As opposed as the American Federation of Teachers and its president, Randi Weingarten, have been to most aspects of systemic reform, one could at least say that the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union has been correct in supporting both the concept of national curricula standards and common academic curricula. So it wasn’t too shocking that the AFT decided four years ago to back the development of Common Core reading and math standards by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
At the same time, you have to always remember that the AFT is first and foremost a teachers’ union, and it has no interest in backing anything for long if it has the potential to weaken its already-declining influence over education policy. This is especially true if it involves the use of objective student test score performance data in teacher evaluations and other efforts to end the shoddy teacher evaluation regimes (as well as near-lifetime employment privileges) that have helped make teaching one of the professions public sector or private insulated from any performance management (as well as justifies the union’s existence). The AFT is also loathe to continue supporting anything that threatens the grand bargain it (along with the National Education Association) has struck with Baby Boomers among the rank-and-file members under which they give the union carte blanch to do what it pleases so long as it stands stalwart for traditionalist thinking as well ensure that the profession is insulated from accountability. And when the AFT is faced with both trouble and opportunity, the notoriously crafty Weingarten will stop at nothing to take advantage of it.
Considering all this, it isn’t all that shocking that Weingarten announced yesterday that the AFT was calling for states to issue moratoriums on rolling out the new exams being rolled out as part of the implementation of Common Core. After all, the union finds itself in a rather tough spot, both with Baby Boomers among the rank-and-file already annoyed with the union for its modest acquiescence on allowing the use of some test score data in evaluations, and with hardcore progressives among the traditionalist ranks who have teamed up with movement conservatives to oppose the implementation of the standards in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Whether this latest effort at triangulating reformers and the most fervent of traditionalists within her ranks will work? That’s a different question altogether.
As you would expect, Weingarten only alludes slightly to the underlying intra-traditionalist and internal union politics in her latest bit of rhetorical rope-a-dope. Proclaiming that the AFT still supports implementing Common Core, Weingarten still argued that states needed to delay implementation of the tests in order to keep it from being relegated to “the overflowing dustbin of abandoned reforms”. Borrowing language from Common Core opponents, Weingarten argues that states need to delay launch of the tests — and their use in teacher evaluations as well as in assessing district and school performance – for at least two years in order to “field test” the assessments. From where she sits, “decoupling” Common Core exams from their proper use as accountability tools will help relieve supposed “anxiety” among those concerned about the tests, as well as ensure the viability of the standards.
Weingarten certainly chose a good time to call for a moratorium on launching the tests. Districts and AFT locals in New York State, along with teachers and some parents, have already expressed annoyance with how the Empire State’s education department has rolled out the new Common Core-aligned exams. The fact that Indiana is itself struggling with glitches and other issues involving the online version of the Empire State’s ISTEP-Plus exams (which aren’t aligned with Common Core) just as the Hoosier State has passed a law temporarily stopping (and, to the hopes of foes of the standards, permanently stop) implementation of the standards and the array of exams geared to assessing how well students are learning the new lessons (and how well districts, teachers, and school leaders are doing in educating them), also gives Common Core foes additional ammunition for opposing implementation. By borrowing the words of Common Core foes — as well as harping on the reality that families and their children often bear the consequences of test performance (largely because the AFT and the NEA have worked hard to insulate teachers from accountability) — Weingarten has put together some well-polished sophistry.
Yet Weingarten’s argument that the Common Core tests need to be “field-tested” doesn’t hold water when one looks closer at the facts. For one, states have been working on implementing Common Core for most of the past three years — and actually longer than that, since NGA and CCSSO (along with the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia that are directly handling the day-to-day development of the online and paper tests) began developing the standards (along with thinking through the technology issues that will come with implementing the exams) since 2009. As Weingarten admits, the AFT has been actively involved in developing Common Core and has been training teachers to understand and implement the standards; the union has also actively touted its Share My Lesson joint venture with Times Educational Supplement publisher TSL’s online unit, which features lesson plans developed by teachers aimed at helping their peers adapt to the changes being wrought by the standards. And the supposed “anxiety” over Common Core testing is no different in substance than the usual angst that comes whenever the performance of kids are being assessed — especially when adults in schools are also being held accountable for success or failure.
Certainly Common Core supporters should be concerned about implementation, especially when it comes to the assessments, almost all of which are online. Traditional districts and states need to devote more energy to addressing the technology infrastructure issues that can complicate both reform efforts and day-to-day operations; rural districts (especially those serving American Indian and Alaska Native communities), which have just adopted late 20th-century technology, have particular struggles on the broadband access front. Yet even in those communities, Common Core implementation has already been proceeding apace. Even if the online assessments aren’t yet ready, states can conduct testing through traditional pen and paper.
