Academic journal article Education Next

Teachers Unions and the Common Core: Standards Inspire Collaboration and Dissent

Academic journal article Education Next

Teachers Unions and the Common Core: Standards Inspire Collaboration and Dissent

Article excerpt

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, addresses the crowd at the union's annual convention, July 2014

THE MEDIA AND OBSERVERS across the ideological spectrum were surprised and, in some cases, disconcerted in July 2014 when at the annual American Federation of Teachers (AFT) convention in Los Angeles, the union's leadership team announced that its Innovation Fund grants of $20,000 to $30,000 were going to be made available to state and local affiliates to critique the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the massive multistate effort to improve student achievement.

"It's a sign that teachers are frustrated and fed up--and they're making their anger heard, loud and clear," opined a July Politico story about the new initiative.

"This is a huge step because this time last year, they were gung-ho for Common Core," said Fordham University's Mark Naison, a critic of the standards, also in Politico.

David Menefee-Libey, a political scientist at Pomona College, went even further: "It's all blowing up."

The AFTs announcement, combined with the much-publicized rise of Chicago's Karen Lewis and the election of Barbara Madeloni as president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, as well as the emergence of the Badass Teachers Alliance and other social-justice factions within the unions, have added to the impression that union opposition to the standards is large--and growing. And indeed, there's little argument that the unions' rhetoric and tone have changed.

But have the AFT and its larger counterpart, the National Education Association (NEA), really turned their backs on the Common Core in concrete, substantive ways--and if so, how much does it matter?

A Mixed Message

The unions have no direct authority over the Common Core implementation or the assessments. They're not directly responsible for preparing teachers to use the new standards or for administering the new tests. They have no formal governance role in the process.

Union pronouncements about the success or failure of the process, however, and unions' work with states and districts and outside partners on the standards, do influence the materials and supports that are being provided to teachers, and also help shape media and public perceptions of the initiative, and in theory could shape lawmakers' positions on whether to continue, pause, or reengineer the effort.

Concern that the AFT, and to some degree the NEA, was flip-flopping on the Common Core, which could encourage classroom teachers' resistance to the changes and endanger the effort's ultimate success, has become a common one among standards supporters and union critics.

"It seemed like they signed on to do this [Common Core development] three years ago, banging the door down saying they needed to be part of it, and then little by little they've peeled off," says Democrats for Education Reform's Charlie Barone.

According to this line of reasoning, the unions expressed their support for the standards during the early stages, when they were being developed and then adopted by states during competition for Race to the Top funds. It was only when the development of assessments began, and the U.S. Department of Education's (ED's) No Child Left Behind waiver process included clear requirements for evaluating teachers based partly on student test scores, that the unions began to balk.

Not everyone goes that far. "They're trying to walk a fine line in which they still support the standards but don't like the way they've been implemented," says Bob Rothman, a Common Core supporter at the Alliance for Excellent Education. "But they haven't reversed themselves" (see "The Common Core Takes Hold,"features, Summer 2014).

To say that the unions had flip-flopped on the Common Core "would be an absolute mischaracter-ization," insists Sandra Alberti, field director for the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners (SAP), who has been working with union leadership on implementation. …

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