Common-Core Tensions Cause Union Heartburn

By Andrew Ujifusa & Stephen Sawchuk — February 18, 2014 8 min read
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From the early days of the Common Core State Standards, the two national teachers’ unions have been among the initiative’s biggest boosters, helping to make the case to the nation’s 3.5 million teachers for the tougher expectations and putting significant money into the development of aligned curricula and tools.

But in some union quarters, that support is starting to waver—the product of flawed implementation in states, concerns about the fast timeline for new testing tied to the standards, and, in at least one instance, fallout from internal state-union politics.

The unions’ evolving positions raise new questions about the standards’ durability at a time when the common core has been buffeted by criticism: from conservatives worried about a loss of state and local control, and from progressives fretting about the impact on teacher evaluations, classroom instruction, and student assessment.

It reflects, too, that while the unions’ national leaders have been bullish on the standards, the rank-and-file has been divided.

Union support is not necessarily critical for the standards to stay on the books in the 46 states that have adopted them: Advocacy groups have succeeded in pushing through other contested policies in recent years, and the unions have seen their clout wane somewhat. But political observers say that the common core, because of its intimate connection to the classroom, is likely to fail without strong teacher—and union—buy-in.

“In the long run, even more than some of the other ‘reform’ strategies, like charters and value-added testing, I think common core is ultimately going to rise and fall on the commitment and engagement of teachers,” said Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of public policy and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

New York state education Commissioner John King speaks during a state Board of Regents meeting in Albany this month. The New York State United Teachers has passed a resolution withdrawing its support for the common core, and has called for the removal of Mr. King, who supports the standards’ implementation.

“And in that sense, I think it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face to pursue a strategy of muscling this through without teacher support.”

Taking the Lead

In many respects, the unions at the national level have been at the forefront of the effort by helping teachers prepare for the standards, which cover English/language arts and mathematics. (The authors also envision that the standards will help guide the reading and writing that students do in other subjects.)

The American Federation of Teachers has devoted pages of its American Educator magazine to exploring some of the instructional complexities within the standards, and its Innovation Fund has sponsored projects to help local affiliates prepare for them.

The National Education Association recently began rolling out $60 million in projects to support teacher training in the common core, among other activities, funded out of a $3 annual dues surcharge approved last summer.

Both unions have worked with private firms to create repositories of common-core-aligned lessons.

See Also

Update: On Feb. 19, 2014, the NEA called for a course correction on common-core implementation. Read more.

In an unusually strong endorsement Jan. 10, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel called the standards “our best guess of what students need to know to be successful, whether they choose college or careers,” and challenged naysayers to cite alternatives.

“If someone has a better answer than that,” he said, “I want to see it.”

But just 15 days later, the leadership of the New York State United Teachers, which is affiliated with both the NEA and the AFT, passed a resolution withdrawing its support of the standards “as implemented” in the state, and called for the removal of the state’s education commissioner, John King. The 600,000-member state union contends that New York officials’ decision to administer students assessments aligned to the common core before materials and curricula were widely disseminated has demoralized teachers and frustrated parents. It seeks a three-year moratorium on the high-stakes use of tests aligned to the common core.

“The commissioner has pursued policies that repeatedly ignore the voices of parents and educators who have identified problems and called on him to move more thoughtfully,” NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi said in a statement shortly after the vote.

A Local Story

The New York clash may be the most visible example of union pushback on common-core matters, but it is far from the only example.

The teachers’ union in Baltimore County, Md., filed a grievance in November stating that its elementary teachers had received new curricula aligned to the standards just days before the school year started, and that they were working hundreds of extra hours to prepare.

“They are not trained in the common core; they are in the middle of a new evaluation system that’s bulky and cumbersome; it’s just one thing after another after another, and they feel under the gun,” said Abby Beytin, the president of the 6,500-member Teachers Association of Baltimore County.

Ms. Beytin said that curricula in the 108,000-student suburban district have improved since then, and that she and the district’s superintendent, S. Dallas Dance, are committed to resolving problems together. But for some teachers, the damage has been done, she said.

