Early Common Core testing will be a jarring wake-up call — what then?

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Neerav Kingsland expects Common Core to deliver a rude awakening.

Neerav Kingsland expects Common Core to deliver a rude awakening.

Here’s a prediction: When Louisiana students first take high-stakes exams aligned with the Common Core curriculum, no more than three out of every 10 children will achieve proficiency. How do we know? Students in Kentucky and New York have already taken these tests. And the results have been dismal. Louisiana students will fare no differently.

The poor results will leave policy makers with three options.

One option is to just rip the band-aid off and call it like it is. Label 70 percent of students as failing; rate most teachers as unsatisfactory, and grade nearly all schools with an “F.” There is some merit to this approach. It could force us to confront a tough reality: Our students, our teachers, and our schools are not achieving at nationally or internationally competitive levels.

Another option is to just ditch the Common Core. Policy makers could use public outcry as grounds to abandon the higher standards. There is a reasonable argument for this approach: Perhaps we’d be better off to just keep things as they are. We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and Louisiana — while a relatively poor state — still boasts living standards that most nations would envy. Why force change when none is needed? Passing tests is not the be-all and end-all of a meaningful education.

The third option is to report the performance data accurately but to delay accountability. Under this option, we could keep the rigorous standards but not immediately implement higher stakes for students, teachers, and schools. There is merit to this approach as well. It could force us to confront the facts but not penalize students and educators for failing to meet the new expectations immediately. It could also give teachers time to improve their practice as they adjust to the new standards.

State Superintendent John White has proposed we take the third approach.

Is this the right path forward?

I think so.

Immediately labeling the vast majority of students, teachers and schools as failing has two major risks. First, severe upfront sanctions could reverse the current educator support for the new standards. Right now, the majority of teachers support the Common Core. However, if we are not realistic about what it will take to implement these standards, educators will rightly lose faith. We are asking a lot of educators, and we should honor the work that will be required to make these ambitious instructional changes. Moreover, immediate sanctions may also result in significant political blowback that could derail the entire Common Core project.

Abandoning the Common Core project also seems unwise. While I am open to the idea that not every student needs to master calculus to lead a meaningful life, rigorous instruction is an important foundation for lifelong success. Moreover, other countries such as Poland and Vietnam have demonstrated that children in poverty can pass rigorous assessments. Yes, it will require more work, but meeting these new standards is a feasible goal. Other students in worse circumstances have proven it.

So I think the superintendent’s plan is the right one. Let’s make the standards high. Let’s clearly tell students, families, and educators how they are performing. Absolute data transparency must be provided from the outset. But let’s phase in accountability in a manner that honors the idea that it may take a decade to fully achieve the results we desire. The new standards will require new ways of teaching, and it will take educators time to master the new expectations.

That said, the superintendent’s plan carries one major risk: Accountability delayed could turn into accountability denied.

Gradually phasing in accountability over a decade will require annual acts of political courage. This will not be easy. The calls for watered-down accountability will be strong and they will come from influential politicians.

Will we have the fortitude to stay the course?

I don’t know. Ultimately, in a democracy, we will get the educational system that we want. In the end, our state’s educational future will not be determined by John White. It will be determined by the thousands of families and educators who make-up our public-education system. Over the long run, educational values will drive educational policies.

So what will we do when our children initially fall short of the new expectations?

My hope is that Louisiana educators and families will say this: We got knocked down but we didn’t get knocked out. We failed at first. But we’re willing to work harder. And we know that with hard work we can compete with any city, state, or country in the world.

Is this how our state will respond?

Time will tell. But I hope so.

Author’s note: Neerav Kingsland, a graduate of Tulane University and the Yale Law School, is chief executive officer of New Schools for New Orleans, a dominant force in the restructuring of the city’s public education system since Hurricane Katrina.

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