AFT Common-Core Resolution Calls for Teacher Input in Implementation

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 13, 2014 5 min read
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Los Angeles

The American Federation of Teachers’ governing body has passed a resolution calling for more teacher input into the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

It passed by a majority in a standing vote, but the debate on the item underscored the extremely divergent opinions within the 1.6 million-member union about the K-12 student expectations.

It’s hard to underscore enough just how passionate—and, at times, angry—the debate was on this resolution. Some delegates spoke in defense of high standards for students. But others, including special educators and early-childhood educators, said that the standards weren’t developmentally appropriate. Finally, some delegates accused the standards writers of engaging in a cynical ploy to undermine education and make money for test publishers.

What does the resolution actually do? It says that the AFT will “continue to support the promise” of the common standards, “provided that a set of essential conditions, structures, and resources” is in place. Among other measures, the AFT will advocate that states create independent boards of teachers to monitor the implementation of the standards, and will support teachers’ having input into the “continuing development, implementation, evaluation, and as necessary, revision of the CCSS.”

One of the reasons this resolution was so hotly debated was that the AFT Executive Council successfully substituted this version for one passed by its third-largest local, the Chicago Teachers’ Union. The CTU called for the national union to oppose the standards outright.

This issue gets into some pretty wonky AFT internal politics, but the (softer) resolution was voted out of the relevant committee by supporters and by the union’s most powerful voting bloc; the CTU’s version came out seventh. (At the AFT, only the top three versions are guaranteed to go to the delegates.)

CTU President Karen Lewis was not thrilled at the final version:

What does the AFT itself think about it? Here’s a quote from President Randi Weingarten:

We heard a lot of passion today, all in support of student needs and teacher professionalism. And where our members ended up is that we will continue to support the promise and potential of these standards as an essential tool to provide each and every child an equitable and excellent education while calling on the powers that be in districts, states, and at the national level to work with educators and parents to fix this botched implementation and restore confidence in the standards. And no matter which side of the debate our members were on, there¹s one thing everyone agreed on, that we need to delink these standards from the tests."

Of course, the big question is What This All Means for both the union and the standards’ political future. Here’s what comes to your intrepid news blogger’s mind:

• AFT members are deeply divided about these standards, largely because implementation has been so varied. That makes it much more difficult for the union to articulate a message for every affiliate and member, a challenge the NEA is also facing.

• There continue to be concerns about whether the standards got it right for students with disabilities and in the earliest grades. Perhaps bowing to those concerns, the AFT’s Innovation Fund will allow certain affiliates to take time reading, reviewing, critiquing, and revising the standards.

• Most of the delegates speaking in opposition to the standards suggested that it was impossible to separate the standards from the aligned assessments that the U.S. Department of Education has helped fund. In pushing for the assessments (and for such a quick timeline for putting them in place), has the department jeopardized the standards’ future? We are, in any case, certainly seeing more and more efforts to delay the tests.

Here’s a transcription of some of the major debate:

From Sarah Chambers of the CTU: “These standards are crippling our students’ education and their joy of learning. As a special ed. teacher, I’ve seen my students transformed from smiling children excited about learning to students who cringe when they’re made to read passages several grade levels above their [abilities]. This resolution speaks to the promise of the common core, and this promise is to test, test, and overtest our babies. Do not fool yourselves: You cannot have the common core without high-stakes testing.”

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City local: “I have heard the stories about how Eli Broad, Bill, Gates, Joel Klein and a flying saucer full of Martians designed these standards to brainwash us all,” he said, apparently mocking conspiracy-theory rumors about their origins. “Now we have teachers unpacking the common core, and we are seeing the promise. What bothers me more than anything is the idea that the AFT would back down from a fight. Those standards are ours; the tests are ours; we are fighting because they took tests from us, and we’re going to take it back from them. It is our profession.”

Michelle Gunderson of the CTU (are you noticing a pattern here?): “The common-core standards were not created with teaching and learning in mind. They were created with testing in mind. The College Board got together and decided what their students should look like, not our students.” (Clarification: The College Board didn’t write the standards by itself but it did have representatives on the panels that crafted them.)

Casey Carlson, a special education teacher, Greater Santa Cruz (Calif.) Federation of Teachers: “I have high expectations of my students, and when they leave my high school, they have to function in the world, and I want them prepared.”

Karen Magee, New York State United Teachers: “I pose the questions to you today: If not standards, then what? A free-for-all? Everyone does what they please? No common base? No common method to look at what they’re doing? ... The implementation of the common core in New York was absolutely an embarrassment; we were testing before we were teaching; the materials were not developmentally appropriate. That being said, we have an opportunity.”

Pia Payne-Shannon, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers: “As a teacher in a classroom who’s not trained in special ed. services, and whose kids are not getting services they need to teach them grade-level content, I’m opposed to these standards. ... I’m opposed to corporate-backed standards where we were not [consulted]. ... They were not written with success in mind. These standards were written with failure in mind.”

Colleen Callahan of the AFT’s Rhode Island chapter: “This organization and my Rhode Island members have a long history of advocating for and supporting high standards. We don’t want our students to be set up, and I don’t want, and we don’t want, our teachers to be set up. And we believe that standards help level the playing field for all.”

Carol Caref of the CTU: “This debate is not about standards. [Common Core State Standards] were not developed to improve teaching. They were never about education. They are a business plan, not an education plan. Their purpose is to allow Pearson and other education profiteers to sell education materials to a national audience. ... It is part and parcel of the top-down corporate reform. It cannot be separated from the accountability measures.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.