers never feared that struggling students or reluctant learners in their classrooms would jeopardize their career or evaluation.

Increasing the weight of test scores, along with state-level standardization of scoring bands, have not been welcomed by the vast majority of teachers, parents and administrators. We know this will result in increased teaching to the test and a curriculum that narrows to those Common Core standards that are tested. In districts and states that chose to rely heavily on test scores in their evaluations, that has been the observed outcome.

Related: With Common Core tests, a lot at stake for first-year principal

Earlier this week I received an email from a South Side graduate who is now a high school teacher in Washington DC.

Here is an excerpt from her email, which you can read in its entirety here.

“The teacher evaluation system in DC is a direct product of the damage that education reform is doing to real education…. Our value is based largely on test scores and our overall scores are calculated using a combination of a rubric and an “Individual Value Added” formula…. It’s a process that I think fosters a culture of “teaching to the test” rather than really teaching young people to think and be curious, innovative forces in the world.

So many teachers are so frustrated, but so many administrators are following along because this is the mandate that has been given. I have since moved schools, but common core hasn’t gotten any better. The PARCC exam left many of my students frazzled and discouraged. As teachers, we are struggling to keep up with what is required of us, both according to that test and our high stakes evaluation systems. It is clear to both us and the students that this just isn’t working, but it’s not a truth that many want to hear and/or face.”

We should not ignore this young teacher’s experience. School leadership scholar, Thomas Sergiovanni, wrote about the power of moral leadership, which can transform a school from an organization to a community. The voice of that young teacher is a powerful testament to how that sense of community is now being undermined. How can school leaders who know better, still “follow along” as though these high-stakes evaluation systems are valid and effective?

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I bristle when I hear that evaluating teachers by test scores is needed to “hold them accountable,” as though teachers are outlaws or laggards. If there are some who are not doing their job, it is our responsibility as principals to address the problem. We should not destroy our schools to create a bell curve of accountability performance, which is created when we compare teachers to each other using student test score growth.

My sense as a principal is that most teachers feel profoundly responsible to their students, colleagues, parents and community. If we abhor the sorting of children (and I believe you do as well), why would we embrace the sorting of adults with labels like “highly effective” or “developing”? If we believe in collaboration, why would we undermine it with “pay for performance”? It is principals’ day-to-day supervision of instruction that helps teachers improve. Teachers feel responsible when they know that their principal expects them to do their best, and in return we principals give nothing but the best of ourselves.

In light of this, I have concluded that I cannot be part of reforms that eat away at the moral fabric of our schools. I cannot be part of a system that puts test scores based on a set of flawed standards before the interests of the whole child. All of these simpleminded, corporate reforms pushed by profiteers, politicians and the business community are putting our children’s right to a developmentally appropriate and enriched education at risk. Worse, their incentives put our very goodness at risk.

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All year long I struggled with the thought of retirement, changing when that time might come on almost a daily basis. Every time I thought about writing my letter of resignation I would pull back. In the end, I decided that the new evaluation system was one in which I could not, in good conscience, participate.

June 30th will be my last day as principal, Jayne. I will continue to fight for our public school children and the profession that I love from outside the system. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on teacher evaluation and the effects of testing on the Common Core.

Carol

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Carol Burris

Carol Burris is the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE), a non-profit advocacy group founded in 2013 by Diane Ravitch and Anthony… See Archive

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