Opinion

NY’s Common Core ‘Review’ May Pacify Opt-Outers, But War With Teachers Looms

By Derrell Bradford | October 14, 2015

A successful negotiation requires two things: realism and knowing what you can’t give up.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the members of his Common Core Task Force should have a healthy dose of the former while getting very, very clear on the latter, if they want their review of the state’s Common Core implementation to be a successful one.
New York is actually pretty far down the line on the Common Core, having already given two rounds of state assessments linked to these standards. And though the raising of standards came with plummeting scores, New York has also not backed away from the results compared to other states. Closing the honesty gap about student achievement was always a goal here as well.
But applying the standards and the tests that go along with them has not happened without consternation. New York’s opt-out revolt is probably the best expression of this. Last year, at the behest of folks such as Karen Magee, head of the New York State United Teachers who robo-called families asking them to opt out of state tests, almost 200,000 students did.
Some parents genuinely want the chance to discuss the standards with those they consider in power
No one wants to see this number increase, least of all those of us who care about equity in our schools. And it’s precisely because of this that Cuomo and the task force should be clear on two things: that the review process won’t stop opt-out, and that they cannot lower the standards overall.
Here’s the realism. The standards review will not actively stop the anti-test movement, though it will hopefully slow its growth, given that some parents genuinely want the chance to discuss the standards with those they consider in power. This is not offered glibly. It never hurts to talk, and formalizing the conversation around Common Core implementation is a thoughtful step.
But the reason it won’t stop opt-out is simple.
NYSUT, in particular, is opposed to the standards, not for what they are (United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, in his own combative way, has actually championed the standards), but for the consequences that come with them. The identification of chronically underperforming schools, and the evaluation of teachers, both depend in part on results from tests that are linked to the more rigorous standards. Those are two major pillars of Gov. Cuomo’s education agenda. They are also the two pillars that are most disruptive to NYSUT’s existence.
To be clear, NYSUT isn’t a bloc — as folks like Educators for Excellence are proving about teachers unions in general—but its leadership is pretty assertive about two things. That if there are underperforming schools in New York, it’s for reasons beyond their control. And teachers cannot be judged by how their students perform on state tests — that is, unless the results are good.
Accountability, driven in part by test scores, is at some level about bright lines of difference and subtle assertions of reality. It makes sense that some teachers are better at closing achievement gaps than others. But when your business, like NYSUT’s, is about protecting all teachers, instead of just great teachers, evaluating people based on performance will always be a non-starter.
Teacher unions, and school districts, are also in a monopoly business. Which is to say they are organized around residential boundaries that mean your zip code determines where you go to school. When test scores are bad, policymakers and parents want to break out with things like charter schools or tax credits that let parents choose schools to which they otherwise would not have access. If enough kids leave a school, the school may have to downsize (which raises a different set of policy issues).
It’s counterintuitive but in a world with no consequences, we’d likely find NYSUT and its allies on the same side as reformers, stumping for higher standards and more information so there can be more improvement. Where we differ now is in using this information to make decisions about people and choices provided to families. Having the information alone is insufficient. Not acting at all is unacceptable.
Now for what the governor and the task force can’t give up. Though some change may be offered to New York’s take on the Common Core standards, the standards themselves can’t be lowered. A lowering of the standards gets you nothing. It will also blow up the evaluation framework for schools and teachers that Cuomo has fought for, and it will undercut a profound discussion about student achievement across the state — particularly in our cities (where it’s worth noting almost no one opts out).
Standards are a matter of fairness, and a necessary precondition for creativity. And for an example of this we can look to the NFL. On Sundays, all teams go out to play on fields that are 100 yards long. The teams all have the same amount of players. And the rules are the same for everyone (except Tom Brady). Given these standards, the games and the results are surprisingly creative and uncertain.
But what if some fields were 50 yards long and the hashmarks unequal? What if the field in some cities was twice as wide as in others? You could call a sport like this a lot of things, but you couldn’t say it’s football.
When standards aren’t consistent (and expectations aren’t high), you can call it lots of things too, but you can’t call it education.
And low, fuzzy standards penalize the kids with the least social capital the most.
While a parent in Westchester may balk at higher standards (and assessments) because their child will be “fine” given their ample head start in life, in communities that are plagued by underperforming schools this uncertainty is exactly what is not needed.
Indeed, a system where no one was sure about what any child learned is precisely what standards, assessments, choice and accountability were meant to upend. And in a world where the subjectivity of lowered expectations assaults kids of color — and black boys in particular — how is anyone better off with lower standards and less information about them?
The governor’s task force members, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia (also a task force member) and Cuomo himself have their work cut out for them. And they should “keep it real” during the process. The review is worthwhile but won’t sway NYSUT. And lowering standards is a mistake that would only hurt the kids who need good schools the most.
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