Date: May 9, 2013 7:12 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: Making Common Core Standards Work before Making Them Count
-- Tuesday, April 30, 2013.
Making Common Core Standards Work before Making Them Count
Association for a Better New York
Remarks for AFT President Randi Weingarten
SIDEBAR: I predict these standards will result
in one of two outcomes: Either they will lead to
a revolution in teaching and learning. Or they
will end up in the overflowing dustbin of
abandoned reforms, with people throwing up their
hands and decrying that public schools just don't
work. And the coming months will determine which
outcome comes to pass.
Our obligation as a nation, and my obligation as
an educator, is to help children achieve their
potential, participate in our democracy and
propel our economy forward. In today's world,
that means our students must be prepared to
compete-not on the basis of their test-taking
skills, but on their ability to solve problems,
analyze and apply knowledge, and work with others.
So, what if I told you there is a way to
transform the very DNA of teaching and learning
to move away from rote memorization and endless
test-prep, and toward problem solving, critical
thinking and teamwork-things I know many of you
have been advocating for years? And what if I
told you there is a way to do that not a
generation from now, but for students today, who
will be the employees you'll hire tomorrow?
In these are the potential to do that.
These are the Common Core State Standards for
Math and English language arts that have been
adopted by the District of Columbia and 45
states, including New York. The pages within
these binders lay out the kind of learning I have
seen in classrooms in Finland, Singapore and
other top-performing systems throughout the
world. These standards establish high
expectations for all students, regardless of
whether they're from Bed-Stuy or Beverly Hills,
Bay Shore, Long Island, or Birmingham, Ala.
Before I get to the importance of these binders,
let me do a one-minute advertorial for the AFT.
We've proposed a way for all prospective teachers
to get ample experience in real classrooms
alongside practicing teachers-and to meet a high
entry standard-like in medicine or law.
We've created a system to make teacher
evaluations constructive exercises that provide
for continuous improvement and feedback, and that
fairly identify those who are not cut out for our
profession. A system that recasts tenure not as a
guaranteed job for life, but rather as a
guarantee of fairness.
We are confronting the devastating effects of
poverty by advocating for and establishing
community schools to meet the social, emotional
and health needs of children. We're fighting for
public schools that are safe, collaborative and
welcoming environments, and for the resources
kids need-so that budget cuts don't cause
We've done these things because our goal is to
make sure every child can get a great public
And that's where the Common Core State Standards come in.
I predict these standards will result in one of
two outcomes: Either they will lead to a
revolution in teaching and learning. Or they will
end up in the overflowing dustbin of abandoned
reforms, with people throwing up their hands and
decrying that public schools just don't work. And
the coming months will determine which outcome
comes to pass.
There is reason for both optimism and pessimism.
What has me optimistic is that teachers want
these standards to succeed. We recently polled
our members, and 75 percent of our teachers
support the Common Core standards. That's no
surprise-because teachers, including many AFT
teachers, played a fundamental role in the design
and review of these standards.
We're talking about less memorization, less
racing through a course of study, and more
searching for evidence and conceptual
understanding. All of which help students to be
college- and career-ready.
I recently visited a public school on the Lower
East Side that's making this transition-the
NEST+m School. I saw fourth-graders learning
about Columbus' New World expeditions in a manner
aligned to the Common Core standards. It was
remarkable. There was none of the "In fourteen
hundred ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean
blue" that you might remember. These students
were reading passages from Columbus' diary
describing his experiences in his own words. They
delved deeply into multiple perspectives,
including making inferences from works of art
from the vantage point of both Native Americans
and the European explorers of the time.
In the movies, this type of dramatic change could
take place in the space of one inspirational
montage set to song. But not in real life.
Teachers at NEST+m told me that it took them
roughly 50 hours last summer to review and
understand the standards, to work through how
they shifted their approach to teaching and
learning, and to develop lessons aligned to them.
They're still at it-meeting weekly to discuss
what's working and what isn't, as they use these
standards in their classrooms. And they're
getting a lot of help from faculty at Hunter
College, corporate partners at Sony and others.
It's fantastic that those teachers have the
opportunity to approach the standards that way,
and that their students are already benefitting.
But it's deeply troubling to realize that what's
happening at NEST+m is by far the exception, not
And that's what has me pessimistic. These
standards, which hold such potential to create
deeper learning, are instead creating a serious
backlash-as officials seek to make them count
before they make them work. That's what we're
seeing here in New York, as you have witnessed in
the last few weeks. And it is happening
throughout the country.
In an editorial pointing out how far from ready
its state is to transition to the new standards,
the Los Angeles Times printed a tweet from one
teacher that said it perfectly: "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.'"
That teacher speaks for many teachers throughout
the country who have not yet been trained or
prepared to teach in the manner envisioned by the
Common Core. In that same poll in which 75
percent of teachers supported the Common Core, a
similarly overwhelming majority said they haven't
had enough time to understand the standards, put
them into practice or share strategies with
The writers of the standards have voiced the same
concerns. William McCallum of the University of
Arizona, who co-wrote the Common Core math
standards, says, "Implementation is everything.
