In Common Core debate, let’s keep equity at the forefront

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by Marla Ucelli-Kashyap
Assistant to the AFT president for educational issues

At the AFT, supporting educational standards is nothing new. Since the time of Albert Shanker, the AFT has championed, debated and even rated them. Educational standards themselves are nothing new either. We've tried them before, particularly in the 1990s push for equity through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which required states to adopt educational standards. But the great variation in the quality of these standards across states—and in states' decisions about what it looked like for students to meet them—didn't get us much closer as a nation to having a shared vision and common basis to determine what students need and deserve educationally. Nor did it help us shine a spotlight of comparability from Bed-Stuy to Beverly Hills on whether students were actually getting it.

The Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and Washington, D.C., and are now being introduced or already used in thousands of classrooms, make up the most recent chapter in the standards book. Despite recurring claims to the contrary, the Common Core State Standards didn't spring fully grown from the heads of the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers in 2009. For many education and civil rights advocates, they were at least two decades in the making—out of concern and desire to create a new basis for educational equity across the nation. Will common standards alone get us there? Of course not. Will they be an important building block? Yes. Have a look at this report on the 2012 PISA results. The most successful school systems around the world are the most equitable, and they have common, rigorous standards for what students should know and be able to do.

There are valuable educational and societal reasons to support the Common Core, but as a compelling reason for common content and performance standards, equity trumps them all. Devastating inequities in education existed across this nation long before the Common Core and have persisted despite the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the misleading notion of "separate but equal." Schools have since moved toward more racial integration, but inequities in the support for and quality of education across the nation remain. Standards serve a critical equity function helping to ensure not only that all students are held to common expectations, but that they are enabled to learn the kind of critical-thinking, problem-solving and knowledge-application skills that are essential to college and career readiness.

Are there problems with the rollout of the Common Core? Emphatically, yes. In too many states and districts, the transition has been made too quickly, with inadequate resources and with little engagement of the people expected to do the heavy lifting. Even worse, policymakers are confusing the standards with the tests that measure whether students are progressing toward them. In places like New York state, this public policy is the equivalent of pulling the carrot out of the soil to see if it's growing—hurting, not helping, the carrot in the process—when you can already tell from what you can see above ground that it's not ready to be harvested. This ill-advised approach prompts further bad policy down the line, and some district leaders respond by telling schools to take whatever curriculum resources have been provided and follow them like a script, instead of adapting and adopting what makes sense based on teachers' knowledge of their students and the standards. There are a number of guides to what good Common Core implementation looks like, including the AFT's assessing implementation guide, and places where it is actually happening on the ground.

I am puzzled by Twitter conversations and blog posts that make it seem as though deprofessionalizing teachers, overtesting students, privatization and profiteering are consequences of the Common Core. For teachers and students in many low-income districts serving large numbers of poor and minority students, these obstacles are not new. For too many of them, teaching and learning under No Child Left Behind, in effect since 2002, became about speeding up an assembly line of prepackaged and unengaging learning tasks, slowing it down just long enough to administer one of a myriad of interim, often low-quality tests leading to a bigger, higher-stakes, often low-quality test at the end of the year. This devalued students and disempowered teachers, and made a lot of money for publishing, testing and tutoring companies.

There are many things educators and advocates need to fight against, prime among them being overtesting,[1] underfunding, profiteering and the deprofessionalization of teaching. But we also need to fight for some things, like safe and welcoming neighborhood schools, engaging curricula tied to meaningful common standards, time for teachers to engage deeply with the content they're teaching and with their colleagues on how best to do it, and the supports students need to overcome barriers and reach success.

Standards, implemented well, are the antithesis of the factory model of education that has helped make access to high-quality instruction into a ZIP code-based lottery. The Common Core provides a chance to break that downward spiral, starting in the place it matters most: the classroom. That's why teachers like Amy Spies and Peggy Brookins have written op-eds to share their stories about what can happen when educators and students have the time, tools and support to make this challenging transition.

"I have seen the impact of the new standards in my own classroom," wrote Amy, of Volusia County, Fla. "When incorporating the new standards, my students are engaged in thought-provoking discussions, asking questions of each other and solving problems once deemed too complex." Peggy, of Ocala, Fla., has also seen firsthand the impact of the standards in her classroom: "As students interact with each other and me, their discussions are a model of the Mathematical Practices (what students should be able to do), which would make any parent, teacher or legislator proud, and wish they could attend high school again."

We don't need advocates touting the Common Core as a cure-all for every educational ill. But neither do we need detractors blaming the standards as their cause. For something this important, we need sound policymaking that listens to the informed voices of educators; time and support for professional learning and collaboration to put standards into practice (which Amy and Peggy have had); a moratorium on the consequences of testing until educators and students have made the transition; and alliances with community partners to ensure that education policy and practice aligns with a shared vision of equitable and engaging public education.

[1]The AFT's 2013 report, Testing More, Teaching Less, analyzed the testing regime in two urban districts, documented the instructional time lost to testing, and showed how reducing the number of test administrations could yield both more instructional time and better assessments.