School Reform: Can the Gates Foundation Listen to Teachers?

Summary: The Gates Foundation says it is listening to teachers as it calls for a moratorium on the use of Common Core testing to evaluate teachers. A good thing, if true, but meanwhile recent research casts doubt on the use of any test results in evaluating the quality of teaching.
On the heels of my most recent post that lamented the inability of power levels to listen to front line teachers, a key player has grabbed a share of center stage to challenge my whine. The Gates Foundation, which has donated in the vicinity of $200 million to develop the Common Core curriculum, has urged that Common Core based testing to evaluate teachers be put on hold for a couple of years. By doing so Gates appears to honor grass root teacher anxieties about the rapidly moving adoption. The message Gates says it hears from the depths of the ranks is, “we like Common Core, but give us time to figure out how to make it work.”
Well, likely not all within the ranks would agree with that formulation, as demonstrators testified outside the Gates’ gilded new headquarters in Seattle the other day. Part of what these activists had to say was that too much too fast has been piled on too few teachers, which is a separate, genuine, but fully related issue. Common Core in this context becomes just another change on top of a previous testing regimen to which schools and teachers had already struggled to adapt with too few resources. From within the ranks, Common Core can feel like just the latest fad that will also fade, in an exhausting pattern only too familiar to those who have experienced it time and again. Much work only to be wasted when the next new bauble comes along.
Nonetheless, the arrival of the Common Core curriculum on the national scene has been well orchestrated, and developed with cooperation among the fifty states and the feds. It is designed to set national standards to guide and measure reform efforts. Students will be evaluated based on these standards, and so will teachers in those states that have evolved to the use of tests to measure teacher value added.
While a handful of states belatedly are balking at the Common Core national standards, the national teachers’ unions, the NEA and the AFT, also have been lobbying to delay the use of Common Core testing to evaluate teachers.
Up until the last couple of years, the Gates folks had been part of the chorus attacking the intransience of teachers’ unions to school reform, but most recently seem to have recognized the pivotal position of teachers, that it made no sense to make anything other than common cause with them and to listen to their perspective, and so have extended this recent olive branch.
As Vicky Phillips, the foundation’s head of K-12 programs put it, “The standards need time to work. Teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests, and offer their feedback. Applying assessment scores to evaluations before these pieces are developed would be like measuring the speed of a runner based on her time — without knowing how far she ran, what obstacles were in the way, or whether the stopwatch worked!”
As a sidelight, the pause may have tactical implications. According to an article in the Washington Post, a recent large scale study published in the journal of the American Educational Research Association has joined other studies in casting doubt on the ability of test scores to separate the good teachers from the bad. If subsequent studies concur, a major strand of reform thinking that relies on testing to evaluate teachers may wilt, and Common Core for that purpose along with it.
Stay tuned to this last development.
But in the meantime, the lesson from the twin debacles in the Veterans’ Administration, where vets have declined or died, and General Motors, where cars with mechanical defects have caused deaths, is that the unwillingness of any bureaucracy to listen to those who perform the fundamentals of the work portends breakdown of the mission. Schools have failed in part because teachers are muted in a system that often penalizes the professional pedagogical voice rather than encourage it.
The Gates Foundation, to its credit, appears to acknowledge this reality as a cornerstone of school reform. If testing as a part of teacher evaluation turns out to be a false turn, it will be interesting to see how the foundation responds.

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