Over the last four years, states and school districts across America have embraced an enormous set of urgent challenges with real courage: raising standards to prepare young people to compete in the global economy, developing new assessments, rebuilding accountability systems to meet the needs of each state and better serve at-risk students, and adopting new systems of support and evaluation for teachers and principals. Meeting this historic set of challenges all at once asks more of everybody, and it’s a tribute to the quality of educators, leaders, and elected officials across this country that so many have stepped up.
One crucial change has been the state-led effort to voluntarily raise standards. That effort dates back to 2006, when a bipartisan core of leaders — governors, state superintendents, business people — came together because they recognized that America’s students needed to be prepared to compete in a global economy that demanded more than basic skills. They began a movement that has ended up with nearly every state adopting standards that reflect the knowledge and skills young people actually need to succeed in college and careers. Especially in communities where students historically have not been held to high standards, this state-led push is nothing less than a civil rights issue.
To put student learning squarely at the center of school decisions, states agreed to evaluate principals and teachers based in part on student growth, as measured by test scores, along with measures like principal observation, peer review, feedback from parents and students, and classroom work. These commitments became part of waiver agreements that have helped states dispense with the most broken parts of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The U.S. Department of Education also provided $350 million to two consortia of states to develop online assessments, benchmarked to the new standards, which will improve significantly on today’s “bubble tests.” All but a few states have agreed to implement these new evaluation systems by the 2015-16 school year.
The result of these reforms has been a level of change unprecedented in recent memory. As states and districts implement new systems, teachers and principals are committed to doing this work well, including mastering new standards that, for many, are revamping teaching. In surveys, teachers have embraced these higher standards, and say that a greater emphasis on critical thinking, literature and real-world problem solving speaks to what they love about teaching. We have heard the same thing in hundreds of conversations with educators about this transition.
Yet many educators, and a number of state chiefs, have said: let’s hold off on the consequences for teachers and principals while they come up to speed.
These concerns are real and honest. Some states have actually begun to implement new evaluation systems, others are starting next year, and some are waiting until 2015-16. Our administration wants to be as flexible as possible to address these issues, because it is important that teachers and instructional leaders are comfortable and confident with the new learning materials.
With that in mind, I sent a letter to state chiefs today telling them that our administration is open to requests for flexibility with the deadline for implementing new systems of evaluating principals and teachers. States that request and are given this flexibility can delay any personnel consequences for teachers and principals tied to the new assessments for up to one year, until 2016-17. Some states are well underway and are unlikely to seek a delay. Others may want more time. In a country as diverse as ours, one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work, so we will work with each state individually to find the right path and the right pace. This change affects only the timeline for teacher and principal evaluation; schools and districts accountability timelines will not change.
States must have solid plans to provide teachers support to help them make this transition, and to survey teachers about their comfort with the new standards.
Any delay has real consequences for real students in the real world. Their readiness has real consequences for their lives and the nation’s economic health. Yet this effort will only succeed if all parties — and especially teachers and principals — have the time, resources and support needed to make the journey from the often inadequate standards of the past to the ambitious standards of tomorrow.
I also want to address the issue of “double-testing,” which will arise during the 2013-2014 school year, when some schools will field test new assessments. Often, during a transition from one test to another, some small proportion of students take both tests. While field testing new assessments is necessary for a successful transition to the new tests, this can lead to administering two end-of-year tests to some students in the same year, which can add stress for students. We want to support states that would like to avoid double-testing students. Therefore, we are open to any state impacted by double-testing to request a one-year waiver to allow schools that participate in a field test to have students take only one end-of-year test. In those schools, provisions for school-level accountability would stay the same for a year, as would intervention plans that support low-performing students — we want to make sure there’s no reduction in the intensity of support for such students.
The coming changes will not always be smooth — implementation of changes this significant is hard work. There will be delays and technical stumbles. We recognize that until new assessments are in place, states will continue to use existing tests. Yet we also know that it would be a mistake to simply stop assessment until the transition is complete, because we know that it is our most vulnerable students who are hurt when we fail to assess students’ learning and make decisions based on their growth. And, as standards rise, scores in some states will fall — erroneously suggesting that our students’ performance is headed the wrong direction. That is simply not true; this will give us both a new baseline and a more honest assessment of both student achievement and achievement gaps. The unavoidable truth is that raising standards and improving systems is hard work, requiring collaboration and trust at all levels. There’s not just one answer, and not all states will choose to be part of the process — as is their right.
This is really hard work, but let’s remember what it’s all about. This is about our children and our collective future. This is about raising the bar to ensure they are able to compete in the global economy. This is about strengthening the teaching profession. It’s about creating the systems of feedback and support that teachers want and need to personalize education, focus resources, and give every child the attention he or she needs. This is about holding ourselves accountable at every level for ensuring that all children — and especially those most at-risk — have an opportunity to succeed and compete.
Because students can’t wait, we need states to move forward as fast as possible but to do so in a way that ultimately strengthens teaching and learning.
This decision ensures that the rollout of new, higher, state-selected standards will continue on pace, but that states that need it will have some flexibility in when they begin using student growth data for high-stakes decisions.
Just as I expect that all students in every classroom learn at their highest level, so do I expect our entire system, including myself, to be a great learner. Together with teachers, school leaders, and families, we will continue to learn how to make these changes well, and will make adjustments along the way. It’s what we need to do to get this right.
Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education