“I absolutely have members who are opposed to it,” Ms. Beytin said about the common core. “So much has been thrown at them that if they’d had the time to understand the common core before they were forced to teach these curricula, I think they might feel differently about it.”

She has concerns about whether, as some vocal opponents contend, the standards are inappropriate for pupils in the earliest grades.

‘Incredible Tension’

The concerns about the common-core rollout in New York state, from teachers’ unions and others, have prompted varied responses from state officials.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, created a panel to oversee implementation in the state. And the New York board of regents, the governing body for both K-12 and higher education, approved new guidelines the week of Feb. 9 to ease local implementation. Two state legislators, moreover, have crafted measures that would essentially codify NYSUT’s insistence on a testing pause.

One of the thorny problems of such approaches: The definition of what constitutes adequate professional development or curricular resources for the standards can be a sliding target.

Last year in California, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, agreed to put some $1.25 billion into the state budget over the subsequent two years to support common-core implementation. The state also has agreed not to use the results of tests aligned to the common core in teacher evaluations for the 2013-14, 2014-15, and 2015-16 school years.

But the California Teachers Association says there are still debates about whether the funding is being used appropriately and whether it is sufficient.

Dean Vogel, the president of the 325,000-member CTA, said there has been “incredible tension” over the grant. Many local administrators, Mr. Vogel said, think much of the grant, which is earmarked for districts to use, should be spent on technology upgrades, while teachers believe it should be largely reserved for professional development.

Still, he said, California officials and union leaders have agreed on one crucial point that has given the state an edge in common-core implementation: “What we’ve said is, we’re going to move slowly enough to get it right.”

Mr. Vogel stressed that the CTA would not automatically permit scores from common-core-aligned tests to be used in teacher evaluations beginning in 2016-17, after the three-year moratorium ends.

A Seat at the Table

But the tactic of claiming support for the standards themselves while criticizing implementation undermines the credibility of teachers’ unions, said Tim Daly, the president of TNTP, a New York City-based organization that advocates new teacher-evaluation policies.

“The criticisms are awfully nebulous,” Mr. Daly said of NYSUT’s complaints in New York. “The one constant through all of this is that they’re against higher standards that are linked to accountability.”

Whether their criticisms are general or specific, teachers’ overall comfort level with the standards has become an issue.

Gera Summerford, the president of the Tennessee Education Association, said that while the state education department has done a comprehensive job of providing professional development to teachers for the common core, teachers are afraid about how much the standards will alter their profession, particularly with respect to testing.

“This could have been approached in a way that would have increased the comfort level and helped people feel better prepared,” said Ms. Summerford, who represents 46,000 members.

There’s already a perception that the common core is an unfunded mandate from the state, she added.

The complexities of implementation have been enough of a concern that the NEA hosted a meeting in Washington this month for its state presidents to discuss ways of gauging the pulse of its members.

Much of the meeting was spent discussing the complex interaction between governors, lawmakers, tea party groups, and testing schedules that have complicated implementation, several attendees said. But obliquely, the gathering also served as a recognition that the NEA could face political backlash if more state affiliates repudiate the standards.

“If the standards go down the tubes because of fear-mongering and misinformation, the NEA is going to look really bad,” said one state affiliate official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Why would anyone take us seriously if we had a seat at the table, and then we turned our backs on the standards?”

Internal Politics

New York state’s situation also suggests factors beyond implementation are likely to shape the teachers’ unions’ positioning vis-à-vis the common core.

Political observers believe the harder-line stance on implementation that Mr. Iannuzzi of NYSUT has taken reflects an attempt to rally support among members for his union presidency, which is being challenged by a slate endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City local and the union’s largest affiliate.

In an interview, Mr. Iannuzzi insisted that the state union’s position on the common core was incidental to the union elections, to be held in April.

“The election in New York is not about where people are on common core and teacher evaluations. It’s about the internal power politics of NYSUT,” Mr. Iannuzzi said.

Still, the campaign website for Mr. Iannuzzi’s re-election stresses a need for a moratorium on consequences for teachers tied to common-core assessments: “No moratorium, no common core!”

And the website for the UFT-endorsed slate says: “We do not support the common core as it is.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 2014 edition of Education Week as Common-Core Tensions Cause Union Heartburn


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