Protests at Harvard Ed for Speaker Who Pushed Bill to Tie Teacher Evaluations to Common Core Test Scores

This year’s college graduation exercises have seen an unusually high number of speakers who either were disinvited or withdrew after protests. 

The political issues differed from college to college. Brandeis disinvited defender of women’s rights Ayaan Hirsi Ali because she has been critical of Islam. Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew from speaking at Smith College after student protests about “failed development policies” in poor countries.

But the statement signed by many faculty and students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) protesting the Speaker of the House (D) in Colorado addressed an issue that hits closer to home for its graduates. Although the statement did not alter the HGSE dean’s decision to have alumnus Michael Johnston address them, it suggested that a large number of faculty and students at a leading education school are finally becoming aware of some of the many problems with the strings attached to the U.S. Department of Education’s (USED) promotion of Common Core.

What were they protesting? Johnston’s crime was apparently getting a bill passed in Colorado four years ago that tied teacher and principal evaluations to 50% of student scores.

As evidence, we point to Sen. Johnston’s signature piece of legislation – SB-191 – which codified into law the requirement that 50% of teachers’ and principals’ evaluations be based on growth scores, including value-added measures (VAMs). Not only is there an increasing body of research questioning the use of VAMs for high-stakes purposes but, more importantly, this piece of legislation will inevitably narrow the curriculum and reinforce teaching to the test, while requiring school leaders to put an inordinate amount of pressure on students and teachers to raise test scores. As for the other half of the evaluation, one Coloradoan educator explained to us: “the other 50% is based on a complex and complicated system of rubrics and checklists that are incredibly overbearing.”

Passage of this bill took place in May 2010, several months before a vote by the Colorado Board of Education (4 to 3), in August 2010, to adopt Common Core’s standards in mathematics and English language arts.

In his article in the Denver Post, Jeremy Meyer noted that USED had “enticed states to approve the K-12 standards by Monday to improve the odds of landing a part of $3.4 billion in Race to the Top competitive grants.” States approving the standards by Monday, August 2 earned more points for their applications, according to Meyer.

Unknown to most Colorado citizens, the public schools were up for sale in Colorado, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation managed, in cooperation with USED, to buy them relatively cheaply, giving a few million here and there--to candidates for state office in Colorado, to the Board of Education, as well as to the US Chamber of Commerce, Achieve, Inc., and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, among other organizations--to promote support for the standards it had funded the National Governors Association, the Council for Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc. to develop. 

Several years later, on Thursday, February 13, 2014, I was asked to testify at a hearing held by the seven-member Colorado Senate Education Committee on a bill about Common Core’s standards and tests sponsored by State Senator Vicki Marble (R). The purpose of SB 14-136 was to delay implementation of new state tests by one year, create a task force to review Colorado’s Academic Standards (chiefly Common Core’s standards), and require study of the costs of implementing the standards and tests. It was defeated 4 to 3 on a straight party-line vote.

What was startling to me was the apparent intention of the four members of one party, in this case the Democrat Party, to prevent further discussion of increasingly controversial education policies despite abundant testimony from Colorado parents, teachers, and school administrators at this committee hearing that they had many concerns about Common Core’s standards and/or test plans. A passing vote at this hearing would simply have allowed the Colorado Senate to hold further discussion on Common Core since the Democrat majority in the Senate could have voted to kill the bill afterwards. An unyielding partisan position prevented fuller public discussion of the controversial issues embedded in Common Core.

The frozen smirk on the face of state Sen. Andy Kerr (D), who chaired this Senate Education Committee, and the expression of pain on the faces of Democrat state Sens. Rachel Zenzinger and Nancy Todd who, nevertheless, voted with their two male colleagues to kill the bill after the hearing, may be a symptom of a growing gap between the interests of parents and teachers of schoolchildren and the interests of politicians seeking re-election and the corporate executives supporting these controversial educational policies.

The statement by faculty and students at a leading education school shows that parents, teachers, and school administrators across the country may soon be joined in their concerns about Common Core’s standards, the content of classroom lessons developed to address them, and the amount of instructional time consumed by preparation for Common Core’s tests by the voices of prospective teachers and administrators. How to prepare K-12 students for Common Core’s time-consuming tests is not what they have been trained for (nor why they wanted to become educators). Nor are they eager to spend an inordinate amount of class time doing so, when a large body of research points to the need to be careful about how instructional time is used in the school day.

We already spend less time on teaching and learning than many other countries, and the amount of instructional time teachers and students are beginning to spend to prepare for Common Core’s testing regime is a huge step backwards. In transferring accountability for student growth from schools and school districts under No Child Left Behind, to teachers under Race to the Top and Common Core, the U.S. Department of Education has bought into an extremely problematic policy that state legislators and boards of education would do well to critique, not to subscribe to blindly. Tying teacher evaluations to test scores, no matter what the percentage, should have sent off multiple alarm bells a long time ago.

Sandra Stotsky, Ed.D. is Professor emerita at the University of Arkansas.


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