Leadership Symposium Early Bird Deadline Approaching | Join K-12 leaders nationwide for three days of empowering strategies, networking, and inspiration! Discounted pricing ends March 1. Register today.
Standards Opinion

Time for Teacher Unions to Hop Off the Common Core Train

By Anthony Cody — April 22, 2013 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The two largest teacher unions in the US have positioned themselves as active supporters of the Common Core (wanted to be national) Standards. A visit to the NEA web site reveals President Dennis Van Roekel’s column praising the project.

He writes:

CCSS offers a vivid, practical example of NEA's Leading the Professions initiative, a three-part plan to transform the teaching profession and accelerate student learning. Educators will have the opportunity to translate these broad standards into creative, relevant, and engaging class lessons that help students learn in new ways that truly prepare them for lifelong learning. This is not to downplay anyone wrestling with doubt about Common Core - states will struggle, some educators will chafe - but as long as we can accept this, and embrace the transition, educators and public education can come out ahead.

The American Federation of Teachers has a bit of a mixed message. On the one hand, we have the “Learning is more than a test score” campaign, which asks visitors to sign a petition calling for an end to high stakes tests. On the other, the union’s Share My Lesson site has a special section devoted to resources aligned with the Common Core, and Randi Weingarten has written,

Establishing these standards is a critical first step, and now the real work begins. We need to use these standards as the foundation for better schools, but we must do more--as the countries we compete with do.

But I think the time has come for a serious reappraisal of this stance.

Many teachers have been in a honeymoon phase with the Common Core, before the inevitable high stakes tests arrive. It is understandable that teachers who have suffered under the lash of NCLB would view a new system with some hope. However, that honeymoon is coming to an end, as the high stakes tests arrive, and we discover them to be more pervasive, invasive and expensive than the ones they are replacing. And when the results come, and show our students scoring significantly lower, we will awaken to a fresh indictment of our supposedly broken schools.

The Common Core is a trojan horse for a whole set of curriculum and instructional tools -- hardware as well as software, that will require a massive initial investment, and significant ongoing expenses in terms of maintenance, new subscriptions and software, and replacement of computers every few years. Vendors and “innovators” are salivating at the chance to carve out a larger share of the education market. We are in something of a zero sum game. They believe that they can “personalize” education by getting each child in front of his own computer screen for half the day. We know there are huge problems with this approach, but that is what is most efficient. And having a national set of standards and assessments means you have a single market for all these “innovations.”

As Joanne Weiss wrote:

The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.

Accurate cost estimates for the Common Core are actively debated. But if you look around at the low level of technology at most of our schools, it does not take a genius to realize there will need to be billions invested across the nation for the hardware alone. And given the sorry state of school funding, this money will have to be found by making cuts elsewhere. Perhaps we can increase class sizes, as Bill Gates has suggested.

But there is a new reason to get up on our hind legs and fight the Common Core and it is very political. A number of conservatives are making this a major issue. While corporate Republicans like Jeb Bush remain thoroughly wedded to Common Core, the real energy of the party is elsewhere. The energy is with the more Libertarian types, like Rand Paul and Glenn Beck. They are likely to escalate their attacks on the Common Core, and they already hate unions. That makes it very easy for them to attack Common Core as a Big Government, Big Union plot to squash local control of schools and impose a monolithic curriculum on the populace.

The Obama administration’s education policies have been, by and large, a disaster. And Republicans are poised to rev up their attack machine on these grounds and teacher unions will be smeared right along with the administration so long as they are on board.

The problem is many of us AGREE WITH conservatives on much of their critique. Or we ought to. We are not opposed to loose curricular guidelines, but we should NOT be in favor of the sort of highly prescriptive standards and high stakes assessments that are coming with Common Core. And we also need to be concerned about the shift of resources away from classroom professionals and into technology, and the huge expansion of data systems, both of which are part and parcel of the Common Core project. And they are also correct about the undemocratic process that has been pursued to develop the Common Core, and the way the Department of Education has used Race to the Top bribes and NCLB waivers to coerce states into adopting the Core. We also disagree with some of their critique. But we cannot put forward a clear, compelling vision so long as we are on the sidelines in this debate - much less if we are on the wrong side altogether.

The NEA and AFT have positioned themselves as the “expert implementers” of the Common Core. That essentially means the unions are standing by Duncan’s side and saying “we are the professionals. You just tell us what to do, and we can do it better than anyone.” That renders us politically powerless. We have given up our opportunity to advance an independent vision for accountability and school reform.

Some have suggested that the standards are not the problem. We can work on implementing the standards, but focus our objections on the high stakes tests that may come later. There are a couple of problems with this. First of all, politically, the battle over the Common Core is happening now, and it is being defined primarily by people like Glenn Beck. The unions are being defined as allies, aiders and abettors of the Common Core, and unless union leaders and members speak out about our concerns, that will be accurate.

Secondly, the tests are already arriving, as we have seen in New York. And they are terrible. We were promised a “next generation” of assessments that would be so much smarter. Tests that adjust their difficulty as students respond. These are the very sorts of tests that the teachers and students in Seattle are boycotting. The hours spent on testing is doubling, tripling. We are testing third graders on computers. I spoke with kindergarten teachers last week in California who must spend an hour and a half testing each child in their class three times a year. That turns into three weeks of testing, repeated fall, winter and spring. Nine weeks of teaching lost! As parents become aware of these tests they are up in arms. The opt-out movement is gaining strength rapidly in New York, as the new tests arrive.

We also need to be very concerned about the expansion of data systems containing vast amounts of information about students AND teachers. This will be used not only to closely monitor students, but also to track teacher “effectiveness,” for all sorts of high stakes decisions, including teacher evaluation and pay. There is a growing backlash as this sort of project is uncovered, as seen last week in Louisiana.

The unions cannot be in two places at once. We cannot be strong opponents to standardized testing and also say we are the go-to experts in implementing the Common Core.

There are eleven states where the Legislatures are considering withdrawal from the Common Core. This may become an election issue that will harm candidates from either party who are on board with the project.

For now the right wing leads the national resistance to Common Core. But there are also progressive resisters to the Common Core, and although we share many of the concerns raised by conservatives, our end goal is a bit different. We want teachers to have autonomy. We want excellence defined within the context of our communities, and not imposed in a top-down manner by the Federal government. We want student learning assessed and demonstrated in more authentic ways. We want to escape the lockstep approach that insists that every kindergartner should be on the same page. We want to return to the joy of learning.

Rejecting Common Core will allow us to actually articulate an alternative vision for accountability and standards. But until we take this stand, we are going to be hamstrung, and defined by enemies of unions on the far right as handmaidens to an oppressive federal government. And they will be correct -- that is the killer.

What do you think? Is it time for teacher unions to hop off this train?

Continue the dialogue with @anthonycody on Twitter.

Related Tags:

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.