Preparation of teachers is crucial."
But what McCallum deems as "crucial" is being
treated as "optional" in too many systems and by
too many policymakers-including the federal
government, which is spending $350 million on new
high-stakes tests aligned to the CCSS but nothing
specifically targeted to prepare teachers.
There's a logical and effective way to turn these
standards into classroom practice and student
success. First, educators need to unpack the
standards-which means they need to fully
understand what they are. Then, as UFT president
and AFT vice president Michael Mulgrew has
repeatedly said, they need a curriculum, which
New York City just said won't be in place until
this coming September. Then, teachers need time
and support to adapt their teaching, and need try
it out in classrooms with their kids, both of
which we saw at NEST+m. Then you can see, through
a bunch of different measures, if it's working.
That's what assessment and accountability are
supposed to be. You see if the whole shebang
works, before you say it's ready for prime
But that's not what's happening. Instead, in New
York state, the assessment has been fast-tracked
before the other pieces were put in place. And
the result is this destructive anxiety that kids
and teachers have endured these past few months.
Throughout New York, students in grades 3-8 just
took math and English tests on material they may
never have even seen.
The New York City Department of Education's
recent announcement of a K-8 curriculum is
welcome, but announcing a curriculum one month
before assessments are administered begs the
question: Is this about deep learning or
And it looks like they're repeating the same
mistake for high school students. A year from
now, the Regents Exams will be aligned to the
Common Core, and there's still very little
instructional material available at the high
With the tests that students here in New York
have just taken, scores will drop-not because
there is less learning, but because the tests are
evaluating skills and content these students
haven't yet been taught.
A parent from Queens, quoted in the Daily News,
summed it up: "It's unethical to give kids a test
when you know they're going to fail." The Wall
Street Journal quoted a superintendent from Long
Island who reported that a couple of kids started
throwing up during the tests. One child went to
the bathroom and refused to leave. He said that a
number of children walked out of tests crying.
There are ads all over New York telling parents
that scores will drop, which is the responsible
thing to do, but I can't help but think that if
more time on the front end were devoted to
getting this right, they wouldn't have to spend
so much time on the back end inoculating against
And while you can argue that the drops will just
reset the baseline, that's not the case. Across
the state, scores from this spring's assessments
may be used to determine whether students advance
or are held back, to designate a school's
performance, and even to determine whether
schools stay open or shut down. And they will be
used as 20 percent of teacher evaluations.
Can you even imagine doctors being expected to
perform a new medical procedure without being
trained in it or provided the necessary
instruments-simply being told that there may be
some material on a website? Of course not, but
that's what's happening right now with the Common
The fact that the changes are being made
nationwide 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.
The AFT has tried to fill the breach, as have
others. For example, we've built a powerful
online tool to provide educators with resources
aligned to the Common Core standards. With TES
Connect, our British partner, the AFT created
Share My Lesson-a Web-based resource for teachers
to share materials with each other. I compare it
to a digital filing cabinet full of materials,
lesson plans and ideas. Some teachers have told
us that Share My Lesson is their only source for
resources to teach to the Common Core standards.
The AFT has already trained hundreds of teachers
in Common Core-aligned math and reading courses
so they can support thousands of others.
And the AFT Innovation Fund provides grants and
expert assistance for local union-led reforms-and
has made significant investments in Common Core
implementation across the country. Take, for
example, the teachers at the Edwards Middle
School in Boston, who, with the help of the
Innovation Fund, are spearheading the creation of
Common Core-aligned lessons. And in the three
months they've been on Share My Lesson, these
hugely popular resources have been downloaded
more than 28,000 times.
By the way, our members' dues support each of these efforts.
We are walking the walk. Time and again, we've
made a choice not simply to call out what doesn't
work, but to demonstrate what does. 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
I cannot say this more simply: We are committed
to the success of our students. That means
getting the transition to Common Core standards
right. That's why today I am calling for a
moratorium on the stakes associated with Common
I am proposing that states and districts work
with educators to develop clear tasks and a clear
timeline to put in place the crucial elements of
Common Core implementation. And until then, the
tests should be decoupled from decisions that
could unfairly hurt students, schools and
When scores drop as sharply as they're expected
to, it will send an inexcusable message to
parents: Your child is far from meeting the
standards. And she needs to meet the standards to
get into college. But we don't have a plan, and
nobody's accountable for getting her there.
Except for the teacher, who hasn't been trained.
And you can just imagine how that teacher feels.
New York State Education Commissioner John King
made the right choice not to do double tests-the
old and the new. But the solution isn't double
tests, or a single test that nobody's prepared
for. It's for everyone at every level-state,
district, school-to support the work of teaching
to the Common Core. When states and districts get
the alignment right-moving from standards to
curriculum to classrooms to feedback and
improvement-student success will follow.
But until then, a moratorium on stakes is the only sensible course.
