Is Common Core in trouble?

A Global Studies class of 10th and 11th graders work at Bedford Academy High School on Dec. 3, 2013 in New York City.
A Global Studies class of 10th and 11th graders work at Bedford Academy High School on Dec. 3, 2013 in New York City.

The rollout of the new Common Core academic standards has hit a major roadblock, as one of the most powerful state teachers unions in the country rebuked its "failed implementation." 

This latest snag to one of the Obama administrations favored programs comes not from any of the reliably contentious red-states, but in the heart of the blue Northeast, where the New York State United Teachers union has called for "major course correction" to the state’s Common Core plan.

"Educators understand that introducing new standards, appropriate curriculum and meaningful assessments are ongoing aspects of a robust educational system,” NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi said in a statement on Saturday, after the union’s board of directors voted unanimously to approve a resolution withdrawing its support. “These are complex tasks made even more complex when attempted during a time of devastating budget cuts. [The education department’s] implementation plan in New York state has failed.”

The union also called for a three-year moratorium on what it described as the high-stakes consequences from standardized testing and unanimously gave state education commissioner John King Jr. a vote of no-confidence.The pronouncement by the powerful NYSUT, which represents more than 600,000 educators, comes at a critical time in the broader debate over the new standards as individual states struggle to implement them and a cacophony of support and opposition grows louder. The states that have voluntarily adopted the Core— 45 and the District of Columbia— are busy with the groundwork of rolling out and implementing the new standards and wrestling with how best to assess student learning under the new benchmarks.

“I think that politically this is a big blow to the standards movement because every critique of the movement creates more momentum for the different forces on both the right and the left that are trying to change the conversation away from this movement,” Jonathan Supovitz, co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, said of the union’s resolution. “Without a doubt this gives fodder to those that oppose these standards.”

“ I don’t see this as a tide-turner," Supovitz said, "but it is definitely a rock that’s getting in the way of the tide.”

The Common Core, short for the Common Core State Standards Initiative, is meant to pull together the educational standards set by individual states into a consunsus about skills each American student should have. It is not a curriculum. Schools and teachers can develop their own instruction to get their students to meet the set standards in Math and Language Arts.

The arithmetic of the plan was already complicated.

Five states--Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia--have not adopted the Core standards.

Opponents of Common Core and conservative groups have complained that the new standards, developed by the non-partisan Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, is a federal imposition into state education, as the Obama administration has used a combination of financial incentives and No Child Left Behind waivers to encourage state participation. Parent groups have complained of over-testing and teachers are concerned with how closely test scores will be tied to teacher evaluations.

More recently, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sparked further backlash when he said much of the ado over the new standards was being drummed up by “white suburban moms who, all of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

“You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut,” Duncan said in November.

Duncan later apologized, calling his wording “clumsy.”

Education analysts say the preparations for the Core’s official rollout in the coming years have been even clumsier, with states still figuring out how to test students on what they should know under the new standards. Some have expressed concerns over the costs of new exams while others have reneged on earlier plans to use exams funded through federal grants.

The stakes could hardly be higher.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 85% of American students live in the 45 states that are implementing the Common Core. The real test for how states' departments of education hold up under the new standards will come in the spring when more than 4 million students will begin taking tests drawn from the Core expectations.

“How smoothly that goes will be a big bellwether,” said Supovitz.  “That will be a dry run.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who has supported tougher standards, called New York’s implementation of the Common Core the “most botched” in the country and said the New York case  “can serve as a cautionary tale for policymakers in other states.”

"Here's the lesson to be learned from New York: policymakers, listen to the voices of those closest to the classroom. Enable educators, with the proper resources and supports, to make the transition to focusing on the critical-thinking skills that underlie these standards,” Weingarten said. “Be willing to do as California policymakers did and de-link the standards from the tests."

It's unclear how much effect the New York union's criticism will have; the group's opposition is focused less on the actual Common Core standards than that lack of resources that teachers have been given to implement them.

Supovitz said that perhaps the pushback by the union could bring about “a more reasonable pace that allows for a more methodical implementation” of the Core standards.

“I think this is more of a, slow down you’re moving too fast, than it is a disagreement with the direction you’re going,” Supovitz said. “One of the things that we learned from No Child Left Behind, is that when you push too hard, too fast with accountability, the accountability system overtakes everything else.”

Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the co-developer of the new standards, said that educators in states across the country have the same concerns of those in New York.

“My sense is that teachers aren’t really challenging the idea of having standards, they are more concerned with the supports they are given,” Minnich said. “As states we need to support them. In the large majority of states, we are seeing these states [responding] in a positive way.”

According to a recent study by Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped to fund the development of the Common Core, 77% of teachers who teach math and language arts believe the standards will have a positive impact on students.

Minnich said that he believes the teachers unions may be concerned about how the teacher evaluation system is being implemented and tied to the new standards.

“That has nothing to do with the standards, but it’s all being tied into one conversation in order to get some attention,” Minnich said. “Across the country, the teachers that I have spoken to really believe in these standards. That includes teachers in New York.”