Are strong federal incentives driving mandates to hold educators more accountable for their students' performance causing instability in schools?
Brockton High School for example, which in recent years has focused on honing students' ability to read graphs and charts, has spent months implementing new teacher evaluations, which are mandated by the state as part of an effort to make teachers more accountable.
"Every faculty meeting, with one exception, we focused on preparing for the teacher evaluations," said Sharon Wolder, Brockton's new principal.
Elsewhere, teachers at West Side Collaborative, a highly regarded Manhattan middle school, have been trying to understand New York City's new recommended English curriculum, pegged to the Common Core State Standards, a national effort to improve college and career readiness. And some have not been happy.
"This is paint by numbers," said Claire Hollander, a West Side teacher and novelist, referring to what she considers an overly scripted curriculum, one of two that the city has recommended schools adopt, with too little emphasis on writing.
Schools are reeling everywhere as cities and states across the country scramble to adopt the latest education-reform remedies, including the Common Core standards and new evaluation systems that are intended to hold educators accountable for the performance of their students. Strong federal incentives, especially Race to the Top, the Obama administration's competitive grant program, are driving the mandates. To adopt the new teacher-evaluation systems, a dozen states received Race to the Top grants, and the program provided incentives for the 45 states that adopted the Common Core.
Education experts say that either mandate alone would be a heavy lift. Numerous problems with how teacher evaluations are working on the ground were found by a recent government study (States Implementing Teacher and Principal Evaluation Systems Despite Challenges). "Ensuring that principals conducted evaluations consistently" was among the concerns. The challenge states were having in "prioritizing evaluation reform amid multiple educational initiatives" were also cited by the report released in September.
According to Andrea Gabor of Aljazeera America, these mandates seem to run counter to two other currents in education-reform thinking: the effort to find ways to tailor lessons to the abilities and learning styles of different kids in the same class and a push, a centerpiece of New York City's reforms in recent years, to increase both the autonomy and the accountability of school principals.
Last spring when the state rolled out Common Core–aligned tests before the teachers had any training in the new standards, the problems with the dueling mandates became evident in New York. Student panic was reported by schools across the city and compared with test results in 2012, performance on the tests plunged statewide.
Dozens of principals signed a letter to John B. King, New York's education commissioner that warned of "an extreme toll on our teachers, families and most importantly, our students".
The latest mandates come at the end of an era in New York dominated by reforms under outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Though Bloomberg earned his share of critics with regard to education, others worry that the new mandates are undermining a key Bloomberg initiative, giving principals increased power over budgets and teaching methods in exchange for more accountability.
"We were trusted to make the best decisions for our schools," said West Side's principal, Jeanne Rotunda, where at her school, that trust has allowed the development of new ideas such as flexible staffing and a widely admired student-centered curriculum.