More than 80 percent of students say they expect to go to college, but less than 40 percent of adults have an associate's degree or higher. It's clear that we need to do something--something big--to prepare America's students to achieve the American dream. Fortunately, we already have. Right now, K-12 education is going through two changes that will help all students get the high-quality education they deserve.
The first has to do with academic standards. For decades, we held most students to standards that didn't match the knowledge and skills they needed to succeed after graduation. The Common Core State Standards were designed to fix that problem, and 45 states have adopted and are in the process of implementing them.
The second big change relates to how we support and evaluate teachers. Before I set foot in the classroom as a young teacher, I received only the most generic training. Once I actually had students, I managed more or less on my own. The same is true for the overwhelming majority of teachers today, who routinely have to rely on intuition or trial and error instead of evidence-based insights about how to get better at their craft. Fortunately, states and districts are building systems to provide teachers with ongoing, personalized feedback based on multiple measures, making it possible to customize professional development.
The thing about big changes is that they can be unsettling. Some people worry that the Common Core will over-burden teachers who are already over-burdened, and I empathize. Others want to be cautious about how tests aligned to the Common Core are used to evaluate teachers, students, and schools, and I agree. But the fact is, in the vast majority of cases, these changes are being implemented carefully to avoid precisely these pitfalls.
What does appropriate implementation of new standards and evaluation systems look like?
The key principle is giving teachers and students time to adjust to new expectations before they face serious consequences for not meeting them.
Teachers should benefit from the insights that come out of the evaluation systems as soon as they're available, but districts should ensure that there is a baseline and several years of data before using these systems to make personnel decisions.
Students who do well on new assessments aligned to the Common Core may want to use them to let colleges know they're ready for credit-bearing courses, but test scores shouldn't be used to make consequential decisions, such as whether students should graduate, until we are sure we understand how to interpret the results.
Schools already identified as needing improvement should continue to make improvements on behalf of their students, but no new schools should be singled out based on new assessments until teachers have had a few years to get used to the new ways of working.
What I just described is the ideal state. It is also, with the exception of a few outliers, what is actually happening across the country. We should highlight the outliers and encourage them to take a more balanced approach, but we should also recognize that most districts and states are going about this this the right way.
As the Council of Chief State School Officers details in its October 2013 report, "Implementing the Common Core Standards," states across the nation have been working to implement the new standards for the past three years. Over 500 Colorado educators representing 61 school districts, for example, participated in workshops to create 670 curriculum samples based on the standards. The Georgia State Department of Education has created numerous resources for teachers, including a video library, GeorgiaStandards.org, with more than 1,000 videos that demonstrate effective implementation of the standards in classrooms. In the past year, I've attended conferences in Kentucky and Tennessee where teachers shared best practices for implementing the new standards.
Primary Sources, a national survey of teachers supported by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found that 73 percent of teachers who teach math, English language arts, science, or social studies in states that have adopted the Common Core are enthusiastic about implementation in their classrooms. And 75 percent feel prepared to teach the standards, up from 59 percent in 2011. Teachers acknowledge that it will be challenging to implement the standards and want more resources, professional development, and time to prepare lessons, which is exactly what we should be concentrating on giving them.
In the majority of states, teacher evaluation systems won't have high-stakes consequences for teachers until at least 2015-16.
In the meantime, teachers are benefiting from the new evaluation systems being rolled out. In a survey of several districts where our foundation is working closely, 78 percent of teachers agreed that their professional development experiences were focused on specific elements in their district's teacher observation rubric. And 43 percent said they received coaching to address the specific needs identified by their evaluation results.
Given the reality of what's happening on the ground in states across the country, I cannot understand those who are calling on states and districts to pause, stop or reverse these critical changes. Such a halt could undo the progress teachers, districts, and states have already made while stopping future progress in its tracks.
Change requires focus and perseverance. We need to be willing to analyze what's working and what's not so we can make adjustments as we go. We need to give students and teachers extra support as they get used to the new standards. We need to listen to input from everyone with a stake in the future of our schools, including state and local school officials, teacher unions, and parent groups.
We also must remember why change is needed in the first place. We desperately need a school system that ensures America's 50 million students are prepared for success in college and careers, and these changes are an important part of that aspiration.
There is a lot of hard work to be done in the next several years. Our energy should be focused on working together to make sure these urgent changes are made judiciously and help students and teachers do their best.
We all want our students to be better prepared. There are two wrong ways to get there: to push ahead recklessly with big changes, or not to push ahead at all. The right approach is the one the majority of states in the country are taking: thoughtful and steady.
This post was written by Vicki Phillips, Director of College Ready Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can follow her at @drvickip.