Reading & Literacy

English Teachers’ Group Sidesteps Common-Core Opposition

By Catherine Gewertz — November 21, 2011 4 min read
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The National Council of Teachers of English was asked by a group of its members to take a strong stand against the common standards, but it declined to do so.

The decision unfolded at the organization’s annual convention this past weekend in Chicago. As it does every year, the group accepts proposed resolutions from members, which are then debated at the annual meeting and considered for adoption by its resolutions committee. Those that secure two-thirds approval become policy.

This year, one of the resolutions called on the NCTE to “oppose the adoption of national standards as a concept,” and, specifically, oppose the set of standards drafted as part of an initiative spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. (As you know, all but four states have already adopted those standards.)

The resolution was put forth by a group led by activist Susan Ohanian and retired education professor Stephen Krashen. When they introduced the same resolution last year, it passed only as a “sense of the house” resolution, meaning it’s not binding policy on the NCTE.

Adoption of the resolution this year would have been at odds with NCTE’s current policy, which is officially neutral on the standards themselves, but pledges to support teachers whose states and districts are implementing them. Many of the sessions at the conference focused on helping teachers understand and teach to the new standards.

Barbara Cambridge, the director of NCTE’s Washington office, told me at the conference that the resolution, as adopted, is consistent with NCTE’s existing policies.

The final resolution was a blended version of the Krashen/Ohanian resolution and another, longer resolution sponsored by Michael Shaw, an associate professor of education at St. Thomas Aquinas College, in Sparkill, N.Y.

The Shaw resolution asked the NCTE to declare a vote of no-confidence in U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which the final resolution did not do. A good deal of the rest of the language in the Shaw resolution made it into the final resolution, albeit in edited form.

Interestingly, one of the pieces that made it through to the final without much editing involved high-stakes testing.That sentence says the NCTE will call on the Obama administration to “end high-stakes testing and the evaluation of teachers and schools based on students’ test scores.”

Top NCTE officials told me that this poses a slightly awkward shift from current policy, which says that teachers and schools shouldn’t be evaluated based solely on students’ test scores.

Cambridge told me that she could see how it could be interpreted as opposition to using test scores in any way in school or teacher evaluations. But she expressed confidence that when viewed in context of all of NCTE’s policy positions, its stance on testing remains quite clear: Test scores shouldn’t be the sole basis for judgments about schools’ or teachers’ performance.

Another chunk of proposed language posed potential problems for the NCTE, but those were avoided when the wording was tweaked. Proposed phrasing, at one point in the discussion, would have asked the NCTE to “publicly voice its critique of and opposition to educational reform policies that mandate standards, curriculum, and means of student assessments, particularly those that adversely affect social and educational equity.”

That pretty much sounds like the NCTE would have had to oppose any policy that requires standards, curriculum, and tests, with particular opposition to things that undermine equity.

The final version calls on the NCTE to “publicly voice its critique of and opposition to educational reform policies that mandate standards, curriculum, and means of assessment that adversely affect social and educational equity.”

So the NCTE wouldn’t have to oppose standards, curriculum, or tests unless it views them as producing social or educational inequity. That’s a comfortable place for NCTE, Cambridge said, since it’s consistent with its neutrality on common standards.

The business of blending the two resolutions, however, left some of their most passionate sponsors pretty peeved.

“The correct term is pissed off,” Krashen told me at the conference. “My first reaction, when I saw the final [version], was, ‘Where’s my resolution?’ Because it had basically disappeared.”

Official NCTE process allows for such blending; it’s done routinely by the resolutions committee to minimize redundancy and also to avoid conflicts with policies adopted by another body: the NCTE’s executive committee, which oversees things like legislative policy.

The resolutions committee has tremendous discretion in deciding which resolutions to move to the floor for discussion and how they will be edited, NCTE officials told me. And the committee blended the Shaw and Ohanian/Krashen resolutions the way it saw fit.

I can’t give you a tally on the final resolution. NCTE officials said they only do a per-person count when a show of hands (cards, to be specific) suggests it’s a close vote. When it’s so lopsided as to be obvious, no count is made, and that is what happened this year. The resolution passed with strong support.

An open question, however, is what proportion of NCTE’s 35,000 members share the sentiments in the resolution (or the original, proposed resolutions, for that matter). Only about 250 members were at the business meeting to vote on the final resolution. That’s the way it works with NCTE resolutions; you have to be present to vote on them.

The final resolution is policy now, just like the resolutions approved by the executive committee.

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