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State Chiefs Spar with AFT and NEA Presidents Over Common Core

Washington

Anxiety over the Common Core State Standards was on full display Tuesday during the Council of Chief State School Officers' annual legislative conference. Leaders of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the nation's two largest teacher unions, squabbled with state K-12 chiefs over how teachers and the general public perceive the standards, and how well they are being implemented in classrooms.

The CCSSO, along with the National Governors Association, oversaw the creation of the common core. But over the last several months, the AFT and the NEA as well as state union leaders have expressed increasing concern— or even, in a few cases, outright opposition—to the manner of common-core implementation, as my colleague Stephen Sawchuk and I wrote about recently. 

During a discussion with Achieve President Mike Cohen and Education Trust President Kati Haycock, AFT President Randi Weingarten said she had seen many instances of good common-core implementation, in which teachers were given time to prepare and adequate resources. But she said that in cases like New York state, the poor rollout of the common core had led to "immobilization" among teachers and a distrust that those in positions of authority knew how to do the job right.

Weingarten added that she expects that many of her members would call for outright opposition to the standards during the AFT's summer convention, even though both the AFT and NEA support the standards and Weingarten said she wouldn't back away from the common core.

On the subject of transitioning to the common core, Weingarten told the chiefs, "The field doesn't trust the people in this room to have their backs."

During the same discussion, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, while he said the union remained squarely behind the standards themselves, also expressed concern that teachers were not getting enough time to learn the standards themselves, to find common-core aligned curricular materials, and to talk to parents as well as each other.

Those remarks triggered an irritated response from Massachusetts K-12 chief Mitchell D. Chester, who said that the two national unions seemed to be "condoning" strident and vocal common-core foes "at the peril of those [teachers] who are moving things ahead," an accusation Weingarten denied.

"It becomes a totally adversarial conversation," Chester said.

And Chester's counterpart for South Dakota, Education Secretary Melody Schopp, expressed concern that enough wasn't being done to push more positive common-core stories to the public: "The media's not hearing that."

Weingarten responded that attacking her for being the messenger of concerns about the standards missed the point, telling the state chiefs, "People think we are doing terrible things to them, parents and teachers alike."

While there was general praise for the work the two unions had done to make more common-core aligned classroom resources available to teachers, part of the problem, said Mike Cohen, of Achieve, is that information about the progress of common core in schools relied too much on anecdotes. (Achieve is a supporter of the standards.)

"We don't have any kind of good metrics" for measuring common-core implementation's success, said Cohen. 

One key solution, he said, is to gather more input from the local levels to see how the standards are working in schools.  "Implementation is not an event. It's a learning process," Cohen said, echoing others.

The anxiety about the standards extended to other topics related to the common core. Acknowledging the difficulty of the transition to new standards and assessments at the same time, Haycock, whose organization advocates for low-income and minority students, said that she would support a two-year suspension of using scores from new state tests in teacher evaluations in some cases, depending on states' timelines. 

Weingarten and Van Roekel both used their time to criticize other trends in education policy—the NEA president, for example, lamented what he said is the shoddy prepartion many teachers receive: "You can't cut hair without a license. But you can teach without a license," he said.

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