AFT calls for moratorium on Common Core consequences

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AFT president Randi Weingarten on April 30 called for a moratorium on assessment-driven sanctions tied to Common Core State Standards until solid implementation plans are embedded in schools and proven effective through a year or more of field testing.

Building-level preparation for Common Core Standards for math and English language arts, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, has been spotty at best, the AFT president warned in a high-profile address in New York City on education reform. Sound implementation remains the first order of business, she said, not a violent, destructive shift to test-driven accountability based on the standards. Done right, Common Core standards will "lead to a revolution in teaching and learning" that puts critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork ahead of rote memorization and endless test-taking, Weingarten said. Done wrong, "they will end up in the overflowing dustbin of abandoned reforms, with people throwing up their hands," believing that public schools are too broken to save.

"The coming months will determine which outcome comes to pass."

The key is high-quality implementation, a deliberate and thoughtful plan of action for introducing new standards into schools and making sure they are embraced by schools and the community at large. Educators need to "unpack" the standards and fully understand what they are. They need a curriculum tied to the Common Core, and the time and support necessary to adapt their teaching to these ambitious new demands. Those prerequisites are still missing in schools across the nation, Weingarten stressed, and that makes it imperative for Americans "to put our foot on the accelerator of high-quality implementation and put the brakes on the stakes."

AFT president Randi Weingarten

Watch clips of speech above. View full speech here.

Recent developments, unfortunately, show that policymakers are proceeding recklessly in the Common Core rollout, said Weingarten, pointing to New York state as a prime example. There, "the assessment has been fast-tracked before the other pieces were put in place." The state announced a K-8 curriculum tied to the new standards one month before assessments were administered, and the rollout in the upper grades is similarly out-of-sequence.

"Is this about deep learning or desperate cramming?" the AFT president asked. In New York, and in other states that have introduced the Common Core irresponsibly, test scores for the current school year "will fall, not because there is less learning but because the tests are evaluating skills and content these students haven't yet been taught."

And falling scores carry consequences.

The latest round of tests in New York can be used to determine if students advance or are held back, to designate school performance, and to determine whether schools stay open or shut down. They constitute 20 percent of teachers' evaluations. "The fact that the changes are being made without anything close to adequate preparation is a failure of leadership, a sign of a broken accountability system and, worse, an abdication of our moral responsibility to kids, particularly poor kids.

Weingarten emphasized that her address was not an exercise in assigning blame or damning the new standards; a recent poll of AFT members reveals that 75 percent of teachers support the Common Core. Schools from Cleveland to the Lower East Side of Manhattan show how educators are making amazing inroads, implementing the new standards effectively when they are given the time, support and frontline voice necessary to make them work.

The AFT also has been supporting the Common Core with an array of partners, including the AFT Innovation Fund and TES Connect, which is teaming up with the union to expand their joint Share My Lesson initiative—an online "digital filing cabinet full of materials, lesson plans and ideas, many aligned to the new standards," Weingarten explained. "Some teachers have told us that Share My Lesson is their only source for resources to teach the Common Core standards." The AFT also has trained hundreds of teachers in math and reading courses aligned to the Common Core. These teachers, in turn, have shared this information with thousands of colleagues.

"Time and again, we've made a choice not simply to call out what doesn't work but to demonstrate what does," Weingarten said. "This is the solution-driven unionism we are proud to practice. But it's not enough for the AFT and our members to walk the walk. Others must walk with us."

"We are committed to the success of students. That means getting the transition to Common Core standards right," the AFT president said. "And because of that commitment, I am today calling for a moratorium on the stakes associated with Common Core assessments." The moratorium would be a transition period—a time of intense activity—put in place before high stakes are attached to new Common Core-aligned assessments. States and districts would use the time to set up a high-quality implementation plan that amounts to more than just a curriculum, professional development and time.

The AFT is urging members to contact U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and their state education commissioners to support the moratorium.

"Those things are critical, but they aren't sufficient," said Weingarten, stressing that "the plan can't just be imposed from on high. It needs to be designed with and by teachers—ideally through their collective bargaining agent."

Parents also must be involved, the AFT president said. "Schools and districts need to keep them informed and engaged," since their participation and support is crucial to student success. And, like any new product or process in other endeavors, the implementation plans must be field-tested for a year or more, "time when teachers can give and get feedback, share ideas, and try out methods of teaching to the new standards.

"In sum, implementation plans must lay out what is needed, spell out how to get there, and make it clear how they will be supported—financially and otherwise, by teachers, political leaders, administrators, parents and the community," Weingarten said. "Once those two parts, an implementation plan and field testing, are completed, that's when it makes sense to attach stakes to the assessments. But even then, let's stop this out-of-control fixation on testing."

The AFT president said that this sound sequence for introducing the Common Core is about preserving accountability, not escaping it. It embraces the spirit of the writers of the Common Core standards themselves, one of whom recently remarked that "implementation is everything" when it comes to the success or failure of the new standards. And it protects public education from a nightmare scenario already developing in many schools, described by one teacher from California and relayed by Weingarten to the audience: "Within a couple of years, 'we start testing on standards we're not teaching with curriculum we don't have on computers that don't exist.'"

Comments like that don't minimize accountability, Weingarten said, they call it directly into question: "Rhetoric about urgency can't trump quality, equity and sustainability."

"If we're able to put our foot on the accelerator of high-quality implementation and put the brakes on the stakes, we can take advantage of this opportunity and guarantee that stronger, deeper, more rigorous standards will lead to higher achievement for all our children."

Read a Washington Post story about the speech.

[Mike Rose/video by Matthew Jones and Brett Sherman]

May 1, 2013