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Opinion: In Strident Dialogue About Common Core, 'Go Slow' Usually Means 'No Go'

The politics of reform can be far more fascinating than the questions about using PARCC to evaluate teachers now or in two years

laura waters
Laura Waters

Last Thursday, the state Senate Education Committee heard testimony from proponents and opponents of a draft bill (S-2154) that would postpone by two years the incorporation of student growth data into teacher evaluations.

A companion bill coasted through the Assembly earlier this month, and the Senate is expected to take the final bill up today, its fate uncertain.

But the politics on view last week are worth dissecting.

Lobbyists who supported the draft’s proposed delay argued that sticking to the original timeline is punitive and reckless. While the regulations attached to TEACHNJ, the state's 2012 tenure and teacher evaluation reform legislation, call for implementation next year, there’s strong sentiment that this is too much reform too soon. Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, told the Senate committee, “(T)he state is rushing into implementing a system that is just not ready.”

Opponents of the delay argued that NJ’s public schools are, in fact, ready to implement the computer-based PARCC tests that will inform teacher evaluations. A delay, they say, is neither necessary for districts nor beneficial to students.

The New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) statement: told legislators that “[s]chool districts across the state have already invested significant time and resources to prepare for the shift to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing.”

NJSBA added, “The planned teacher evaluation system should remain intact.”

Are we ready -- or not? You could flip a coin. Or, better yet, you could examine the players on both sides, an analysis that reveals more about the politics of reform than about the relatively simple question of whether New Jersey should use PARCC results for teacher evaluations now or in two years. For clarity’s sake, let’s call them “Team Go” and “Team Slow.”

First, team rosters. Team Go solicits its recruits from the pocket-protected policy nerds of public education. On Thursday, members of this ready-for-PARCC consortium included NJ School Boards Association (which has non-nebbishly pushed hard for the elimination of lifelong tenure, long before this was a trendy meme); staffers from the state Department of Education; two education reform organizations; representatives from community colleges (where 70 percent of incoming students require remedial coursework, a national problem that the Common Core seeks to remedy); and a few superintendents.

But it’s Team Slow’s roster that catches the eye as members spout populist slogans decrying immediate implementation of data-based evaluations as an assault on the beleaguered teaching profession.

NJEA led the way last week, emboldened by national union leaders’ chants of defiance in the wake of Vergara v. California. Next in line was Education Law Center (ELC), stalwart defender of poor urban schoolchildren, followed by Save Our Schools-NJ, stalwart defender of rich suburban parents. Rounding out the lineup and impishly tweeting from the gallery were the Badass Teachers Association (BAT), which describes its raison d’etre as “eliminat[ing] the use of high stakes testing,” and the Eagle Forum of N.J. (nee Phyllis Schlafly), which derides both the Common Core and PARCC (a common and inaccurate conflation) as “robotic learning . . . designed by federal educrats.”

Badass Teachers and the Eagle Forum on the same team? Sure: they’re both fringe groups, the former a rebel outpost of the Democratically-leaning NEA and AFT and the latter a rebel outpost of the GOP, tightly linked in this one area by their joint loathing of federal or state intrusion into local matters like public education.

The Eagle Forum declares on its website, “Common Core severely limits local control of education . . . nationalized tests are more federal interference.”

BAT posts on its Facebook page, “We need to remind Dennis (van Roekel, president of the NEA) that most teachers DO NOT support the CC (Common Core). So, time to swarm the NEA AGAIN. Raise our teacher voice and tell them they represent the membership not COPORATIONS! [sic]”

This weird alliance is indicative of an internecine educational divide within the Democratic Party, just a few steps behind our Republican brethren. While the GOP has Obamacare, immigration, and the felicitously named Obamacore to swing legislators to the right (witness Eric Cantor’s fall from grace), the Democrats have PARCC and Common Core to swing legislators to, well, whatever direction you want to call it.

The Republican leadership disparages the Affordable Care Act for sloppy implementation and technical glitches. The Democratic-leaning teachers union leadership disparages the Common Core and its accountability instrument PARCC for sloppy implementation and technical glitches.

Back in New Jersey, linkages among most members of Team Slow -- NJEA, SOS-NJ, BAT, and the NJ Eagle Forum -- are overt, particularly their allegiance to local control. A logical corollary is an aversion toward state-ordered course standards and assessments, especially those that will inform teacher evaluations and potentially affect job security. ELC, admittedly, is a bit of a puzzle: how can a group devoted to top-down school funding equity for poor urban children reject top-down instructional equity for poor urban children?

In the end, all this kerfuffle over starting PARCC-informed teacher evaluations now or in a year or two is trivial. Even the most ardent tenure reform advocates would sacrifice a year to secure buy-in. However, there’s increasing evidence that Team Slow is really Team No.

Let’s go national again.

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