NEA VP: Common Core should be used to guide, not punish educators

By Tim Walker, NEA

The Common Core State Standards are scheduled to be in place by fall of 2014, and the enormous changes they'll bring to every classroom will be felt just as efforts to overhaul educator evaluations systems pick up steam.

Common Core was explored in depth in the February issue of the MEA Voice. Educators and other experts report that implementing Common Core in Michigan will be challenging. State policymakers must provide strong support for teachers and education support staff — a tall order, considering recent history — in order to properly implement the new standards

Common Core can be good, but only if it's done right. It can only be done right if public school employees and districts have the proper training, resources and funding to do their jobs. It's no wonder, then, that educators have what National Education Association Vice President Lily Eskelsen calls a "love/fear" relationship with Common Core.

At a March 25 panel discussion about the Common Core State Standards and teacher accountability hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Eskelsen praised the standards as having the potential to prepare every student to thrive as a knowledgeable, creative and engaged citizen.

Still, Eskelsen acknowledged that the fast-paced implementation and the prospect of new assessments is fueling anxiety in classrooms across the nation.

"I love these standards because they will teach the whole child," Eskeslen said. "I love the portrait of competent students the standards paint. Read the language arts standards. You'll see verbs like 'analyze,' 'give an opinion,' 'describe,' 'demonstrate,' 'create.' These are words that make teachers salivate."

Eskelsen cautioned, however, that the new standards and assessments must be used only to guide and improve teaching — not to punish educators.

Joining Eskeslen on the AEI panel were Ann Bonitatibus of Frederick County Public Schools, Deven Carlson of the University of Oklahoma, Mitchell Chester of the Massachusetts Department of Education, and Morgan Polikoff of the University of Southern California.

The panelists expressed concern about the expedited timeline for Common Core implementation, specifically that teachers and education support staff may not have received the necessary training to integrate the new curriculum into the classroom and prepare student for the rigorous new assessments.

Morgan Polikoff, who presented findings from his paper "Common Core and Teacher Quality Reforms," proposed a "go slow" approach so that districts can do what is necessary to ensure the standards are successful. And because states are scheduled to officially roll out the new assessments in 2014-15, he recommended they step back and let the dust settle before using the data.

"I believe states and districts should consider a moratorium on the use of Common Core assessment results for evaluating and making high-stakes decisions about teacher effectiveness for the next several years," Polikoff said.

Mitchell Chester, commissioner of public schools for Massachusetts, disagreed that taking more time would be constructive for any phase of the Common Core implementation.

"I think 'taking it slow' is really just another way of saying 'delay,'" Chester explained. "It doesn't necessarily mean we're going to do it any better."

While Eskelsen wholeheartedly endorsed the first half of Polikoff's proposal — let's move a little slower — she quickly added that taking a year or two to work out bugs would not make high stakes decisions for teachers, schools or students any more tenable.

"We should never use these tests for high-stakes decisions unless and until we have validated them as indicators of a teacher's or school's performance, unless and until we have found them to be reliable measures," Eskelsen said.

"We have to insist before we go forward that these new assessments are going to measure what they say they will measure," she added. "I am looking to the Common Core to improve and guide my teaching. I am not looking to these standards as a way to sort and label teachers. I'm looking to kick No Child Left Behind out of the classroom."

Ann Bonitatibus, chief Operating Officer at Frederick County Public Schools, also echoed the call for a moratorium, arguing that value-added growth models are too inconsistent across states.

"One size does not fit all," Bonitatibus said. "It will not fit all teachers, it will not fit all schools, it will not fit all districts, it will not fit all students. If we are forcing prescription in order to meet a certain kind of model or rubric, we 're not going to get to a place where teacher have some of that creativity they need in the classroom."

Eskelsen underlined this point, stating that that the purpose of education is to open the minds of all students and make the classroom come alive. The Common Core standards can help teachers achieve this — if they are allowed to use assessments to guide their work.

"Do not use the Common Core to find the bad teacher," Eskelsen said. "That is not the purpose behind the standards. These standards will have an immense impact in every classroom and it's immensely important that we get it right."

(MEA staff contributed to this report.)