Until now, teachers have helped protect Common Core State Standards against those who want to bury them. Yet if teachers don't get more support for teaching those standards--and soon--it might be teachers who gladly sound the death knell. If so, Common Core would be the latest forward-looking reform to founder on bad implementation. Yet again, it is our children who would suffer most.
New York State provides an object lesson in what happens when teachers lack the time and tools to adjust to a change as dramatic as Common Core. The state teachers union stridently withdrew its support from the standards, doing more to unsettle them than right wing activists ever could. Why? Union leaders claim teachers did not receive teaching materials or have time to develop and refine new lessons before their students had to take tougher state tests keyed to the new standards in late spring of 2013. When the state persisted with plans to evaluate teachers using results on state tests that the students failed in unprecedented numbers, teachers revolted.
Federal government data lend support to New York union leaders' story. Since 2009, The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has asked teachers how many resources they have to teach their subjects. Between March 2011 and March 2013, the percentage of New York 8th graders whose teachers said they had "all" or "most" of the resources they needed to teach math plummeted by a jaw-dropping 24 points to just 58 percent.
What happened in New York may well unfold in other states that have yet to test students' mastery of the Common Core. Between 2011 and 2013, the number of students whose math teachers had the resources they needed fell in thirty-nine states and rose in only 11, according to NAEP. Declines were especially stark in Wisconsin (27 points), North Carolina (23 points), Nevada (19 points), and Michigan (15 points).
This is partly inevitable. In most states, Common Core Standards are a big departure from current practice. They do more to emphasize critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills, which are difficult to teach. A recent study by the Thomas B Fordham Institute found that even advanced districts are having trouble keeping up with the demand for new curriculum, new teaching materials, and better professional development for teachers. Add new tests and strict new teacher evaluation policies to the mix, and we may see teachers turn against the standards en masse. And who could blame them?
New York does offer some positive lessons, too. Stung by teachers' reactions, officials in that state are easing off on plans to hold teachers accountable for improving student results on the new tests--at least for now. Other states would do well to follow suit.
By waiting a year or two before using student performance on tests to evaluate teachers and schools, states would buy themselves, their districts, and their schools critical time to create better curriculum, better teaching materials, and better professional development. They would also give teachers more time to road test the standards and learn what teaching strategies best help their students.
In the meantime, state officials should offer clearer reports on their progress in implementing the standards. In surveys of what the 45 states that adopted the Common Core standards are doing to implement them, states have opted to remain anonymous or not to respond at all. That breeds distrust of the states and it makes it harder for Common Core supporters to offer help where it is most needed.
Teachers are among the best advocates for Common Core, because they are in every community across the country. Yet they could also be the most effective opponents for the very same reason. Because they know what a 21st century education should look like, a large majority still supports the standards, even amidst all the noise created by legislators, political activists, and conspiracy theorists who want to undo them. We cannot afford to squander this support.