U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced that states will be given the option to postpone using the results of their new teacher evaluations for high-stakes decisions during the phase-in of the new Common Core-aligned assessments. The reaction from some advocates was swift condemnation – calling the decision little more than a “delay” and a “victory for the status quo."
We hear these kinds of arguments frequently in education. The idea is that change must be as rapid as possible, because “kids can’t wait." I can understand and appreciate the urgency underlying these sentiments. Policy change in education (as in other arenas) can sometimes be painfully slow, and what seem likes small roadblocks can turn out to be massive, permanent obstacles.
I will not repeat my views regarding the substance of Secretary Duncan’s decision – see this op-ed by Morgan Polikoff and myself. I would, however, like to make one very quick point about these “we need change right now because students can’t wait” arguments: Sometimes, what is called “delay” is actually better described as good policy making, and kids can wait for good policy making.
In the 30 states that have thus far adopted new evaluation laws, the burden of working out the complex details has largely fallen on individual districts. These many hundreds of districts, a huge proportion of which are quite small and already rather pressed and understaffed, have had to design their own plans, train and prepare teachers and principals, and figure out how to implement their new systems – in some cases without so much as a pilot year.
Now, right in the middle of installing these new evaluations, not to mention running a school district, there is the Common Core – intended to spark massive change in the existing educational infrastructure – as well as brand new assessments. You don’t have to agree with these policies, but I for one don’t see much stagnation.
Moreover, little of this is changed by Secretary Duncan’s announcement, which pertains only to the stakes attached to teacher evaluations (and, by the way, is voluntary).
Advocates, in contrast, are striving to keep up the pressure for improvement, and their fear of rollback is understandable. Still, underlying the “the kids can’t wait” rhetoric is the assumption that almost anything would be better than the status quo. On the one hand, it's certainly true that all policies must be examined compared to alternatives, including those presently in force.
At the same time, however, the idea that any policy can do no harm is often misguided, but it’s particularly salient when we’re talking about hiring, firing and paying teachers based on brand new evaluations that incorporate data from brand new assessments.
Even the best ideas can and will fail if not executed properly, and that often takes time and attention to detail. Not everything that’s worth doing ends up being done successfully, especially not all at once.
- Matt Di Carlo