Teaching Profession Opinion

Unions Are Right on Common-Core Standards

By John Wilson — July 08, 2013 3 min read
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Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are providing the voice and leadership that students, teachers, and other educators need as we complete the transformation to shared state standards. If the transformation is successful, public schools throughout the nation will be able to provide all students with the essential body of knowledge that they should know and the skills they should be able to demonstrate. Students from the poorest districts will have the benefit of the same standards as the most affluent students. In the most decentralized education system in the world, a system in which students may be in numerous school districts during their K-12 careers, we will finally begin to unite schools through Common Core State Standards.

Make no mistake, this is a heavy lift. Accomplishing state-shared standards is the epitome of the proverbial “flying the plane while you build it.” This approach makes the standards vulnerable to critics and cynics. Unions have to continue to challenge those critics to be specific in identifying any standard that is believed not to be important enough for every child to learn. Unions have to be persistent in reminding critics that states do have the flexibility to add additional standards unique to their student populations as long as 85 percent of the standards remain universal. Unions have to be responsive to their members by ensuring those members have the information and tools to do their part in the implementation phase.

I worry that the inconsistency in implementation occurring in states will undermine the valuable standards. It is clear that the Department of Education will not assume any leadership due to the politics of opposition to a national curriculum. The National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) are the best hope for consistent implementation, but the two organizations will fail if they do not assure that the unions are equal partners. It is clear to me that the more mistakes we see on implementation, the stronger the case is made for critics of Common Core State Standards.

Most of these high-stakes tests have never been validated for the purposes for which they are being used. Using old tests on these new standards for teacher evaluation, student promotion, or compensation is malpractice. Failure to validate the uses for these new tests being developed and failure to restrict their usage to validated purposes only will create mistrust and opposition among the very teachers who need to embrace the standards.

Last week, the National Education Association passed a key test of leadership when its Representative Assembly of about 7,000 delegates elected by its three million members overwhelmingly passed a new business item to support Common Core State Standards and to set the expectations for implementation. The expectations included the assurance of adequate time and tools to strengthen instructional techniques, fairness to students, advisory committees to serve as stewards of the standards, and a recognition of the effects of poverty on public school students.

Furthermore, these delegates called for a moratorium on using student test scores for high-stakes decisions until teachers have been able to learn these standards and research and create appropriate curriculum and lesson plans. Standards could still be used for instructional decisions for their students. Both NEA and AFT leadership have previously called for this same type of moratorium. This moratorium will give the time needed for developing curriculum, assessments, and professional development needed for Common Core State Standards to be successful.

Failure to adhere to the the unions’ call for a moratorium on the high-stakes decisions based solely on standardized tests will absolutely crash the effort to have state-shared standards. States have permission from the Department of Education to implement a moratorium. They should take that opportunity. Without this moratorium, Common Core State Standards may be doomed.

There is no doubt that building a strong public school system for every child will be America’s greatest challenge in this century and in this new global society. Standards are the first block. If we are successful, we will be stronger and better able to tackle those other building blocks of curriculum, assessments, professional development, teacher quality, funding, and equity. Teachers are the key, and their unions are their voice. Hear them well!

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed 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.