AFT Wades Into Common Standards and Assessments

By Catherine Gewertz — February 23, 2011 4 min read
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It was an interesting meeting over at the American Federation of Teachers today. The union’s committee on implementation of the common-core standards solicited input from the common-core writers and from the people designing assessments for the new standards. And one of the themes I heard from the teachers and union leaders around the table reminded me of the famous line from that old TV commercial: “Where’s the beef?” [UPDATE: see my story on the meeting here.]

The version being articulated here at AFT headquarters on Capitol Hill was a collective concern that common standards and assessments are being developed, like so many slices of bread, without the curriculum or content that’s the meat of the sandwich. Take this example, from AFT Secretary-Treasurer Antonia Cortese:

“You’ve been talking about building skills,” she said to David Coleman, one of the lead writers of the English/language arts standards. “What knowledge is a kid supposed to be building? I’m having trouble when I look at this, finding that element.”

Coleman responded that the common standards are written in such a way that it still “lies to others” to create content, but the document “strongly signals” the importance of “building a coherent progression of knowledge” and offers other key guidance, such as specifying the portion of students’ reading that should be drawn from informational texts and from literary ones as they progress through their education.

Cortese revisited that idea later in the morning, after a representative of one of the two state assessment consortia, the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, had outlined the group’s vision of its testing system. “Isn’t the ‘no-content’ of the common standards a detriment to developing good assessments if there isn’t a curriculum in place for those standards?” she asked Susan Gendron, the consortium’s policy director. “I don’t know how you proceed too far down the line based just on standards. There has to be something in between.”

Gendron responded that SMARTER Balanced (like the other consortium, PARCC) is working on model curriculum frameworks as part of its system of tools. (For more on the two consortia’s curricular-and-instructional-materials plans, see my story here.)

How curriculum should be handled as common standards and tests are implemented is one of the areas of concern for the AFT committee. By assembling its people around the issue, the AFT is signaling that doing the common core right is a high priority for the union, and it wants teachers involved. The union’s teachers were involved in the standards writing, and it would like to see them involved in assessment design as well, a sentiment the AFT’s Dalia Zabala expressed to the consortia representatives. Judging from the dialogue today, teachers are clearly worried about what form the assessments will take. Questions included: How will the new tests avoid disrupting my teaching with tons of prep? How will states handle the phasing-out of their current systems and the phasing-in of the new system?

On the straight-from-standards-to-assessment worry, David Sherman, who’s overseeing the committee and is an assistant to AFT President Randi Weingarten, told the standards-and-assessment folks that teachers are nervous because the common standards and common assessments have “lots of money” behind them, but the same doesn’t hold true for curriculum-development efforts. “The only people that have standing right now are those developing the standards and those developing the tests,” he said. “Please push for more activity by all the people without whose work yours will fail.” Without good curriculum between standards and tests, he said, the field risks replicating the failed attempts at standards in the 1990s. “We don’t want to see that happen again,” Sherman said. “If that happens again, it’s all over.”

It should be noted here that the AFT—like others in the field—is working on a wide variety of materials and resources to support teachers in implementing the common standards, such as model lesson plans, and is also designing a curriculum-review process to help educators and district and state officials evaluate how well various curriculum resources embody the standards.

The AFT committee plans to make recommendations by the end of the school year for the union to consider adopting as policy on the implementation of the common standards and tests. How curriculum should be handled is one of those areas, along with professional development, the “culture change” necessary to make the standards work well, and other areas.

The union, Weingarten told the assembled group, has a key role to play in guiding the field as it puts the new standards and tests into practice. “Someone has to be out there saying, ‘In order to do this, these are the things we need to do,’” she said. Unless the union helps guide implementation with “the core, the substance, the content,” it risks being done badly, she said.

Weingarten told me afterward that the field needs “common, sequential curriculum” so teachers “are not making it up every day.”

Sherman said that part of the committee’s job is to grapple with how that curriculum takes shape. It wouldn’t be one mandatory curriculum, he said, but should it be one voluntary curriculum? Various curricula or curricular pieces that the union and its members assemble to see what fits, and can be adapted from place to place to meet local needs? Those questions are still being batted about.

But Weingarten was clear: The field needs some kind of curriculum for these new standards. Because “right now,” she told me, “we got nothin’.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.