Of course, Weingarten knows this. Which is why she sidestepped so many of these issues in her speech. The reality is that Weingarten is doing nothing more than what traditionalist-minded school leaders such as Montgomery County, Md., Supt. Joshua Starr are seeking: Halting any effort to hold districts, teachers, and school leaders accountable for success or failure in improving student achievement. After all, the new Common Core exams are being launched just as states are launching new teacher evaluations that require objective student test score growth data on those exams to account for at least 20 percent of (and sometimes, as much as half) of the overall performance reviews. The fear that declines in student performance on the exams will adversely impact evaluations is largely overblown. But the reality is that the new evaluation systems will likely lead to more teachers being sacked. This doesn’t help the AFT’s bottom line or its effort to preserve influence.
Weingarten knows that states will not delay implementation of Common Core tests unless their legislatures and governors have decided to abandon the standards altogether. More than likely, Weingarten and AFT affiliate bosses at the state level will seek agreements from states to not use objective student test score data from the new Common Core tests for at least two years. Such a move would delay the development of more-accurate teacher evaluations and more-stringent performance management until the AFT can find another reason to halt reform efforts.
At the same time, Weingarten’s play isn’t just about resisting reform. After all, throughout its idiosyncratic history, the AFT has embraced comprehensive curricula as an ideal (even if it works to resist such efforts in practice). Weingarten is not only attempting to once again co-opt school reformers– an effort that has failed for a variety of reasons, including the ideologically-driven missteps of Weingarten’s minions along with her own — she is also trying to mollify unhappy allies within her ranks.
Baby Boomers within the union ranks and hardcore progressives among traditionalists (including those also in the AFT’s rank-and-file) are none too happy about the implications of Common Core’s implementation for their defense of failed thinking. This reality is none too comforting for either Baby Boomers who make up an increasingly smaller percentage of teachers working in classrooms, or other traditionalists dead set against standardized testing in general — especially if the exams are even better at assessing student performance than those currently in use today. Weingarten’s decision to embrace at least some marginal use of test score data in teacher evaluations — albeit in the so-called multiple measures approach championed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — hasn’t exactly gone over well with many of her fellow traditionalists, even though the union is no more committed in action than the NEA to using test data in teacher performance management. Some were especially displeased with her this month after teamed up with Gates Foundation education czarina Vickie Phillips on an advertorial touting multiple measures in the New Republic. By calling for a moratorium on Common Core testing, Weingarten has thrown a bone to these fellow-travelers that at the very least keeps them somewhat pleased to have her on their side.
But it isn’t just about the impact of Common Core exams on teacher evaluations — or standardized testing in general — that is displeasing to Weingarten’s allies. Hardcore progressives among traditionalists such as Susan Ohanian and Education Week columnist Anthony Cody have long opposed implementation of Common Core, because of the involvement of private-sector interests such as the Gates Foundation in shaping and supporting implementation of the standards, and because of the fact that Common Core also pushes teachers to move away from the longstanding practice of crafting their own curricula without any high-quality North Star to guide their efforts (part of the tradition of teaching as a solo and autonomous practice that traditionalists have long-fetishized). The fact that this slipshod approach has damaged the futures of generations of children, along with the reality that far too many teachers lack the subject-matter competency needed to develop their own curricula without guidance, doesn’t factor into their thinking. Add in the reality that Common Core standards, even if poorly implemented, will likely further expose the low levels of subject-matter competency among laggards within the teaching ranks — an underlying cause of the nation’s education crisis — and suddenly, the standards are a threat to traditionalist opposition to systemic reform. The fact that the AFT has continued to support implementation of the standards even as fellow-travelers such as the intellectually demagogic Diane Ravitch have decided to abandon past advocacy for them is particularly annoying; so long as Weingarten didn’t waiver on Common Core implementations, foes of the standards (along with their movement conservative allies) were relegated to the fringe.
But now, thanks to Weingarten’s triangulation (along with the move last month by the Republican National Committee to pass a resolution opposing Common Core), the Ohanian-Cody crowd (along with the likes of Michelle Malkin and otherwise-sensible conservative reformers such as Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute) now have some small leverage in opposing further implementation. Expect Common Core foes, especially movement conservatives, to cheer on Weingarten’s call for a moratorium, even as they loathe teachers’ unions in general and oppose the AFT on nearly every other education policy issue. [The fact that this will likely happen shows clearly that opponents of the standards on both sides are more concerned with succoring their ideological leanings than helping poor and minority kids attain teaching and curricula worthy of their potential.]
Will Weingarten’s move lead to more states abandoning Common Core? If the RNC’s resolution didn’t lead Alabama’s legislators to stop implementation of the standards, why would the AFT’s proposed delay? Weingarten’s does provide the AFT some opportunities for a defensive victory on the teacher evaluation front, and allows for her to keep the most-fervent traditionalists oppose to Common Core at bay. More importantly, the Obama Administration’s own desire to ensure that its effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act — under which states have agreed to launch performance-based evaluations in exchange for being allowed to ignore federal law — may stand in the way of any dealmaking between AFT affiliates and state governments.
As for mollifying Common Core foes and other fervent traditionalists, especially within AFT ranks? That may not work out either. Many in that crowd has long ago written Weingarten off as little more than someone more-interested in playing both sides against the middle than as one of their own. They may be pleased in part with Weingarten’s triangulation, but they will soon find it wanting. As always.