Common Core: Growing Fracture Between Teachers' Unions and State School Chiefs

Common Core: Growing Fracture Between Teachers' Unions and State School Chiefs

An elite Washington education policy group has conducted an anonymous survey of influential education insiders to provide strategic support to stakeholders in the current Common Core debate.

Whiteboard Advisors state their April 2014 survey contains the views of unidentified education policy “insiders,” including:

  • Current and former White House and U.S. Department of Education leaders;
  • Current and former Congressional staff;
  • State education leaders, including state school chiefs and former governors; and
  • Leaders of major education organizations, think tanks, and other key influentials

In the group’s publication, titled Education Insider: Gainful Employment Regulation, Race To The Top Standings, Bobby Scott Leadership Implications, Chiefs v. Unions, Whiteboard Advisors asked their education insiders the following question:

During the recent CCSSO [Council of Chief State School Officers] annual legislative conference, leaders of the AFT [American Federation of Teachers] and NEA [National Education Association] argued with state chiefs over the public perception and implementation of the Common Core. Massachusetts Commissioner Mitchell Chester stated that the two unions seemed to be “condoning” the behavior of Common Core opponents “at the peril” of teachers who are moving things ahead. Why the shift in tone toward the unions now?

Historically, the CCSSO, along with the National Governor’s Association (NGA) and nonprofit progressive education company Achieve Inc., developed the Common Core standards. The CCSSO and the NGA own the copyrights to the standards.

The insiders’ responses to the Whiteboard Advisors’ question are below:

  • “There was no shift.”
  • “I think everyone is cooling on Common Core.”
  • “The unions came out against the Common Core in a pretty unhelpful way asking to delay implementation and punt on accountability. This question is too leading a question.”
  • “Extensive union survey research indicates that the CCSS are losing support of rank and file teachers. The unions support the CCSS and believe that poor implementation is putting them in jeopardy.”
  • “There’s no right or wrong here. The unions need to play a more constructive role in helping ensure teachers are well prepared to teach to CCSS vs. play the ‘alarmist’ role. On the other hand, the chiefs and the agencies they run have a long history of lacking capacity and an inability to help districts transform practice. But, they must first create a policy structure that looks a lot differently than it does today.”
  • “Accountability (at a school and teacher level) is starting to get real.”
  • [sic] The reform community made the mistake of thinking “this time” the unions would be different. So Foundations gave them money. Duncan met with them monthly and also tilted RTT [Race to the Top] scoring to states that secured union support. They were involved in the drafting and validation of Common Core. But they were never serious about support. Their playbook is to call for pauses, delays, and other tactics to run out the clock. They would rather criticize implementation than help.”
  • “If the unions don’t want any accountability, what better way to reduce or remove it than to use Common Core implementation as an opportunity to get rid of teacher evaluations. Moratoriums are a slippery slope and can (and in some cases quite possibly will) be extended indefinitely. [sic]
  • “Because people in leadership roles are long-time teachers who fear evaluations and consequences.”
  • “It’s not the unions themselves–it’s their leaders. CCSSO has been forced to address the increasing strident rhetoric used by union leadership who are looking for scapegoats if this all goes wrong.”
  • “Do you really have to ask? As with all major reforms, including especially NCLB, the unions take the money, sorta acquiesce to the policy, wait to see if there’s any enduring power in the reform, and then pounce to kill it if it ever pinches or requires change or improvement. All this moaning of “needed time,” “needed resources,” “poor implementation,” etc. is just part of an old script that gets read out and sold with the tens of millions of dollars these people spend to hoodwink the public to their side. All these policies could be made to work well if these educrats wanted to do so and had the good will to do so. They don’t; the public isn’t engaged; and we are headed backwards, not forward.”
  • “As they head into their respective national conventions, both organizations face (a) authentic grass roots pressure and (b) real, but organizational political dynamics. They are contending with these factors in very distinctive fashions, and it is easy to blur the differences as a ‘shared resistance’ because it is having that consequence in the states. Careful observation would see two very different political responses to similar rank and file objections.”
  • “Because the unions, for largely internal political reasons, are backing away from their previous support.”
  • “Because the stakes are too high for these games, it’s a once in a generation window and they won’t lead. [Randi] Weingarten has overplayed her hand and people are fed up. Chester was delivering that message. There are two tracks here, the AFT and NEA messaging of how they really just want what’s best for kids, on panels they pay to participate on at various DC events and then the reality of what their locals are doing (with their blessing and often encouragement). Usually they get a pass on that but there is a lot riding on Common Core so expect to see more of this.”
  • “It was always going to be like this. The unions like the standards in concept, not practice. As the implementation comes on line and assessment gets closer, they begin the ‘not enough time, not enough money’ argument and folks are pushing back. Only surprise this year is that folks seem surprised.”
  • “When NYSUT made Common Core (CC) support a ‘bargaining chip’ in NY, they lost the chiefs’ support. When the NEA piled on with ill-thought-out comments about the CC, that made it ‘unions vs. CC’ and the chiefs are mad.”
  • “I think those exchanges were probably overblown and I’m not sure there is really a purposeful shift in tone toward the unions. I think some state chiefs’ frustration at Common Core opposition just bubbled over during that exchange. Throughout Common Core’s creation, adoption, and implementation, too many state chiefs have ignored the need to explain what they’re doing and why and have treated Common Core concerns as illegitimate.”
  • “Because legitimate opposition must be crushed at all costs lest the facade of common core awesomeness be brought to light. Have you seen The Wizard of Oz? Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, respect the awe inspiring common core. It will solve all ills, make our schools better, our teachers younger, and our parents wiser.”
  • “They have nothing to lose. The unions are trying to play both sides, saying they support CCSS in general but oppose their implementation now. One can’t have it both ways. The unions can’t have it all.”
  • “They [unions] are a lost cause and finally showing their true colors.”

The above education insiders’ insights illustrate several particularly noteworthy observations about what may be viewed as an apparent fracture in the relationship between two major stakeholders in the Common Core debate – the CCSSO and the national teachers’ unions.

The most significant of these insights are: a general distrust of the two national teachers unions and, specifically, their true motives in the Common Core debate; a suggestion that U.S. Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan may have skewed Race to the Top (RttT) funding toward states in which union support of Common Core was thought to be high; and the questionable decisions by the CCSSO to ignore the need for transparency and dismiss concerns about the Common Core standards as illegitimate.