The redoubtable Jay Mathews of The Washington Post fired another volley at Common Core State Standards today. Last week, he praised Virginia for not adopting the standards. (See our response here.) This morning, he argued that standards--and the new tests that will be tied to them-- will set back efforts to reform teacher evaluation. He uses some pretty curious logic.
He seems to say that we should stick with a pretty sorry status quo in one area to speed reform in another. The problem is that the sorry status quo will weaken any reforms we try to erect on top of it.
Here's the challenge, in Mathews' eyes: "The tests will have more questions that require students to explain how they got an answer to a problem rather than just fill in a bubble." He worries that "these new tests in nearly every state will delay, if not stop altogether, the national move toward rating teachers by student score improvements. School districts can't do that when the tests change so radically. They might have to wait years to work out the kinks in the tests before using them to assess teachers."
That may indeed present reformers with a real challenge, but what's the alternative? Stick with bubble tests and relinquish the dream that state tests might someday ask students "to explain how they got an answer to a problem?" If we're going to base a portion of a teacher's evaluation on test scores, don't we want to be sure in the end that the tests focus on what's important?
Mathews is right to point to perils of poor implementation. He writes about a California teacher's very legitimate worry that "there will be no new textbooks aligned with the new standards until 2017...because the state has no money at the moment to pay for them. There will be supplementary materials, their nature and quality unclear." He also notes the teacher's concern that "few districts publicized the coming changes," leaving most everyone in the dark. As most Common Core supporters note, even the best standards won't do much good if states don't implement them well.
But that doesn't mean we should simply settle for what we have now. For Mathews, "the big change in 2015 is akin to watching a rising tide approach sand castles carefully constructed on the beach." If that's true, we'll just have to make our castles of stronger stuff.