Window of Opportunity

Election returns are like a Rorschach test: People see what they want in them. In the education space, some view the 2014 election as a repudiation of teachers unions. Others see some rejections of reform. I’m less concerned with parsing the ed factor of elections that, for the most part, were not about education. I’m more focused on the oncoming debates to improve public schools. My message to my allies in the reform movement is this: no rest for the weary. We have one year to strengthen the argument for the core reforms underway all across America before the next set of candidates start locking in their positions on issues like standards, accountability and charters. Retreat from high standards and greater rigor cannot become the politically appealing option. First, let’s take stock. We still have 42 states with Common Core State Standards, even if the number of states using the newly created assessments has dropped to about 30. We still have 42 states with charter laws and the number of charter schools continues to rise. We still have a national accountability framework under No Child Left Behind and modified by the Obama administration. The beach is secure, but the threats are never far away. Republican control of the U.S. Senate means that Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander will be shaping Congress’ agenda and he’s been signaling frustration with today’s system of accountability, despite his historic role in creating it. Sensing an opportunity are a host of voices calling for a retreat from annual testing and delinking student outcomes and accountability. So far, no one has offered a responsible and practical alternative but people on the left and the right are talking about it. I do not interpret the Georgia and Arizona elections for state education chief as strong evidence of voter hostility to the Common Core State Standards, nor do I believe Marshall Tuck’s loss in California was an embrace of the status quo. Instead I see all three as a signal that there is more work to be done. With Republicans in control of 31 statehouses and 65 legislative chambers, thoughtful Republican voices can help quell the resistance to high standards and remind newly elected officials that they were created and adopted by states—and that regardless of federal incentives to adopt Common Core, they remain entirely state-controlled. The bigger concern is the declining support for the new standards among teachers. Teachers are the most trusted voices in education and the key messengers to our parents. The more that teachers are exposed to the standards the more they seem to like them. We all need to elevate those classroom voices who understand that the shift to critical thinking, problem solving and evidence-based writing not only helps students get better but helps teachers as well. At the same time, we have to help communicate that including student gains in teacher evaluation—along with other measures—isn’t the big threat everyone has made it out to be. It both protects teachers from purely subjective classroom observations and helps build public confidence in public education at a time when we need to work together to boost funding for early learning and other investments that teacher unions and many reformers support. The other big issue is the expected drop in scores from newly-aligned assessments, which will be administered in the spring for the first time in more than 30 states. State and local education officials need to prepare parents for this and help them understand that they are getting the truth about college readiness and that lower scores on a tougher test do not mean that their children are any less prepared or their teachers are any less effective. It just means that we are all aiming higher. The Republican wave presumably spells good news for charters and choice but there is a damaging narrative gaining traction around profiteering and mismanagement. The charter sector needs to aggressively hold accountable those who have lost sight of the core mission to improve educational outcomes and focus on strengthening the sector. Separately, there is a serious quality control issue in the charter sector that warrants a coordinated response. Like it or not, charter schools have to meet a higher bar, not the same bar, and too many are falling short. Letting a thousand flowers bloom is not a viable strategy when it comes to children and their education. Instead, we need to boost the yield by pulling some weeds. Elections aside, we know parents are generally satisfied with their own schools even if they believe that the overall state of education is not good. They support change but not radical change. If the election tells us one thing about education it is this: People are far more interested in classroom results than political promises.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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