Right now, somebody's probably tweeting,
"Weingarten is against accountability." Dead
wrong. We're not avoiding accountability. We're
trying to make accountability real.
Let me be clear about what this moratorium is and
isn't: We aren't saying students shouldn't be
assessed. We aren't saying teachers shouldn't be
evaluated. We're not saying that there shouldn't
be standardized tests. We're talking about a
moratorium on consequences in these transitional
It's kind of amazing that it's necessary to call
on states and districts to implement the Common
Core before making the new assessments count. But
that is what I feel compelled to do today.
Districts, states and policymakers: Administer
student assessments, perform teacher evaluations,
but use them to understand and respond to student
and teacher needs in this transition. Just like
businesses let data improve products, let the
data inform instruction and improve policy. That
way we can help teachers and students master this
new approach to teaching and learning, and not
waste time punishing people for not doing
something they haven't yet been trained or
equipped to do.
This moratorium-this transition period before
high stakes are attached to the assessments-can't
be a period of inactivity. It must be a time of
intense activity in order to properly implement
the standards. In this time period, states and
districts should put in place a high-quality
implementation plan and field testing.
An implementation plan must include curriculum,
professional development and time-but they aren't
sufficient. A high-quality implementation plan
also means involving the frontline educators who
are responsible for engaging students in critical
thinking, problem solving, teamwork and the other
skills expected in the Common Core. And 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. The only way
this will succeed is if teachers have input and
ownership. Teachers rise to the occasion. The
more input and supports they have, the more
confident they are about mastering these
Parents must be a part of this also. Schools and
districts must keep them informed and engaged.
And this transition requires dollars. A recent
study, from the Fordham Institute, estimated that
the cost of implementation could run as high as
$12 billion nationally. And let's be real: If
funds can be repurposed, great. But remember,
schools and students have already endured four
years of deep cuts to education. And this year,
funding has dropped yet again in more than half
the states. While the sequester may no longer be
causing headaches at airports, it's taking a
hatchet to education funding for poor children.
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.
Let's talk about field testing: We need to ensure
that the standards, the curriculum, the teaching
and the testing are actually aligned. Timelines
will vary, but we are calling for at least a year
to field-test a sound implementation plan.
Field testing is important any time a new process
or product is introduced. Just ask successful
businesses. For the Common Core, it would serve
as a time when teachers can give and get
feedback, share ideas, and try out methods of
teaching to the new standards in their classrooms
every single day. So if businesses field-test new
products as a matter of course, why, in
education, would we do something less, especially
with something as revolutionary as the Common
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, test-prep and paperwork.
There is still an opportunity to give teachers
and students the tools and time they need so
students can meet the new challenges and higher
expectations with confidence. New Yorkers should
insist on this, as should those in every state
that has adopted these standards.
Other states, like Kentucky, and cities, like
Cleveland are trying. In Cleveland, back in 2010,
the education community came together to jointly
develop a detailed rollout plan for the Common
Core State Standards. Their plan calls for a
three-year period to build an infrastructure for
the Common Core so that they can implement it
fully in the fourth year. It includes not just a
commitment, but concrete steps to develop
curricula and carve out time for school-based
professional development and peer support. Even
in their tough economic climate, they found funds
to make it happen.
The Common Core standards have the potential to
be a once-in-a-generation revolution in
education, and Cleveland's implementation plan
reflects that. I'm not saying its approach is
perfect for every state or district, but an
approach that has time and resources and
commitment behind it-a plan in which everyone
knows his or her part-should be the standard, not
When students complete only a small fraction of
the tasks required of them, they get a failing
grade. Yet when officials responsible for
implementing the CCSS fail to do what's required
of them, it's students, schools and teachers who
pay the price. That's wrong.
Everyone who has a responsibility for our
children's education has to take responsibility
for making sure the Common Core is supported,
implemented and then evaluated correctly. That's
what making accountability real means.
So I come back to these standards. Revolution? Or dustbin?
This is our chance to realize the purpose of
public education-to instill skills and knowledge,
a love of learning; to foster an informed and
engaged citizenry; to build a stronger nation.
This is our chance to ensure that every child can
not just read, write and compute-but think,
problem-solve, work in teams and be confident
about their place in the world. This is our
chance to reverse growing achievement gaps by
attending to the huge opportunity gaps and giving
all kids the supports they need to achieve these
This is our chance-and it must be our choice-to
get this right. Rhetoric about urgency can't
trump quality, equity and sustainability.
Part of why I've come home to New York to make
this argument is because I believe they simply
don't get it in Washington. They don't
understand-as I believe you do-that if we fail to
get this right, your mission of a better New York
and our shared mission of a better America will
be that much harder to achieve.
If we're able to step on the accelerator of
high-quality implementation and put the brakes on
the stakes, we can take advantage of this
opportunity and guarantee that deeper and more
rigorous standards will help lead to higher
achievement for all our children.
TAKE ACTION: Tell U.S. Secretary of Education,
Arne Duncan, and your state commission of
education to support a moratorium on high stakes
connected to Common Core assessments --
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244