Common Core: Teachers’ Unions Think Again

In recent days, there has been a spate of news stories reporting that the nation’s teachers’ unions are having second thoughts about the Common Core State Standards — which seek to set nationwide standards for what K–12 students should learn in each grade in math and in English-language arts.

The two major unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, were among the broad array of organizations that endorsed Common Core in 2009, when it was just words on paper. However, as rubber has met road with Common Core implementation, the unions have had second thoughts.

Last week, Politico’s Stephanie Simon reported: “The nation’s largest teachers union is pulling back on its once-enthusiastic support of the Common Core academic standards, labeling their rollout ‘completely botched.’” In a letter to his membership, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel wrote, “NEA members have a right to feel frustrated, upset and angry about the poor commitment to implementing the standards correctly.” Van Roekel said that it would be easy to just oppose Common Core, but that the NEA is not ready to take that route. Meanwhile, the New York State United Teachers (an AFT affiliate) won a multi-year delay in the implementation of consequences attached to the forthcoming Common Core tests. And last November, AFT President Randi Weingarten said, “You think Obamacare is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.”

What should we make of all this? Four things, really.

First, it’s important to understand that Common Core has been pursued on a political timeframe, not an educational one. Whatever the technical merits of the standards themselves, the timeline for adoption and implementation has been driven by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program and its approach to No Child Left Behind waivers. Nearly all the states committed to a federal timeline in order to compete for federal Race to the Top funds and to get out from under NCLB’s most onerous provisions.

Second, while the union backlash has apparently surprised some observers, it really shouldn’t have. As my colleague Mike McShane and I noted last fall in our book Common Core Meets Education Reform, support for Common Core was always a mile wide and an inch deep (and that “mile wide” was greatly aided by federal inducements that encouraged folks to embrace Common Core no matter how lukewarm their enthusiasm). As Common Core shifted from an amorphous commitment to “higher standards” into something that affected classrooms, instruction, homework, and teacher evaluation, we predicted, support would narrow and opposition would increase.

Third, teacher support for Common Core has always been about the allure of instruction. Teachers and teachers’-union leaders like the fact that it will be easier to share curricula and lesson plans, that materials and tests will be portable across state lines, and that they’ll have a more common professional language. And many regard the standards as clearer or more coherent than their state’s old standards. This doesn’t mean, though, that they’ve ever supported the actual tests, the particular materials that would be introduced, the specific recommendations for classroom instruction, or the use of the resulting test results for school accountability or teacher evaluation.

Finally, there’s the question of how conservative critics of Common Core will respond to these new developments. One response might be bemusement — a calculation that the unions helped make their bed and now must lie in it. But a more productive response is to recognize that the unions are frustrated by the same things that have frustrated conservative school reformers in recent years — the eagerness of the Obama administration to impose its particular school-reform agenda on states, as rapidly as possible and by whatever means necessary. The backlash is the product of the kind of compliance-driven silliness that results when well-intentioned progressives in Washington, in foundations, and in national advocacy groups rush to force schools and states to adopt their pet reforms.

The danger with the sweeping ambition of technocratic reformers is something that conservatives have long recognized. If the teachers’ unions now see it too, so much the better.

-Rick Hess

This first appeared on National Review Online.

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