Teachers Union Pulls Full-Throated Support for Common Core

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After years of battling conservative groups opposed to Common Core, supporters of the testing standards discovered Friday morning that one of their most avid allies, the American Federation of Teachers, is bailing on them too. Et tu, Brutus?

At its annual convention Friday in Los Angeles, AFT president Randi Weingarten is expected to announce that the union will underwrite $20,000 to $30,000 grants for teachers’ projects designed to rewrite and improve the Common Core standards, according to a press release.

While AFT stops short of outright opposing the Common Core, Weingarten has said that that option is not off the table. An hour-long open debate on Common Core is planned for the last day of the convention on Sunday, which could lead to a vote condemning the Common Core in its entirety. Some of AFT’s local chapters, including Chicago, have called for the union to end its support for Common Core entirely.

The AFT’s decision to distance itself from its once-avid support for the Common Core marks a major—and, some say, even potentially lethal—blow to the standards, which the White House has emphasized as its key priority in education.

The real danger is not that the Common Core will be thrown out entirely, but that state policy directors in charge of implementing the standards will be cowed by what they see as a groundswell of anger from teachers, said Michael Brickman, the national policy director at Fordham Institute, which supports the standards. If states choose not to tie the Common Core to teacher and students evaluations, all is lost, he said.

“It’s one thing to have really great standards on paper, but if they’re not tied to anything meaningful in terms of accountability, not a lot is going to improve,” he said.

Backers of Common Core at both the state and federal level have pointed at union support for the standards as validation for the policy. It’s too early to tell whether state policy makers will see the AFT’s withdrawal of support as a reflection of most teachers’ opinions, or of public opinion writ large.

“We do know that it’s a significant shift,” said Amy Hyslop, a policy analyst at New America Foundation who works on Common Core. “The AFT has objected to using the tests for evaluations, but this is first time they’ve been critical of the standards themselves.”

The AFT’s move comes less than two months after the National Education Association, the nation’s biggest teachers union, voted to demand the resignation of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. AFT has not yet considered joining NEA’s call for Duncan’s ouster, but say it’s not out of the cards.

The teachers unions, which strongly supported Obama’s election and once avidly backed the Common Core standards, have been increasingly disillusioned with the administration for years.

Their discontent is fueled in part by what many see as the herky-jerky implementation of Common Core so far. In some schools, teachers were asked to administer Common Core exams before they’d been given textbooks indicating what would be tested.

The unions have also criticized the standards for being too hard, rewarding a small number of “profiteering” companies that make the tests and books, and bringing punitive repercussions for both teachers and students. In many states, teachers’ performance evaluations and whether students are allowed to advance to the next grade level are tied to Common Core test scores.

In some ways, AFT’s announcement seems a long time coming. In April last year, AFT called for a moratorium on using Common Core test scores to judge teachers’ performances and determine whether students should be held back a grade level. In January, the New York state teachers union withdrew its support for the standards, citing major problems with implementation.

Weingarten, who has been a long-time public supporter the Common Core, has made a point in recent months of actively publicizing her members’ discontent over the program.

Brickman, and other education analysts, say the unions’ waning support is probably tied to the fact that they have faced several significant political blows this year. Last month, a California court ruled against tenure and other job protections. Two former Obama spokesmen have also launched a public relations campaign linking tenure with a failure of school reform. Under fire from both conservatives and Democrats, unions may be taking a defensive stance. “I think what they’re doing here is circling the wagons, going back to their bread and butter,” said Brickman.

Other analysts think AFT’s withdrawal of support is a calculated move designed to telegraph to the Obama administration that AFT’s backing is contingent on whether the administration pays attention to its other demands. For example, AFT has long called for the repeal of another federal law, No Child Left Behind, passed by the Bush administration, which mandates annual, multiple-choice tests for most elementary and middle school students.

The Common Core standards were designed in part as a response to unions’ discontent over what they called the “toxic testing” required by No Child Left Behind. The Common Core standards do not require rote, fill-in-the-bubble tests, as NCLB does, but instead involves more rigorous, hands-on problem solving, which is what the unions had demanded originally.

The Common Core standards describe what every student, kindergarten through high school, is expected to know. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia originally adopted the standards, but several conservative states have since dropped them. The Common Core will be implemented for the first time next school year, with teacher evaluations and student progress linked to the tests in 2015-16–which leaves plenty of time for in-fighting until then.

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Write to Haley Sweetland Edwards at haley.edwards@time.com