Randi Weingarten (Reuters/Rebecca Cook)

"The Common Core may actually fail": Union chief sounds off on Christie, Rhee, and for-profit testing "gag order"

Randi Weingarten warns of "huge backlash," and tells Salon why she still believes in Common Core's potential


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Josh Eidelson
April 29, 2014 4:30PM (UTC)

When executives at Pearson, the world’s largest for-profit education company, held their London shareholder meeting Friday, they were greeted by activists from the American Federation of Teachers, urging them to oppose so-called “gag orders” restricting teachers from revealing information about Pearson’s Common Core tests.

“The mask of test secrecy that is being used as an excuse for the lack of transparency has created growing distress and a huge backlash among parents, students and educators,” AFT president Randi Weingarten told Salon.

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Interviewed Monday, the lightning rod union leader pledged further pressure on Pearson, expressed “big disappointment” with President Obama, and said her union’s controversial Newark compromise had “come crashing down” due to a Gov. Chris Christie-appointed superintendent. Weingarten defended “the promise and potential of the Common Core standards,” while warning the program “may actually fail” due to testing backlash, accountability and austerity hawks, and implementation worse than Obamacare’s. A condensed version of our conversations follows.

You wrote, “We’re concerned that Pearson is using gag orders to cover up — rather than address — problems with its standardized tests.” What led you to believe that could be the case? And who’s to blame?

Think about what you’re hearing. Test security is now being used as the rationale why questions are not released after the test, why parents can’t see the test after the test, teachers can’t see the test after the test … Issues that people have had: Ambiguous questions; whether it’s aligned to the Common Core; whether it’s developmentally appropriate. None of those things … can be even examined because we haven’t seen the questions from either last year or this year.

And what I found very illuminating was when [15-year teacher] Elizabeth Phillips, in her Op-Ed in the New York Times, said that even after spending so much time with New York state, [whose officials] said, “Trust us, we will take your comments, and we will make sure that they are incorporated into the next iteration of testing,” what Phillips said was that that was not the case. That did not happen …

I am just listening to people who are just doing this from recollection even though … there are confidentiality orders that basically you know tell them that they can’t …

Just like last year with the “pineapple question,” we heard this year, you know, lots of people very frustrated by the … tests that were administered this year …

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We [also] called for a moratorium last year on the consequences of these tests, a brake on the stakes, until implementation was done right. And New York ignored that call, and look what’s happened this whole year in New York. Other places that did not ignore that call, like California, have had a much better implementation …

Parents, students and teachers are frustrated beyond what I’ve ever seen by the test fixation in this country. This country is the only country I know within the OECD nations that test every child every year. And the testing is not transparent …

There’s a confidentiality order … These are new tests supposedly connected to the Common Core. Nobody’s seen them. And yet they have huge implications …

The mask of test secrecy that is being used as an excuse for the lack of transparency has created growing distress and a huge backlash among parents, students and educators.

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[Pearson chief executive John] Fallon wrote that he agrees “that States should regularly release test questions and that the content and structure of the test should be transparent to parents, students and teachers.” Are you satisfied with his response??

No … In the next couple of days, we will be pushing forward on this. Let me just say this: I am very grateful that Pearson is willing to meet with stakeholders … Parents, educators who have actually been through this they need to hear from … I am also grateful that rather than attempting to kick us out at the shareholders meeting ... they heard us, and read the letter, and responded very, very quickly, and made what is an important representation about regularly releasing questions ...

But the devil is in the details. And there are contracts between Pearson and the New York State Education Department, which the Ed Department finally released publicly … after we filed a FOIA request …

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There’s a contract provision that says all materials are to be held strictly confidential, and must not be copied, duplicated or disseminated by any manner, or discussed with anyone unless authorized by New York State Education Department. That’s a gag order …

Having an agreement on policy is terrific, but it has to be operationalized. Releasing these test questions five years later is not going to help people write tests …

Testing has been one of the issues that led [the federation New York State United Teachers]’ board to unanimously approve a resolution declaring “no confidence” in [New York State Education Commissioner] John King … Should teachers have confidence at this point in Andrew Cuomo?

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Teachers in New York state have had, you know, real agita with the direction of education in the state. And so there’s a lot of people that teachers … are unhappy with, because rather than John King or the governor really being in public schools … supporting teachers, rooting for them, to help getting them the tools and conditions they need to make a difference in the lives of kids, they see a lot of public officials in our state …throwing obstacle upon obstacle. So teachers are not happy with many of the public officials in the state of New York.

