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Teachers Union's Mixed Messages On Common Core Shows Weakness in Political Agenda

Teachers Union's Mixed Messages On Common Core Shows Weakness in Political Agenda

Though the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) received millions of dollars in funding from the private Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the development of the Common Core standards, the union will begin its annual convention in Los Angeles Friday with the announcement that it will award grants to assess the standards and write others to replace them.

That announcement comes as another resolution drafted by the AFT executive council–while not critical of the Common Core standards themselves–states the initiative has actually been the victim of political corruption, bureaucratic mismanagement, corporate cronyism, and “an invalid scoring system designed to ensure huge numbers of kids fail the new math and language arts exams that will be rolled out next spring,” says Politico‘s Stephanie Simon.

Despite the fact that the union has given much support to both the Obama presidential campaigns, AFT president Randi Weingarten is expected to be critical during the convention of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has been supportive of charter schools and applauded a recent court ruling that struck down teacher tenure in California.

Weingarten is expected to tell her teacher members that Duncan has not lived up to his promises to them, however, just days after she stood beside the education secretary as he endorsed his department’s new Excellent Educators for All Initiative, for which he will unilaterally offer funding to states and school districts who support experienced, high quality teachers for low-income and minority students in public schools.

In June of 2012, the AFT received $4.4 million from the Gates Foundation, the primary source of private funding for the development and implementation of the Common Core standards, “to support the AFT Innovation Fund and work on teachers development and Common Core State Standards.” Now, as Politico notes, the grants to “rewrite” the standards will come from the same fund:

In an ironic twist, the grant money will come from the AFT’s Innovation Fund, which until recently was supported by the Gates Foundation. Weingarten bowed to members’ anger at Bill Gates earlier this year and stopped accepting his foundation’s money for the Innovation Fund. The fund is now replenished with member dues and grants from the Ford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies, AFT officials said.

It is unclear, however, how grantees will in fact be legally able to “rewrite” the Common Core since the standards are the intellectual property of both the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The AFT has called for a delay on the use of student scores on the assessments aligned with the controversial standards to help determine teachers’ performance evaluations. Perhaps in an admission that the Common Core initiative is in serious trouble with teachers unions, the Gates Foundation itself last month announced it was also urging a moratorium on the high-stakes Common Core-aligned testing decisions tied to teacher evaluations and student promotions for two years.

These announcements come along with a vote this month by the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association (NEA), demanding the resignation of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, one by the Chicago Teachers Union, which has completely denounced the Common Core, and continued condemnation of the Common Core by the Badass Teachers Association, representing thousands of NEA and AFT members who demand their unions take a stand against the controversial education initiative. All these events strongly suggest that the nationalized standards are in deep jeopardy with the original primary stakeholders who also received Gates Foundation funding.

“In both the NEA and the AFT, the leadership made the decision to allow the frustration that some of the rank and filers are feeling to spill out into the open,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, which has backed Duncan. “They must be making the calculation that the frustration itself is going to be something that helps them advance a political agenda.”

Ironically, the AFT is asking its teacher members for a hike in their union dues to support further aggressive political activism, now apparently to combat some of the very issues it has supported.

According to Politico, Common Core supporters have expressed concern that the ensuing AFT debate about the standards will increase anti-Common Core sentiment–already prevalent in many states and local school districts in the nation, particularly among grassroots parent groups–for an initiative that has become one of the Obama administration’s key education priorities.

“If they continue to speak positively for the standards, that’s a positive,” said Michael Brickman, national director for the pro-Common Core and Gates- funded Fordham Institute, who added he hoped AFT leaders would minimize their anti-Common Core rhetoric.

Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford who was education advisor to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and now is involved in the development of assessments for the Common Core standards, said of the recent blow to Common Core at the hands of the AFT, “It certainly is a big, loud warning shot.”

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