New Flexibility for States Implementing Fast-Moving Reforms: Laying Out Our Thinking

Over the last four years, states and school districts across America have embraced an enormous set of urgent challenges with real courage: raising standards to prepare young people to compete in the global economy, developing new assessments, rebuilding accountability systems to meet the needs of each state and better serve at-risk students, and adopting new systems of support and evaluation for teachers and principals. Meeting this historic set of challenges all at once asks more of everybody, and it’s a tribute to the quality of educators, leaders, and elected officials across this country that so many have stepped up.
Secretary Duncan talking with student

One crucial change has been the state-led effort to voluntarily raise standards. That effort dates back to 2006, when a bipartisan core of leaders – governors, state superintendents, business people — came together because they recognized that America’s students needed to be prepared to compete in a global economy that demanded more than basic skills. They began a movement that has ended up with nearly every state adopting standards that reflect the knowledge and skills young people actually need to succeed in college and careers. Especially in communities where students historically have not been held to high standards, this state-led push is nothing less than a civil rights issue.

To put student learning squarely at the center of school decisions, states agreed to evaluate principals and teachers based in part on student growth, as measured by test scores, along with measures like principal observation, peer review, feedback from parents and students, and classroom work. These commitments became part of waiver agreements that have helped states dispense with the most broken parts of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The US Department of Education also provided $350 million to two consortia of states to develop online assessments, benchmarked to the new standards, which will improve significantly on today’s “bubble tests.” All but a few states have agreed to implement these new evaluation systems by the 2015-16 school year.

The result of these reforms has been a level of change unprecedented in recent memory. As states and districts implement new systems, teachers and principals are committed to doing this work well, including mastering new standards that, for many, are revamping teaching. In surveys, teachers have embraced these higher standards, and say that a greater emphasis on critical thinking, literature and real-world problem solving speaks to what they love about teaching. We have heard the same thing in hundreds of conversations with educators about this transition.

Yet many educators, and a number of state chiefs, have said: let’s hold off on the consequences for teachers and principals while they come up to speed.

These concerns are real and honest. Some states have actually begun to implement new evaluation systems, others are starting next year, and some are waiting until 2015-16. Our administration wants to be as flexible as possible to address these issues, because it is important that teachers and instructional leaders are comfortable and confident with the new learning materials.

With that in mind, I sent a letter to state chiefs today telling them that our administration is open to requests for flexibility with the deadline for implementing new systems of evaluating principals and teachers. States that request and are given this flexibility can delay any personnel consequences for teachers and principals tied to the new assessments for up to one year, until 2016-17. Some states are well underway and are unlikely to seek a delay. Others may want more time. In a country as diverse as ours, one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work, so we will work with each state individually to find the right path and the right pace. This change affects only the timeline for teacher and principal evaluation; schools and districts accountability timelines will not change.

States must have solid plans to provide teachers support to help them make this transition, and to survey teachers about their comfort with the new standards.

Any delay has real consequences for real students in the real world. Their readiness has real consequences for their lives and the nation’s economic health. Yet this effort will only succeed if all parties – and especially teachers and principals — have the time, resources and support needed to make the journey from the often inadequate standards of the past to the ambitious standards of tomorrow.

I also want to address the issue of “double-testing,” which will arise during the 2013-2014 school year, when some schools will field test new assessments. Often, during a transition from one test to another, some small proportion of students take both tests. While field testing new assessments is necessary for a successful transition to the new tests, this can lead to administering two end-of-year tests to some students in the same year, which can add stress for students. We want to support states that would like to avoid double-testing students. Therefore, we are open to any state impacted by double-testing to request a one-year waiver to allow schools that participate in a field test to have students take only one end-of-year test. In those schools, provisions for school-level accountability would stay the same for a year, as would intervention plans that support low-performing students – we want to make sure there’s no reduction in the intensity of support for such students.

The coming changes will not always be smooth—implementation of changes this significant is hard work. There will be delays and technical stumbles. We recognize that until new assessments are in place, states will continue to use existing tests. Yet we also know that it would be a mistake to simply stop assessment until the transition is complete, because we know that it is our most vulnerable students who are hurt when we fail to assess students’ learning and make decisions based on their growth. And, as standards rise, scores in some states will fall—erroneously suggesting that our students’ performance is headed the wrong direction. That is simply not true; this will give us both a new baseline and a more honest assessment of both student achievement and achievement gaps. The unavoidable truth is that raising standards and improving systems is hard work, requiring collaboration and trust at all levels. There’s not just one answer, and not all states will choose to be part of the process—as is their right.

