Teachers union convention opens, Common Core on table

In response to teachers who are uneasy with the Common Core State Standards, a major teachers union is offering to underwrite projects crafted by teachers to improve the math and reading standards.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is expected to announce Friday that the union will give up to five grants worth as much as $30,000 to teachers for projects aimed at reforming the standards.

Weingarten plans to make the offer as part of her keynote address to the AFT’s annual convention, which begins Friday in Los Angeles and runs through Monday.

The Common Core standards, a set of expectations of what every student should know in math and reading from kindergarten through 12th grade, is expected to be a central focus of the AFT convention.

Forty five states and the District of Columbia originally adopted the standards, but in recent months, Indiana, South Carolina and Oklahoma reversed course and decided to drop the standards. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), tried to pull his state out of the standards but is fighting with the state’s board of education about whether he has the legal authority to do so.

The AFT and the other main teachers union, the National Education Association, have both supported the standards but have been critical of the way they have been implemented.

The unions also are opposed to the use of new standardized tests based on the Common Core to evaluate teacher effectiveness. Most states are using these teacher evaluation systems at the Obama administration’s direction.

Weingarten has called for a two-year moratorium on using testing for job evaluations or academic progress, saying that teachers and students need more time to learn the standards and adjust to new tests before student scores are used for decisions about whether teachers keep their jobs or students get promoted or graduate.

Reached in Los Angeles on Thursday, Weingarten said she is offering the grants to give her members an outlet to improve the standards.

“This is about a union listening to its members, listening to educators who say ‘We have a better way’,” said Weingarten, who is expected to be easily re-elected to another two-year term at the convention.

Both AFT and NEA members were involved in the writing of the Common Core standards, but “teacher voices have not been strongly enough represented in their development or their rollout,” Weingarten said.

She said the grants could be used in any number of ways, including critiques of the standards, review of the research behind them, and analysis of the implementation, especially how they apply to students with disabilities and English language learners. Some union members might want to write their own standards for a particular grade level and subject, she said.

The AFT has about 1.6 million members, including teachers, paraprofessionals, higher education staff, health care workers and nurses. The NEA, the nation’s largest labor union, has about 3 million members, including teachers, paraprofessionals and higher education workers.

AFT activists from Chicago have said they intend to try to get the national convention to call for an end to Common Core.

The AFT’s leadership is proposing a milder statement that applauds the ideals behind the Common Core but says the number and frequency of standardized tests should be reduced, and stakes should be lowered so that assessments aren’t used to “test and punish” but instead “support and improve.”

It is unclear whether AFT delegates will echo NEA members, who last week at their convention in Denver called for the resignation of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. NEA activists, led by a delegation from California, were enraged by Duncan’s support of a recent court ruling in that state, which found that tenure and other job protections for teachers violated the state constitution.

Three days after the NEA’s action, Duncan appeared at an event with Weingarten and went out of his way to say that he supports teachers unions and collective bargaining.

Weingarten said Thursday she understood the call by the NEA for Duncan’s resignation. “The comments he made about the (tenure) case showed a real disrespect for the every day teacher,” she said. If her union members wants to follow suit, it’s up to them, she said. “That’s what conventions are for,” Weingarten said. “It is in their hands.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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