When the late Albert Shanker was president of the American Federation of Teachers, he was a strong advocate of national standards for what students should know and be able to do. Other high-achieving countries articulate desired destinations for students, he said, and it makes little sense to have 50 different state targets. “Should children in Alabama learn a different kind of math or science from children in New York?” he asked.
Shanker, who died in 1997, never saw national standards, as a coalition of testing opponents on the left and opponents of federal leadership on the right stymied advances. National standards also were the victim of poor implementation. An early stab at national history standards, released in October 1994, were widely decried for their political bias, and resulted in a 99–1 vote of condemnation in the U.S. Senate.
In more recent years, advocates of common standards have been much smarter. The Common Core State Standards grew out of state leadership from the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They focused on mathematics and English language arts. And federal Race to the Top dollars helped make the unthinkable possible, encouraging 45 states and the District of Columbia to adopt the Common Core over opposition from elements of the political left and right. The Common Core standards are not perfect—even the Fordham Foundation’s Chester Finn, a strong supporter, says about one-quarter of students in America will be worse off under the Common Core than under current state standards. But the Common Core has been widely seen as an important step in the right direction for most students.
Now, however, the consensus is starting to unravel. On the right, the Republican National Committee recently called the Common Core “a nationwide straightjacket on academic freedom and achievement.” Bills to repeal the common core have been offered in a number of conservative states, according to an article by the Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton. At the same time, as challenging new tests linked to the Common Core were rolled out in New York, some teachers have begun voicing concern that they and their students are being held accountable without adequate time to prepare. Education historian Diane Ravitch recently declared she could not support the Common Core because it is likely to result in high student failure rates—feeding privatization efforts—and because it has not been properly field-tested.
Is there a way out for those of us who strongly support high-quality common standards (and don’t want to go back to 50 state standards) yet worry that rushed implementation could lead to a backlash and undermine the entire effort?
Earlier today, AFT president Randi Weingarten’s laid out a thoughtful response to the conundrum in an important speech to the Association for a Better New York, entitled, “Making Common Core Standards Work Before Making Them Count.” Weingarten reiterated her strong support for the Common Core but then gave voice to the concerns of New York City teachers who feel unprepared for a much tougher set of standards and tests. In language reminiscent of that used by Shanker, Weingarten asked, “Can you imagine doctors being expected to perform a new medical procedure without being trained in it or provided the necessary instruments—simply being told there may be some material on a website? Of course not, but that’s what’s happening right now with the Common Core.”
To balance these concerns, she called for “a moratorium on the stakes associated with Common Core assessments.” She continued: “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.”
Weingarten’s call for a moratorium on consequences parallels the proposal advanced recently by Joshua Starr, the thoughtful superintendent of Montgomery County, Maryland public schools, for a three-year moratorium on federally-required standardized testing. Starr suggested, “A moratorium on standardized tests would give our school systems the ability to implement the Common Core with fidelity. It would also give the groups developing assessments aligned to the Common Core the time they need to get it right.”
Importantly, Weingarten and Starr are not saying no to common standards; they are not saying no to all tests, or no to consequences. They are saying teachers and administrators need time to adjust to the new standards.
Some critics will no doubt see these proposals as undermining the Common Core. But the history of the standards movement suggests nothing will undermine it more quickly than getting the implementation wrong. The politics of common standards, going back to Al Shanker, have always been difficult, and the backers of the Common Core have brilliantly navigated this difficult terrain to date. To continue that success, supporters should take a sensible pause to address legitimate concerns about implementation, and then get on with the business of implementing an important educational reform.
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