This is really hard work, but let’s remember what it’s all about. This is about our children and our collective future. This is about raising the bar to ensure they are able to compete in the global economy. This is about strengthening the teaching profession. It’s about creating the systems of feedback and support that teachers want and need to personalize education, focus resources, and give every child the attention he or she needs. This is about holding ourselves accountable at every level for ensuring that all children – and especially those most at-risk – have an opportunity to succeed and compete.

Because students can’t wait, we need states to move forward as fast as possible but to do so in a way that ultimately strengthens teaching and learning.

This decision ensures that the rollout of new, higher, state-selected standards will continue on pace, but that states that need it will have some flexibility in when they begin using student growth data for high-stakes decisions.

Just as I expect that all students in every classroom learn at their highest level, so do I expect our entire system, including myself, to be a great learner. Together with teachers, school leaders, and families, we will continue to learn how to make these changes well, and will make adjustments along the way. It’s what we need to do to get this right.

Arne Duncan is Secretary of Education.

Read more in the Assessment Transition Fact Sheet, and watch Sec. Duncan’s conversation with teacher Dan Brown.

This post also appeared on SmartBlogs on Education.


  1. I am interested in reform of the specialized teacher evaluation, the special education teacher. I have been in education for eight years and in a classroom for five of those years teaching students with mild and moderate intellectual disabilities. This population does not always well on standardized testing and can even have difficulty with alternative tests. If the student does not do well on their slated annual assessment instrument should the teacher’s evaluation instrument reflect such results? Special education teachers serve in many capacities including as a resource to their general education colleagues, facilitator of IEP meetings, assisting with RTI, advocate for special needs populations, serve as the Local Education Agency, and so much more. However, the additional responsibilities of special education teachers are not evaluated. There are a few states that are beginning to make changes and reform evaluation rubrics for special education teachers; however, I believe that there needs to be a federal mandate. Fair evaluations of specialized teachers are not a priority for all states. I would like to know if there is legislation or some reform measure in the works?

  2. I agree that there are excellent STEM individuals who aren’t allowed to teach classes because of the degree requirements and politics . The trouble is instead of allowing proven STEM individulas to teach the courses, they hire academics who are intelligent but have little practical understanding ( Those who can DO….. those who can’t teach I presume).

  3. Education has rapidly shifted within the last five years. Many changes have taken place: Students are tested more than ever, changes are made with the curricula, the number of students per class has increased to thirty or more, and teachers are being evaluated differently.

    My perspective on all of this is that we have rapidly transitioned into a system that is set up to fail our students, teachers, and principals. It is overwhelming to have thirty students in a class, especially an inclusion class. The work load for teachers has increased but not the pay. We are being ask to take on more tasks than ever in history. Many teachers are under extreme stress and suffering from anxiety. How can teachers effectively serve students if they are not healthy, mentally, physically, and emotionally.

    The number of students per class needs to be reduced, more teachers need to be hired, and classrooms need to be upgraded with technology and resources for students and teachers.

  4. I am a NYC alternative high school principal. I have been involved in round table discussions with your office and I have come to Washington a number of times to discuss your reform agenda. As a parent and a 27 year veteran educator, I know that the business of raising children and running schools focuses far more on collaboration and cooperation than it does on competition. Racing to the top for full public school funding has caused many unintended consequences. School culture and corporate culture are diametrically opposed. I believe that our expectations for all children across our country need to be raised. I also am concerned that your vision of how educators should measure student achievement is firmly grounded in early 20th Century assessment philosophy, models, and practices. I am concerned that politicians, like yourself, were sold a package of school reform leading to privatization through marketization that simply cannot work in a democratic society. Literally billions of dollars have been spend or contracted, and nothing has changed. You are in your 5th year as Secretary. We have been engaged in test driven accountablity for over 10 years. The achievement gap continues to widen. I blame you and the Presidents. My children and my students only get one shot at each grade in school. I have to question what we are doing to all of our children. I have skin in this game. I am passionate about the work that I do. I deeply care about my students who suffer from the effects of poverty and I have 2 children who attend public schools in an upper middle class district. As a parent and a professional, the current reform efforts are troubling. I urge you to talk to educators “on the front lines” as you move forward. Our Ivy League degrees and experience really do make a difference. My school has survived NYC accountablility during my 12 years as prinicpal. If that, in fact, speaks to the quality of my work, I think you might want to listen to what I have to say.