But let me just say that the [State Board of] Regents … have spent decades fiercely fighting for their independence in education policy from the governor … It’s not gubernatorial control. When John King refused to adopt a moratorium ... he put himself in the middle of that debate … They put their head in the sand and worse … I think they’ve made a mockery of the transition to standards. They made them count before they made them work, and then created such a secret around the testing that no one even knows what’s on the test, or no one even knows what the questions look like, except through word of mouth. So I think that’s why it was perfectly legitimate for NYSUT to focus its attention on the commissioner of education as well as the regents.

You know, NYSUT has focused -- as have parents -- their attention on the governor in lots of different ways, including the fact that there’s been lots of criticism about … preferring charter schools over traditional public schools. And there’s been a lot of criticism of the governor’s position on the tax cap … that has really hurt public schooling in the state.

You wrote this year, while criticizing high-stakes testing, that Common Core standards themselves are “a set of standards designed to help make the transition from just knowing and memorizing information to having the skills and habits to apply knowledge, which is critically important in today’s world.”

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Right.

In response, Diane Ravitch, who has keynoted your convention, told me, “Well, we don’t know that. The fact is, we have no evidence that the Common Core standards are what we say they are until we’ve tried them … where they’re tested, they cause massive failure. So I would say we need to have more time before we can reach any judgment that they have some miracle cure embedded in them.” What do you make of that argument?

Look: No standards are a miracle cure … Standards are guideposts. They should not be straitjackets. And I think that the dilemma here is: Implementation is 95 percent of what happens in schooling …

Diane and I disagree on the promise and potential of the Common Core standards, even though Diane has always taken the position that standards were critically important to schooling…

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These standards were done by the states -- the governors and the state chiefs -- in a very rapid fashion, and there was not enough conversation and discussion about what they were, and how they would be implemented. Number 1.

Number 2, as a result, there are problems in the standards, particularly as applied to [grades] K through 2 … They seem to be developmentally inappropriate for the earliest of kids …

Number 3: … The state tried to copyright the standards. [There’s] one thing about education that’s absolutely imperative, which is that you try things, and you adjust, and you have a continuous learning process. The copyright suggests they’re fixed in slate, and that’s just wrong …

Number 4: There was more work that was done about testing of the standards and the assessment process, than actually the implementation. And that’s why many people believe that this is about a testing process, not about a learning process.

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And so -- Number 5 -- you get to what happened in New York and other places, where all of the sudden, the state commissioner last year said the scores will go down 30 points – and then magically the scores went down 30 points. So most people then distrusted what was going on here. Was this about actually helping kids get higher standards? Or was this about trying to create a sense of failure in the public system?

So you have a massive implementation failure that has masked the potential of these standards to help the transition from rote memorization in schools, to helping kids become critical thinkers and knowledge-appliers …

And so you don’t even get to the question that you saw in some schools, where you’ve actually seen them implemented well … where we have walked away from the rote memorization process that No Child Left Behind enshrined, to a process of critical thinking and knowledge-applying, and working in teams …

I was a teacher -- a high school teacher in New York City in the 1990s. I did a lot of work with my kids …none of whom were middle class, most of whom [were] first generation in America … I watched my kids learn to become confident thinkers. It took a lot of time. It took a lot of effort. That’s what the promise of the Common Core is. To see kids – you know, virtually all kids – be confident about how to solve problems, and how to navigate a complicated world …

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The implementation of the Common Core has been worse than the implementation of Obamacare. And Obamacare, people adjusted and adjusted, adjusted when they saw problems. In New York state, at least, when they saw problems in terms of the Common Core … unfortunately what the state education commissioner did is put his head in the sand …

Linda Darling-Hammond argued to me that “with respect to the agenda that began with No Child Left Behind, which has been sort of high-stakes testing without investing, and very little investment in teacher training and capacity, and so on, I would say that these last six years have been a continuation of the eight years that preceded them.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment of the Obama administration?

Yes. They have … And it’s been a big disappointment …

The last six years … has been continuation of “test and punish” as opposed to “support and improve.” When there was a real of consensus … of moving to these more rigorous standards …

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I’m still a big believer in the transition to standards that are more in critical thinking and problem-solving, moving away from rote memorization … But 90 percent, 95 percent of any policy is the implementation of it. And instead of there being people in Washington that were about rolling up their sleeves to help, what we saw in Washington, and in the Michelle Rhees, and in the John Kings of the world, was just numbers. Was basically … this kind of top-down accountability that’s just kicking the can down to schools, without the resources, without the support, without the flexibility to actually do things in a way that would help kids. So what you have instead is you have a lot of frustration, demoralization, throughout the country.

If there’s been that level of continuity with Bush under Obama, does that suggest anything about the approach that AFT or its affiliates or NEA have taken in how they deal with Democrats or how they engage with the president?

