As two powerful forces collide at this moment in educational history, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has an opportunity to make a mid-course correction that could save public education. The first powerful force is the Common Core and the accompanying tests that are being ‘rolled out’ in classrooms around the country. The epidemic of cheating on standardized tests is the other threat that must be understood and addressed.
Think of these two forces as mighty rivers, separate until now–but converging.
Dealing with the Common Core is going to require restraint on the Secretary’s part, it seems to me. Adopted by all but five states, the Common Core raises standards and expectations, surely a good thing. However, it is also scaring a lot of politicians and educators. Some are upset at the idea of change because fear of the unknown is par for the course, others suspect a federal takeover of education, and some think it’s a good idea being done badly.
Mr. Duncan’s official position is that the Common Core is not Washington’s doing, but everyone knows that federal dollars have supported its development and growth–it wouldn’t have happened without Washington. As protests grow, Mr. Duncan might be wise to keep relatively quiet and let others defend it, lest his support be taken as evidence that the Common Core really is that ‘federal takeover’ the critics fear.
But the arrival of the Common Core has created an opportunity for Mr. Duncan to speak out about the epidemic of cheating. FairTest, an organization that is strongly opposed to over-reliance on standardized testing, has compiled a list of states and districts where cheating (most often by adults) has come to light.
Secretary Duncan has previously said that the solution to this problem is tighter security, a position he took with me in a conversation after the Atlanta scandal became public. That might have been an appropriate response back then, but it is woefully inadequate today. Calling for increased security to solve today’s situation reminds me of that old fable, ‘The Boy at the Dike.’ You may remember the boy trying vain to plug holes and running out of fingers. Something more is going on here, and I think we should expect our Secretary of Education to help us grapple with this.
The challenge for the Secretary is that his own federal policy is at least partially responsible for what’s going on now. By insisting that student performance on standardized tests be an important part of teacher evaluation, Mr. Duncan and his “Race to the Top” have helped change the game. But it’s a game without clear rules besides “Produce or Else.” Surely he, as an athlete, must know that competition without rules leads to chaos.
Secretary Duncan has, wittingly and unwittingly, allied himself with the “Produce or Else” approach favored by Michelle Rhee , Beverly Hall  and other school leaders, apparently without clearly thinking through what “Produce” means. As a consequence, standardized tests have become a wedge (or a weapon) for administrators in their relations with teachers, a ‘them against us’ approach that is souring public education.
When I was a kid and when my now-grown children were kids, tests were designed and used to assess student performance and make judgements about school quality. Now, however, tests are all about holding teachers and principals ‘accountable.’ We have lost our way, and the cheating epidemic is the clearest sign of that. Principals and teachers know that their livelihood depends on rising test scores, and so the curriculum has been narrowed; adult energy is focused on the so-called ‘cusp kids’ who are just a few points shy of making it over the bar; music, theatre, and field trips have disappeared; children are objects to be manipulated, not living, breathing human beings with individual needs, strengths and weaknesses; and morally weak adults are cheating.
Here’s the rub: Cheating is not the problem that must be addressed. It is the most visible and disturbing symptom of the disease, but the disease itself is our excessive reliance on high stakes testing.
The Common Core tests represent an opportunity to cure the disease, and the Secretary should seize the opportunity. These new tests are supposed to reveal student strengths and weaknesses; their results should provide insights into what teachers need to do to help their charges learn. But if we continue with our “Get Tough” policies and use scores to reward and punish teachers, the Common Core is doomed, it seems to me.
The Secretary could proclaim a new day in testing and assessment–actually a return to the old days when we trusted teachers. He could seek consensus on what “Produce” actually means, which would be the first step to moving us beyond hyper-testing. Most of the teachers I have known over 39 years of reporting on education are not afraid of accountability. They need to be part of the conversation, however.
Why not bring together  several dozen thoughtful teachers? (Barnett Berry’s Teacher Leader Network would be a great place to recruit.) Invite the two teacher union leaders and some savvy principals and superintendents (I’d pick some names from David Kirp’s excellent new book, “Improbable Scholars.”) I suggest inviting Bill Gates, because he now says that education needs an accountability system that has the support of teachers, and because he is a smart man. Let these men and women–at least half of them classroom teachers–discuss and argue until they reach a consensus on what it is we want schools to “produce” and how that–and the adults in charge–should be assessed.
The ball, Mr. Secretary, is in your court.
- 1. The anger seems to be directed against high stakes testing, not the Common Core tests. Randi Weingarten has called for a one-year moratorium. Around the nation some parents are organizing to withdraw their children on testing days; some teachers in the northwest have refused to participate, and many school districts in Texas are petitioning their state legislature to ban high stakes testing. But that is my point: this moment of transition is a perfect opportunity to revisit what we are doing.
The Common Core tests have come and gone in New York City. I spent an afternoon with some 8th graders in Brooklyn last week, hearing their thoughts about the new tests they had just taken. Every single student wished for more time, but most did not seem fazed by the supposedly tougher requirements. The English Language Arts exam required them to read and write about several non-fiction passages, which most of these bright kids found boring. “Who wants to read about robot soccer players or the intelligence of crows,” one kid asked scornfully? English Language Learners who have taken the tests may have had a very different experience.↵
- 2. The DC schools are worse off today by every measure I can think of. See my blog post. And Secretary Duncan has made no secret of his admiration for Michelle Rhee, even to the point of electioneering. The Washington Post’s Bill Turque reported, “if any doubt remained about where the Obama Administration’s sympathies are in the District primary, they were eliminated at a morning photo op that preceded the official RTTT announcement.” Duncan’s announcement of the grant on the eve of the election had “the unmistakable feel of a Fenty campaign stop,” as Duncan joined the embattled mayor and his controversial chancellor in a walk with children wearing Fenty campaign stickers. Asked if he was taking sides in the Democratic primary, Duncan said of Fenty, “I’m a big fan.” When the new mayor, Vincent Gray, took over, Duncan urged him to keep Rhee on as chancellor, but Gray wisely let her go. Duncan then reportedly urged Gray to promote Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s Deputy Chancellor. (Cited in David Safier’s blog)↵
- 3. Dr. Hall and 34 other Atlanta educators have been indicted and are awaiting trial, and Atlanta remains the epicenter of our cheating universe.↵
- 4. Peter Cunningham, Secretary Duncan’s erstwhile Assistant Secretary for Communications, reminds me that the Secretary has been an active participant in Project Respect and has met personally with hundreds of the roughly 5,000 teachers the Department has met with since taking office.↵