-- Tuesday, April 30, 2013.
Making Common Core Standards Work before Making Them
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
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
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 lifelong
We've done these things because our goal is to make sure every child
can get a great public education.
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
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
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 blueŠ"
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
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 the rule.
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
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 colleagues.
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. Š
Preparation of teachers Š 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
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 desperate cramming?
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 school level.
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
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 the results.
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 Core.
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
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 us.
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 Core assessments.
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 teachers.
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
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 years.
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
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 Core?
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 the exception.
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 goals.
This is our chance-and it must be our choice-to get this right.
Rhetoric about urgency can't trump quality, equity and
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
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