  5. There are excellent STEM people who are not allowed to teach classes because of degree requirements, politics and “standards.” So instead of allowing proven STEM people to teach the courses, they hire academics who are intelligent but have little practical understanding. This produces students who can score high on a test but have almost zero practical understanding and even less ability to innovate or apply analytical thinking skills.

  6. As a retired Spanish Bilingual teacher of the Chicago Public Schools for about 18yrs. And I know what a difficult job it is, but I really enjoyed my wonderful students! I maintained communications with the parents, on my cell phone & called the parents, at home & their work place or at home. This helped my students because their parents were very supportive of me.

  7. The problem I see with all of this is that I haven’t seen much, if any, impact in the classroom over the last two years despite the millions spent. Overall, I’m happy with the principals and the teachers. I’d rather have seen the money spent on 1) providing teachers with substantive education about their subject matter, 2) providing an enrichment program to children in need over the summer of the same type middle class students have provided by their parents, and 3) beefing up the language arts programming to provide more challenges to the kids that could handle it–teachers for language arts need a lighter teaching load so they have more time to work on providing feedback to students on their writing and some teachers need to work on improving their own writing skills.

  8. Thank you so much for putting teachers’ voices and opinions into the national conversation! It will be difficult for some districts–especially rural south–to let go of control and we may need extra help and districts may need ‘encouragement.’ We continue to be expected to be the ‘submissive’ females. Often collaboration is faked (as in we are expected to sign off on plans and ‘collaborative’ decisions without actual participation, only presence and perhaps a little editing of a plan) and anyone who speaks out is blackballed or targeted. I am attending the National Board Leader Convening in Raleigh, NC, next month and look forward to networking with NBCT leaders from all over the nation and brainstorming with them about increases all teachers voices throughout the nation.

  9. One year is not nearly enough time for schools to acclimate to a change as fundamental as the CCSS. Most states (like California) are shifting from their current state test to the new CCSS test with no transition time. This means that in the year prior to full implementation of the CCSS, few if any administrators or districts are doing any substantial staff development for teachers who will not be implementing such development until the following year. So in California, anyway, no real “digging in” or instructional transformation and implementation of the CCSS will happen in 1013-14 because all instructional focus will remain on the current state test (CST). This means that we will have 2014-15 (our first year of CCSS implementation) as a waiver of punitive action upon teachers and principals if our scores are poor. This is not enough time for teachers and administrators to acclimate to such a fundamental paradigm shift as is required by the CCSS.

    This is what I believe we need based on the idea that we test and get results in the same year: 3 years waved — minimum.
    1. The first year to discover and re-work our own perceptions of instruction (based on the CCSS) without the pressure of a the old state test for which we are still being held accountable. Test and get results.
    2. Another year to evaluate and reflect upon lessons learned from year one. We’ve experienced the test and seen the results. Based on this we can now make some real and concrete adjustments to our instruction based on real data . Test and get another glimpse.
    3. In this final waver-year, we can make substantial augmentations to our processes and pedagogy based on two years of solid evidence. Test and get results; make more changes.
    4. Now we’re ready to go and continue to learn, change, and improve our practice with real confidence and competence!!

    • I agree wholeheartedly with this timetable for implementation. Teacher evaluation should not be punitive based on the new CCSS testing until we have time to look and learn from the results. It is also important that teachers get the results before the end of the year if their evaluation is to be based on the testing. As of now, one test makes up the majority of the teacher evaluation and there should be less emphasis on this one score and more weight given to principal observation and individual student growth indicators.

      • I am a BA graduate, just about to start a teaching credential program. I have been involved with teaching and parenting for years and have taught at the preschool level for many years as well. I am not a fan of testing and I agree with your comment about having less emphasis on that one test score and more emphasis on the obeservation of teachers and the individual student growth. I believe this growth cannot be measured by one test. What happen to looking at the intelligence of each individual child. Each child grows differently and each child has their own area of strength. this cannot be measured in a test.

Comments are closed.