Union Leaders Put Common Core in the Cold

This week, National Education Association (NEA) president Dennis Van Roekel released an open letter to his members criticizing the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and demanding a series of “course corrections,” without which NEA will no longer back the initiative.

Van Roekel joins Randi Weingarten, the president of the smaller and more urban American Federation of Teachers, in turning his back on the new standards, which were voluntarily adopted and designed to establish a more credible and consistent definition of proficiency across academic subjects.

It’s worth keeping a few things in mind.

  1. Change is hard – but this has almost nothing to do with “botched” implementation. Or standards. “Implementation” is a catch-all complaint that union leaders have often—and successfully—used to extract themselves from commitments they no longer wish to keep.  Aiding in the rollout of Common Core is just such a commitment. The unions routinely complain that states are moving too fast in transitioning to the new standards, but the truth is that educators have already had years to prepare. In New York, for instance, the standards were adopted in 2010—four years ago. Implementation was always going to be difficult and, with a change of this magnitude, no one could ever be 100 percent ready. No matter how long the lead-up time, it’s easy to balk when you are staring at the year when it all counts. If four years is not sufficient, how long is? Eight years? Ten? Stretching out the timeline amounts to nothing more than a slow pull of the band aid.
  2. This has everything to do with politics and job protection. On the right, debate about Common Core has been clouded by the Tea Party’s dislike of anything associated with the federal government. The debate on the left is clouded, too. There, the discussion about Common Core is really a discussion about accountability in the form of stronger teacher evaluation systems that factor in student learning results alongside other measures. The standards themselves are incidental. Unions hoped that the occasion of Common Core (and their support for it) might present an opportunity to roll back or dilute teachers’ accountability for results. (Never mind that, even when students begin to be measured against tougher, Common Core-aligned tests, there’s little evidence to suggest a drop in scores will put teachers at any real risk.) As it has become clearer that no such accountability holiday is forthcoming—and that educators, in addition to schools, will be on the hook for advancing students toward the standards—the union withdrawal has been a foregone conclusion. Many policy leaders were awaiting this moment for a year or more.
  3. There will be more political fallout ahead. The long-term implications of the loss of the unions from the Common Core coalition are meaningful. It’s easy to exaggerate the short-term effect of the NEA announcement or the AFT announcement that preceded it. Unions were already fighting accountability measures associated with Common Core at the state and district level. But officially, it was possible for the unions to claim some form of alliance with the Obama administration, however strained it might have been. That’s no longer possible. The unions are now taking aim at the administration’s central education policies. There isn’t much ground left for alliance in this fractured marriage. Going forward, the question is whether the unions hold the Democratic Party to its own views or seek new political patrons. If you need an illustration of what the future may hold, look no further than my home state of Illinois, where the state NEA affiliate is spending heavily on behalf of a Republican primary candidate for governor who is a member of ALEC, while withholding support for the incumbent governor, a Democrat, who crossed them on pension reform. If Barack Obama could run for a third term as president, it’s a very good question whether he could garner an NEA or AFT endorsement. . . and whether he’d accept one.

Most teachers are unaware of these national currents. Few of them pay attention to union politics. They are busy teaching. But the choices made by union leaders on behalf of teachers matter—especially when they give the appearance that teachers want more investment in education but will not accept responsibility for results. And keep in mind that poll after poll has shown strong support for the Common Core among teachers—even despite their awareness that the transition to the new standards won’t be easy.

I wish things played out differently with the unions on Common Core. It would have been a powerful shift for union leaders to commit to the successful implementation of the standards while embracing the accountability—and higher status—that would have been part of the package. Such a course would have made it awfully difficult to portray the unions as hidebound obstacles to progress. It would have been a new day.

But that’s not where we are. If anything, unions have doubled down on resistance. For teachers who crave the elevation of the profession, that may be drifting further away.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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