Standards Opinion

Can Our Unions Praise Common Core Standards and Defeat High Stakes Tests?

By Anthony Cody — July 05, 2013 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This week leaders of the nation’s largest teachers union took action to support the implementation of the Common Core standards.

There has been an effort to cast a favorable light on the Common Core Standards, and distance them from the high stakes accountability systems that everyone has become thoroughly sick of. Our union leaders are suggesting that if we take the lead in implementing the Common Core, we have a chance to define how they are taught, and this will give us ammunition with which we can fight the high stakes tests.

This afternoon, New Business Item #35 at the NEA Rep Assembly passed, which states:

In states where Common Core will be implemented the NEA will support and provide guidance to affiliates in advocating for a common sense plan that respects student learning time, limit the reliance on and investment in high stakes standardized tests and decreases the reliance on Common Core related tests in evaluating teacher performance.

But a report this morning from National Public Radio makes it clear the scale of the fight we have on our hands, and calls into question a strategy that legitimizes the Common Core with the public.

The story reports:

In years past, the education landscape was a discord of state standards. A fourth grader in Arkansas could have appeared proficient in reading by his state's standards -- but, by the standards of another state, say Massachusetts, not even close.

The story goes on to say:

It [NCLB] mandated that students at all schools be proficient," says Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research. But it "allowed states to set their proficiency standards."
Once a top official at the Education Department, Schneider commissioned that big report that showed states gaming the No Child Left Behind system by dropping their standards.
We suspected that states had set their proficiency standards relatively low against NAEP," Schneider says. "But I don't think anybody anticipated exactly how low they were. It really was shocking."
Now, under the more rigorous Common Core standards, it will be harder for states to hide their failing schools. But what has Common Core watchers nervous is not that states will cheat but that the first round of student scores in 2015 will be honest, and bad -- so bad they shock parents and strike fear into politicians.

So let’s unpack this a bit. First, note the experts that are quoted. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has been a long-time advocate of the use of market forces to reform schools. Here is how their 2001 annual report explained this:

...today's most promising education reform strategies: "standards-based" reform (with its trinity of academic standards, tests, and consequences for success and failure) and "market-style" reform (with its emphasis on school choice, competition, alternative providers, and accountability to clients). Some think these strategies are opposed or incompatible. By our lights, just the opposite is true: Each needs the other if it is to have the brightest prospect of succeeding.

Why does each need the other?
The market for “alternative providers” is opened up by the wholesale condemnation of public schools, and the harsh regime of school closures we have seen under NCLB. As the NPR story suggests, with more “rigorous” Common Core tests, more schools than ever will be indicted as failures.

Both the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Institutes for Research receive extensive support from the Gates Foundation, which is also a major proponent of the Common Core. Yet these organizations are all quoted as neutral experts. Of course, National Public Radio also is a major recipient of Gates funding.

Mary Leonhardt, a commenter on the NPR story, had this to say:

Here's what I learned in thirty-seven years of teaching high school English: the standards demanded under the Common Core are standards that currently only the avid readers would reach. The kinds of literacy skills the common core requires are skills only developed through wide, voracious reading.
Which gives us the catch-22: The very activities that develop high-level literacy skills are the very activities that are discouraged by the test demanding them. Schools are awash now in curriculum that requires students to pick apart, in excruciating detail, pieces of literature that are boring to them in the first place. Really, it's hard to think of a better way to discourage avid reading among children.

Early childhood educators have likewise raised substantive objections about the demands the Common Core makes on kindergarten and early elementary students.

But the biggest reservation I have about the approach the union leaders are proposing is that it does not seem to be working in the very places where the unions are the strongest. Yesterday a report was published, written by Sarah Jaffe, that describes the contracts negotiated in New York, where the AFT is very strong.

We learn that teachers have 20 to 25% of their ratings based on state test scores, and another 15 to 20% from school-based measures, which are likely to be more tests. The worst part is that the state test scores trump all other factors. If a teacher is rated ineffective based on these tests, they MUST be rated ineffective overall.

And this has been negotiated in a state where the AFT is, so far as I understand, been pursuing the strategy now being embraced by the NEA.

Is there something I am missing in how this strategy will unfold?
It seems to me that if we embrace the Common Core, and position ourselves as expert implementers, we cannot help but legitimize these standards as a solid set of benchmarks for student performance. Once we make that commitment, aren’t we stuck with the judgment that is reached by the tests when they arrive? Or we must make the difficult argument that the standards are perfectly fine but the tests are flawed. Given the momentum behind the Common Core, and the full court press we are going to see, with even the National Public Radio chiming in with experts demanding that we stop “hiding” low performing schools, this seems as if it sets us up in a very defensive posture.

I think we would be better off taking a position that exposes the Common Core standards and associated tests for what I believe them to be. Get off defense and mount a strong offense that exposes what is going on here. An effort to refresh the phony indictment of our schools as failures, in order to open up the market for semi-private charters, virtual charters, and vouchers for private and parochial schools. Collaborating on implementation with the promise of a fight when the tests arrive is like buying a lemon and hoping the mechanic can fix it later.

Update: Fred Klonsky, who has been participating in the NEA Rep Assembly, has an interesting take on these issues.

Update #2: This afternoon the NEA Rep Assembly passed the following: NEW BUSINESS ITEM 24

Adopted as amended
NEA shall support the rights of parents/guardians to collaborate with teachers in determining appropriate options for assessment of student proficiency if opting out of standardized assessments, and advocate for their right to do so without retaliation.
Furthermore, NEA shall encourage its state and local affiliates to work alongside student and parent leadership groups in promoting opt out options wherever possible.
Lastly, NEA shall inform its members of current student and parent organization effort through existing communication vehicles.
This NBI can be accomplished at an additional cost of $2,750.

What do you think? Is the Common Core going to be used to condemn even more schools? Or can we somehow validate the standards and discredit the tests as they arrive?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.