Chicago Teachers Union votes to oppose Common Core

CTU cites concerns over testing, curriculum, and "an overreach of federal power" in opposing new, more rigorous learning standards.

May 8, 2014

(flickr/Bill Selak)

Updated with additional information at 5:30pm, 5/8/14

In a vote that seemed to take education observers, school district officials, and even many teachers by surprise, delegates to the Chicago Teachers Union passed a resolution Wednesday evening saying the union formally opposes the Common Core State Standards, which are being implemented in schools across Chicago, Illinois and some 44 other states. 

In a statement released to the media, the union said the resolution “enjoins the city’s educators to growing national opposition to the Common Core State Standards, saying the assessments disrupt student learning and consume tremendous amounts of time and resources for test preparation and administration.”

Teacher Michelle Gunderson, who heads the union's education committee, says the CTU has "philosophical" issues with the Common Core.

"Those who wrote the Common Core standards believe the purpose of education is to prepare children to be college and career ready. Now that in and of itself is not a bad thing. We want people to have jobs, we want people to be productive in their lives. But we don't believe that's the sole purpose of education. We want our students to become critical thinkers and people who can lead good and purpose-filled lives," Gunderson said. "We believe our students are more than just cogs in the wheel of the machinery of our workforce."

Gunderson also said the standards involve "a misuse and over-abuse of testing."

The resolution says the union will lobby the Illinois State Board of Education to abandon the Common Core, and “will organize other (union) members and affiliates to increase opposition to the Common Core State Standards.”

The union’s House of Delegates is made up of teacher representatives from every district school in the city.

The CTU resolution also declares that:

• “instructional and curricular decisions should be in the hands of classroom professionals who understand the context and interests of their students” and “the education of children should be grounded in developmentally appropriate practice.”

• Common Core standards were developed by “non-practitioners” including “test and curriculum publishers” and “education reform foundations, such as the Gates and Broad Foundations.” It says that “as a result the [standards] better reflect the interests and priorities of corporate education reformers than the best interests and priorities of teachers and students.”

• “the assessment practices that accompany Common Core State Standards – including the political manipulation of test scores – are used as justification to label and close schools, fail students, and evaluate educators.”

Illinois quietly adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010, with little opposition. But the standards have become a political football in the last year, and have faced opposition from both the left and the right. Indiana dumped the Common Core standards last month.

The Chicago Teachers Union vote represents a blow to the standards, which are just getting off the ground in many schools, and raises questions about their viability.

President Barack Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have argued that the new standards raise the bar on what American students need to know, and create uniform standards across states. Duncan has called the standards “a sea-change in education. Not only do they set the bar high, they give teachers the space and opportunity to go deep, emphasizing problem-solving, analysis, and critical thinking, as well as creativity and teamwork. They give teachers room to innovate.”

The standards themselves are simply a list of what students should know and be able to do in reading and math, grade by grade. They replace the Illinois Learning Standards, which guided teaching and curriculum in the state from 1997 to 2010. The new standards are being billed as more rigorous. They push students to read more complex texts and expand their academic vocabulary. In math, the goal is to move away from a “mile-wide, inch-deep” approach—in which students cover many topics in little depth—in favor of deeper understanding of key math concepts.

The union's vote came the same day that the "nation's report card," or the National Association of Educational Progress, released new results showing test scores for American 12th graders have stagnated in math and reading over the past four years. On that test, just 26 percent of high school seniors are considered proficient in math; 37 percent scored "proficient" in reading.

The resolution was not on the House of Delegates’ monthly agenda. Reporters are typically not allowed inside House of Delegates meetings.

The union’s vote may prove unpopular with rank-and-file teachers. Polls have shown that teachers generally like the Common Core standards. Chicago Public Schools officials gave WBEZ the results of a survey it conducted in February (attached below). It emailed 18,000 teachers; just over 40 percent responded. Of those, 82 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the Common Core standards are more rigorous that previous standards; 69 percent said they believed the new standards would lead to improved learning for the majority of their students.

Even the Chicago Teachers Union’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, has been supportive of the Common Core standards.

"Absolutely our parent union pushed the Common Core. I don't believe when that push happened we realized the harm that it was going to do. I also don't think we realized how difficult and unfair the testing was going to be," Gunderson said.

In other states, teachers and their unions have complained about the implementation of the standards, and their timing. Many states are adopting the new standards just as test scores are being used to evaluate teachers. Scores have dropped precipitously in states, including Illinois, where some or all of the state standardized test questions are aligned to the Common Core standards.

Chicago Public Schools has spent millions shifting to the new standards; last year the district issued bonds to buy $40 million in textbooks it said were aligned to the Common Core. The state piloted new tests this spring, and will roll out entirely new Common Core exam next spring, replacing the ISAT.

The Chicago teachers’ vote puts the union, controlled by political progressives, in strange company. Take conservative radio host Glenn Beck for instance.  “Besides being dumber, our kids are going to be indoctrinated with extreme leftist ideology,” Beck has warned. He has called the Common Core an “insidious menace to our children and to our families.”

“This is top-down education from the federal government, dictating to local schools what they must teach and how they must teach it,” Beck says. “Local control is out the window with Common Core.”

In a statement oddly out of sync with the union’s typical political thinking, CTU president Karen Lewis said she agrees with “educators and parents from across the country, the Common Core mandate represents an overreach of federal power into personal privacy as well as into state educational autonomy.”

Gunderson agreed it was an unusual argument for the union to make.

"It is odd that we have a convergent interest with libertarians right now. We do not align with them but we know that there should be local and professional, independent control of what happens inside our classrooms."

Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, told the Sun-Times, “these are really standards that not only ensure that students understand the concepts but can apply them to everyday life and to their careers and in the workforce." Fergus also told the newspaper, “Anyone who reads the standards knows they really raise the bar for student learning.”

Freeda Pirillis, a first-grade teacher at Agassiz Elementary, said she was shocked to hear that union delegates had voted to oppose the Common Core. She's been part of a union effort to develop exemplary Common Core lessons. Most of those lessons are being field tested this year, including one she came up with to teach primary-grade students to read informational texts.

"As a whole class we read lots and lots of books about frogs. I was modeling for my students how to pick apart a text, how to do research."  At the same time, her students investigated an animal of their choice and made their own books.

"They loved it," says Pirillis. "I think for the first time they called themselves 'researchers' and said, 'I love doing research!'" Pirillis says with the proper support, even six- and seven-year-olds can make progress toward standards, which she calls "end goals." She says expecting mastery of the standards is where they may fall short.

Patrick Smith contributed to this story.

Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her on twitter @WBEZeducation.

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