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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

How to Survive Education Reform Without Losing Your Job, Your Ideals, or Your Mind

    Be a contrarian with an attitude, but hold on to your values.

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      A modern-day Paul Revere rides through the halls of your school calling, "The Common Core is coming, the Common Core is coming," causing the adrenaline of all teachers, but particularly veterans, to spike. Although we've lived through various waves of "reform," we've shaken most of them off, possibly saving a useful morsel of this one or a bite of that one but, in general, ignoring them.
      But this latest onslaught feels more ominous. For example, we keep hearing that teachers are finally going to be held accountable for their "sins." When we hear it enough, we begin to wonder whether we really are a bunch of lazy sloths whiling away the hours until our big fat pensions become ripe. I want to reassure teachers, particularly veterans (particularly myself!), that we will survive this latest epidemic, just as we survived the bird flu and Y2K.
      I've studied the latest proposed reforms from many angles and, yes, they do have the potential to do a lot of harm. But I truly believe that we will emerge from this still standing—and maybe even a little stronger for the struggle.
      As the Common Core State Standards sweep across the United States, they are costing taxpayers millions of dollars—and by the time they're fully implemented, hundreds of millions. From what I can tell, much of that money was spent on little silver stickers that say "aligned with the common core" for textbook publishers to slap onto their textbooks. The fact is that the textbooks don't necessarily need significant changes because many of the reforms in the Common Core initiative aren't all that different from what educators have been doing.
      We are told that the old state standards were "a mile wide and an inch deep," implying that we were all racing through every topic without savoring any of them. Although it is true that a lack of time requires me to cover some topics only superficially, I have covered some topics in extreme depth. It's a matter of prioritizing to fit a nearly unlimited set of topics into a limited amount of time.
      The Common Core standards have not eliminated the need to choose how much time to spend on this lesson or that one. There are still too many topics to cover, so we'll have to continue setting priorities and covering some topics in more depth than others, just as we've always done.
      We have also heard there are going to be big changes in teacher evaluations. We hear that the old system was horribly broken and must be replaced with a new system that, in theory, factors in student achievement. Except that it doesn't—unless "achievement" means how well my classes do in comparison to how well a computer thinks those classes would do if they had an average teacher.
      This value-added component which, in some states, can be as much as 50 percent of the evaluation, is incredibly fickle. In New York City, there are middle school teachers who teach two different grade levels and therefore get two different value-added ratings. One would expect a teacher to add about as much value to her 3rd period 7th graders as to her 4th period 6th graders, but one teacher was recently ranked as a highly effective teacher for 6th grade, yet highly ineffective for 7th grade math. (I discuss the data in detail on my blog.) The good news is that being rated highly ineffective multiple years in a row is about as improbable as rolling double sixes on a pair of dice three times in a row. That doesn't make it less devastating for teachers who receive an undeservedly low rating, but it might limit the long-term impact of those low scores.
      My prediction—and my hope—is that as the flaws in these new systems are revealed—as known effective teachers get low scores and known ineffective teachers receive value-added merit-pay bonuses—the public will demand that these systems are dismantled before they do any more damage. With this in mind, it's important that we raise the alarm when these unjust ratings do occur so that the public will be aware of the problems with the system.
      The gravest threat posed by all these reforms is that they encourage teachers to forego real teaching for test prep. This will, ultimately, hurt students. As teachers, we cannot fall into this trap. When I am tempted to compromise on what I know is good instruction, I will think back to letters I've received from students over the years. Although I certainly can't claim to have inspired every student I've taught, I know from these notes that I have inspired some. When a student writes to me that she used to hate math and now she likes it, I've gotten all the merit pay I need.
      We must be aware of what our true value is—inspiring kids to enjoy learning—whether or not a computer can detect it. So sound the alarm and stock up on batteries if you must, but remember that if you allow the quality of your teaching to suffer, everybody loses.

      Gary Rubinstein has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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