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NEA and AFT: Let’s Apply the Lessons of NCLB to the Common Core

By Anthony Cody — December 18, 2012 3 min read
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We learned this morning that:

The two national teachers' unions have won $11 million to build an online warehouse of instructional tools for the Common Core State Standards. Student Achievement Partners, whose founders led the writing of the standards, is also a grantee. It will work with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association and their teachers to build the tools and post them on Student Achievement Partners' website.

Here we go again.

When No Child Left Behind came along in 2002, our unions were, for the most part, quiet about what was about to happen to our schools. We have learned since then the damage that can be done by ill-conceived reforms. NCLB has done the following things:


  1. Resulted in thousands of schools being declared failures for low test scores.
  2. Coerced schools and teachers into narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test.
  3. Contributed to the overwhelming public narrative that “our schools are broken.”
  4. Opened the door to all sorts of “market-driven” alternatives to public schools

There is currently a lot of criticism being raised about the content of the Common Core, especially the emphasis on “informational text.” I think this is an important discussion, but for me, the bigger issue still lies with how our students will be tested under the new regime, and how those test scores will be used politically to advance privatization.

According to Secretary Duncan and the Department of Education, the Common Core will bring new tests that will be so much better that we will not mind the fact that our teachers are coerced into test preparation. I seriously doubt this. As Diane Ravitch recently pointed out, once new tests aligned with the Common Core are in place, pass rates are likely to plummet. In New York state, education officials are already warning of this.

This article makes it clear what is likely to happen when the results start coming in. Jeb Bush explains what he anticipates:

I don't think people fully realize the challenges that will come when the reality sets in that so few of our kids are college and/or career ready. Moms and dads are going to be mad. The reality is going to create problems for elected officials across the spectrum.

And that, of course, is the real goal of this political project. It has been a decade since NCLB came along, and people are tired of that - it has been discredited in the public. So we will have a whole new set of standards and tests which will renew the narrative that our schools are failing, and that economic problems such as widespread unemployment are not due to employers shipping jobs overseas, but due to the poor job skills our students are getting.

Our unions have begun to react to NCLB, ever so slowly. Representatives at AFT’s convention last summer passed a resolution opposing the excessive use of tests and have launched a campaign and petition drive called Learning is More than a Test Score. At the NEA Rep Assembly last summer, one of the resolutions passed called on the organization to actively investigate the full cost, in terms of money and instructional time, schools are spending on testing and test preparation.

These actions are a good start. But we need to be far better prepared than we were a decade ago when NCLB unleashed its barrage of accusations directed at schools and teachers.

We need to anticipate what is very clearly going to happen once these tests are implemented.

There is zero evidence that the new tests aligned with the Common Core are any better at indicating “college and career readiness” than the tests they will replace. The decade-long attempt to attach high stakes to test scores has not yielded any real growth in student performance. Competition based on the “market forces” that “reformers” are creating based on test scores is not yielding excellence, and taking our schools out of the democratically controlled public sphere is a big mistake.

This is not to say there are no problems with our educational system. But we first need to have a more accurate accounting - as is offered here by Richard Rothstein. Then we need to willing to focus on the real problems with the status quo - our schools usually reproduce societal inequities. We seek to overcome these inequities not by allowing market forces to run wild, but by creating high quality schools for all students.

Our two major unions are one of the best vehicles teachers have for communicating with the public. Teachers have gotten on board with efforts to raise standards in the past, but we have to have our eyes wide open this time. There is going to be a major publicity campaign associated with the results we will get from the Common Core assessments. This will be yet another iteration of the wails we heard with the release of the Nation at Risk report in 1983. We have got to be prepared to mount a robust defense of the very institution of public education. Tests associated with the Common Core are going to be used to discredit our schools. We must be ready to respond.

What do you think? Can our unions counteract the next iteration of the “our schools are broken” narrative?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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.


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