Policy & Assessment | News

NY Teachers: Put Common Core on Hiatus

This weekend's decision by the board of the New York State teachers union to demand that the state pull out of the upcoming Common Core tests — at least for a while — may start a domino effect across the country, emboldening teachers in other states to push back against the new assessments. Already, the National Education Association has publicly voiced its support for the vote of "no confidence" given in New York. The showdown comes at the same time that the state is hammering out a new budget that calls for a 3.8 percent increase in spending on education, which NYSUT has called "woefully inadequate."

The fireworks began Saturday when the New York State United Teachers' (NYSUT) board of directors, which represents 600,000 teachers in the state, unanimously approved a resolution declaring "no confidence" in the policies of the New York State Education Department and its head, Commissioner John King Jr. The board also withdrew its support for the Common Core standards as adopted by the state until the education board "makes major course corrections to its failed implementation plan" and agrees to a three-year moratorium on "high-stakes consequences" from standardized testing.

Along with the Common Core action, the board has also asked the Board of Regents in New York for the removal of King from his position.

New York, which is a member of PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, pursued an accelerated timeline for adoption of the new state standards. Starting in the 2012-2013 school year, all English language arts and math instruction (with the exception of grades 9 through 12) was to be aligned with the Common Core.

To support that expectation, the state provided curriculum modules and lessons in both sets of subjects that could be adopted or adapted by districts and schools. However, work on the curriculum was seemingly one step ahead of the standards themselves. During summer 2013, the department posted modules that hadn't been completed in time for the 2012-2013 school year for the upcoming semester; modules for the second semester were made available in the winter just before that that semester began.

On top of that, the state began the work of handing out Race to the Top funding to local education agencies and their partners to implement and enhance systems that would help with recruiting, training and rewarding teachers and school leaders who showed particular standards of effectiveness in schools in economically disadvantaged areas. The new work was to be tied to New York's Annual Professional Performance Review system.

In other words, a lot of change was afoot — perhaps too much, by the standards of the teachers union.

"The clock is ticking and time is running out," said to NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "Students sit for a new battery of state assessments in just a few months. It's time to hit the 'pause button' on high stakes while, at the same time, increasing support for students, parents and educators. A moratorium on high-stakes consequences would give SED and school districts time to make the necessary adjustments."

According to Neira, the union has been sounding "warning bells" for several years about the over-emphasis on standardized testing and the state's "rushed and unrealistic timeline" for introducing curriculum and assessments tied to the Common Core state standards. 

The union is seeking:

  • The release of all test questions, so teachers can use them in improving instruction;
  • More education funding from the state;
  • More time for educators to review the modules and lessons that align with the standards;
  • Additional tools, professional development and resources for teachers to address the needs of all of their learners, including those with disabilities and those who are English language learners;
  • Postponement of a graduation exit exam based on the Common Core;
  • A delay or "a moratorium" on "high-stakes consequences" for students and teachers to give participants more time to "correctly implement" the Common Core; and
  • Better forums to engage parents on the issue of standardized testing.

The NEA stands behind the NYSUT board vote. In a statement, President Dennis Van Roekel said that although the Common Core provides "real opportunities" for students, "we owe it to them to provide teachers with the time, tools, and resources to get it right. Educators in New York were given no choice but to make a strong statement against the inadequate implementation of the standards. Teachers, administrators, parents and communities must work together to align the standards with curriculum, instruction and assessment, and this isn't being done in New York."

Van Roekel pointed to Kentucky and California as state role models, "where educators and parents were involved in crafting the implementation plan from the beginning." California recently eliminated state testing in schools for a year in order to give additional time to educators to put the Common Core standards into practice.

An NEA poll in fall 2013 found that only four in 10 teachers said they were participating in the implementation of standards within their schools.

The smaller American Federation of Teachers (AFT) took a more circumspect stance regarding NYSUT's decision. While agreeing that there are problems with the rollout of the Common Core in some states and districts, AFT also emphasized that the new standards are not to blame for many of the challenges faced by education today.

"Policymakers are confusing the standards with the tests that measure whether students are progressing toward them. In places like New York state, this public policy is the equivalent of pulling the carrot out of the soil to see if it's growing — hurting, not helping, the carrot in the process — when you can already tell from what you can see above ground that it's not ready to be harvested," wrote Marla Ucelli-Kashyap, assistant to the AFT president for educational issues. "Standards, implemented well, are the antithesis of the factory model of education that has helped make access to high-quality instruction into a ZIP code-based lottery. The Common Core provides a chance to break that downward spiral, starting in the place it matters most: the classroom."

What's needed, Ucelli-Kashyap wrote, is "sound policymaking that listens to the informed voices of educators; time and support for professional learning and collaboration to put standards into practice; a moratorium on the consequences of testing until educators and students have made the transition; and alliances with community partners to ensure that education policy and practice aligns with a shared vision of equitable and engaging public education."

The budget put forward by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo calls for an increase in education spending of $807 million for a total of $21.9 billion. However, NYSUT insisted that 70 percent of the state's school districts are operating with less state aid than in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, and that total formula aid in the proposed budget is nearly $300 million less than five years ago.

Next, the NYSUT resolution will go to 2,000 delegates at a union representative assembly, being held April 4-6 in New York. The same resolution calls for an end to New York State's use of InBloom, a set of free cloud-based tools that allow teachers and principals to improve management of student data. InBloom was created by a non-profit organization with the same name and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corp.

Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original publication to correct a factual error. We previously stated (in the last paragraph) that inBloom is funded by the Dell Foundation. That is inaccurate, and the information has been corrected. Last modified Feb. 12, 2014, 3:12 p.m. —D.N.

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