I’ve been pretty direct about our issues with this from last year onward …

Elections are always about, you know, a choice that you have at that moment in time. And we were pretty clear in 2012 that we had some issues with the Obama administration on education policy. But clearly, the choice between the Obama administration and President Obama, and Mitt Romney, was not a choice. This is about actually … creating a ladder of opportunity for all, versus not …

I watch what happened in Wisconsin, what happened in Indiana … what happened in Pennsylvania … we see the [GOP Gov. Tom] Corbetts of the world, the [GOP Gov. Rick] Scotts of the world, basically do the following: starve the schools … relentlessly criticize them, [push] private alternatives, demonize the teachers, and marginalize those who try to fight to reclaim the promise of public education …

Whether it’s some Democrats or some Republicans, people who do that we have criticized.

In 2012, when Newark’s AFT local inked a contract with performance pay and peer review, you told me it represents “a system of the future,” a “professional compensation system,” and evidence “that collective bargaining really works.”

I also told you that I was much more concerned about the implementation than what was actually said on paper, and that if the implementation didn’t work, it would come crashing down. And I said that publicly …

And has it “come crashing down” since then?

Absolutely …

A contract is a piece of paper … It has to be implemented with fidelity …

Instead of managing a process that is supposed to be professionally driven, [Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson] walked away from it, and is embarked upon a process to privatize the Newark system. Which is why everyone is arrayed against her right now …

That contract then -- which some critics in the union argued would amount to merit pay, a characterization you disagreed with, and argued under state law meant that bonuses would be determined in part by test scores – was it still the right move to sign that contract?

There’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking that you can do …  At the end of the day, the boss in that system is Chris Christie …

What collective bargaining does, is it requires an administrator, it requires a boss, to actually listen to the voices of people who work in the system …

It’s absolutely essential to keep collective bargaining. Because what you see in Wisconsin is once you lose it, you lose it … So it is fraught with peril when you’re dealing with governors or mayors who you know don’t want to negotiate fairly, and that’s part of why you want to change the climate. But you don’t want to lose the ability to have a negotiation. And so when Chris Christie is, you know, kicking and screaming but still willing to have a negotiation, you end up engaging in that negotiation.

Would it be better … if Newark actually ran its own public schools? Absolutely. When you see a governor who says he doesn’t care about what the public thinks, it’s terrible. But the problem that governor had is -- even though he doesn’t care about what the public thinks -- is he has an obligation to negotiate. And so we were going to do what we needed to do to make sure that we didn’t get into a Wisconsin situation where you lost the power to negotiate …

The contract had some strong protections for Newark educators. It also had some, you know, pieces of pay based upon test scores, which our folks in Newark were willing to do -- other places people were not willing to do that, but they were willing to try it … That contract had enough significant protections that Cami Anderson tried to waive those protections …

I think that the public is so with us because they see that we tried everything. We tried to negotiate with Christie. We tried to engage with Cami Anderson. And it doesn’t work …

[Circling back to Common Core,] the problem is the Common Core has been associated with testing rather than the deeper learning it was intended to promote … The Common Core is not a silver bullet, and it’s not the only thing kids need for a good education, but it does have the potential if done right to move schools to routinely thinking about critical thinking and problem solving rather than rote memorization.

It’s not going to happen when we’re in the middle of this fixation on testing, and particularly on high-stakes testing. It will happen if, you know, there’s a lot more thoughtfulness about implementation, about letting the standards be guides instead of straitjackets, about revising the K through 2 standards to be more developmentally appropriate, and about having teachers being able to really spend a year or two adjusting their curriculum, working with their curriculum, aligning it to what the standards are, before there’s any kind of stakes. And then when you have the stakes, the stakes should be a whole bunch of things, including project-based instruction …

Between austerity and the lack of thoughtful implementation, you see that the Common Core may actually fail … because it’s been implemented so badly in so many places, and because of the opposition from the right, and the opposition to testing.

So what I’m actually trying to do is save standards from the austerity hawks and from the chest-thumpers, as well as the people who are the haters of public education. But it means that testing has to be delinked from the standards, and that there has to be a lot more thoughtfulness about how to implement the standards.

Who would the “chest-thumpers” be?

The John Kings of the world …

There’s … the top-down accountability hawks and the austerity hawks, and then you have the privatizers …

I think the teachers, the parents … have become so frustrated with standardization, and with top-down accountability and being told what to do without being given the resources to do it, and having testing before teaching, that they’ve gotten so frustrated that they just don’t trust the transition to standards anymore.

Because we saw last year there was tremendous reservoir of support for the standards…. Three out of four people that we polled supported the standards, but the same three out of four were worried that the assessments would begin, and people would be held accountable, before people understood the standards, and before instruction had been fully implemented.


Josh Eidelson

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Aft Arne Duncan Diane Ravitch Ed Reform Education Michelle Rhee Pearson Randi Weingarten

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