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Will Union-Led Implementation Rescue the Common Core?

The National Education Association Representative Assembly kicks off today, and it looks like union support for the Common Core is going to be a major issue. The very first New Business Item (NBI) introduced was one offered by the NEA Board of Directors, which states:

The National Education Association will support and make guidance available to affiliates, parent organizations, and community stakeholders to assist them in advocating for and developing implementation plans to transition to Common Core State Standards and better assessments. These implementation plans should:
  • anticipate that educators need adequate time and tools to strengthen new instructional techniques necessitated by the new standards
  • be fair to students and understandable to families
  • be stewarded by community advisory committees that include the voice of educators, parents and students
Rationale/Background
These standards have the potential to transform teaching and learning; set high standards for ALL students; and eliminate standardized tests that do not align with curriculum. We Educate America and we must bring our expertise to bear in supporting commonsense implementation.

The NEA is also asking the assembly to approve a $3 dues increase to create a "Great Public Schools Fund" to provide grants to states to support new activities.

Here is what NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said in his speech today:

It's about creating a groundswell of alternatives to the corporate reformers and privateers - our ideas, our solutions - so we can drive them out - out of our classrooms, out of our profession, and out of our students' lives!
It's about giving our members resources and support to fight for their dreams of what education could be.
It's about showing the nation that we are not only the experts in supporting student success but that we are willing and able to accept responsibility for that success.
I believe that over the long term, good ideas will drive out bad ideas. That's why fighting bad ideas is not enough. We must be champions for quality in every classroom, every school. And we must use every tool at our disposal - lobbying, organizing, bargaining, our ideas and our energy.
So If you are tired of a reporting system to parents that focuses only on test scores and not the whole child - then why not collaborate with your colleagues and create your own?
If you can identify students right now who you think won't succeed in the current system, then why not go to the bargaining table or the community and demand interventions? If your district isn't providing professional development for the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, then why not create your own - using NEA support and resources? If kids in your neighborhood are denied the opportunity for quality pre-K programs, then why not sponsor union-led workshops for parents and provide them with ideas and tools to assist their children?
And stop asking or waiting for permission - Proceed until apprehended!
The amendment is about tapping into the passion and power of our members. The passion to care for ALL of our students. The power to make a difference in their lives. We are already creating ripples of change - now it's time to turn them into a tidal wave!
A tidal wave of change: student-centered, and union-led!

Assuming this measure passes, I hope state and local unions take advantage of this opportunity to create alternative approaches to assessment and accountability in particular.

However, I want to focus on one line in here:

It's about showing the nation that we are not only the experts in supporting student success but that we are willing and able to accept responsibility for that success.

This seems to be translating into a policy that embraces the Common Core, and the accompanying accountability structure.

The problem with this approach is that the union's stated goals around the Common Core cannot be accomplished in the real world.

In the real world, there is no way that Common Core standards and assessments will be "fair to students" when they are used to evaluate teachers and close schools.

Our unions, like teachers and students, are trapped within the testing paradigm. And there is an exercise in wishful thinking on a grand scale under way. If we can imagine in our minds that the Common Core could lead to greater teacher autonomy, and "better assessments" that we won't mind so much, and we behave as if these things are true, then we can have some control over what is happening.

But sadly, I believe this to be an illusion.

Remember how the standards were written. Sixty people meeting in complete secrecy for six months, one classroom teacher among them - but testing companies were well represented.

Can the Common Core be implemented in a way that is fair to students and teachers? The new tests are being rolled out as the unions deliberate. Kentucky went first a year ago, and the result was a 30% drop in proficiency levels. New York took Common Core tests this year, and experts are predicting a 15% to 20% drop. Of course high poverty schools will drop the most, and teachers of English learners will likewise find their scores headed downward. None of this will be "fair" in any way, and no amount of preparation or implementation will make it so.

It feels as if we are stuck within the testing paradigm, and our leadership is incapable of breaking free.

I am reminded of an occasion a few years ago, where leaders in my district shared a video of Sir Ken Robinson's famous TED Talk called Changing Education Paradigms. We were told this was the direction in which we needed to head, and that the new Common Core standards were going to move us in this direction.

Somehow the vehicle by which we escape the standardization paradigm has become the very latest set of standards!

This is a paradigm in its death throes, which, in order to survive a bit longer, dons the clothing of the next.

The Common Core does call for more critical thinking, and has some good ideas about getting students engaged in solving real world problems. This has led some to imagine that it will encourage project-based learning and other authentic approaches to learning. However, the standards are tightly linked to the assessments that are now arriving, and none of the assessments that have been seen thus far fulfill the hype that has preceded them.

And for the past twelve years the stakes have steadily been raised on assessments, for students, teachers and schools. While NCLB required low-scoring schools to close, and allowed for teachers at those schools to be fired, new rules that have been required by Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers now require that teacher and administrator evaluations give significant weight to test scores. And many states are increasing the stakes on tests for students as well.

There is no evidence that the assessments will be so much better that they will somehow avoid the trap of Campbell's Law, which says that

The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

Both unions are making some noise about opposing high stakes tests. Randi Weingarten has asked for a one year delay on the high stakes consequences for the new tests, and the NEA has likewise stated opposition to high stakes testing. Secretary Duncan responded by allowing states some "flexibility" in their implementation of the tests and stakes attached to them.

But whether the sword falls on us in 2014 or 2016, it is going to fall, and delays will not make the impact any less severe when it drops.

Mr. Van Roekel is right when he says: "...over the long term, good ideas will drive out bad ideas." However, the testing paradigm is now thoroughly in place. It will not driven out by better implementation. It must be actively confronted, called out and identified as the failure it has become. Our unions ought to take the lead. Can they escape the paradigm in which we are caught?

What do you think? Can our unions lead the fight for new approaches within the constraints placed on us by the Common Core standards and assessment systems? Or must we break out in order to give better ideas a chance?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

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