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Educators should lead in implementing new standards and assessments

Paul Toner

Paul Toner
MTA President

As members and union leaders, we are all familiar with the stereotype that teachers’ unions are only concerned with salaries, benefits and grievances. We are also aware that this stereotype is wrong.

I have always believed that the union should be leading the profession, and I have advocated for us to play that role. As a union of professional educators, we are equally concerned with improving the profession and the quality of education for our students.

That is why NEA President Dennis Van Roekel has called upon educators to work to make sure that every local association not only works on contract and grievance issues, but also has a strong group of members who are focused on the professional issues we are facing, such as new evaluations, developing district-determined measures, implementing the Common Core State Standards and preparing for the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests.

Over the past year, our organization has spent a great deal of time on educator evaluation, but as many MTA members know by now, the Common Core standards and PARCC tests are at the heart of the instructional changes we are seeing in our schools. The rollout of these two initiatives provides our state and local associations with a perfect opportunity to demonstrate to our members and the public the role of the union in promoting excellent instruction and assessment. 

The CCSS are voluntary national standards in English language arts and mathematics. To date, 45 states, the District of Columbia, Department of Defense schools and four territories have agreed to adopt them. In 2011, the standards were adopted as the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks, with the addition of pre-kindergarten standards.

Districts should already have begun aligning their curricula with the new frameworks. If yours hasn’t done so, time is of the essence. Affected educators should insist that adequate time and resources be devoted to making sure that what they are teaching matches what their students are expected to learn and be able to do.

In the spring of 2014, Massachusetts and 13 other states will be field-testing PARCC tests to measure student performance relative to the standards.

In Massachusetts, the PARCC tests may eventually replace the MCAS tests in ELA and math. If that happens, students will have to pass PARCC tests to graduate from high school, and student growth percentiles will be incorporated into educator evaluation and school accountability systems. So the CCSS and the PARCC tests matter. It’s important to get this right.

Fortunately, the teacher voice has been prominent in the development of both the CCSS and the assessment system. The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers were partners in the creation of the standards, as were the International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

In Massachusetts, the CCSS have not represented a dramatic change because our state’s standards were considered among the best in the country and were relied upon heavily in developing the national ones. Arguments for the CCSS include:

  • State standards have been widely criticized for being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The CCSS developers looked at standards in other countries that have superior student performance and found that they generally cover fewer topics but in greater depth. The Common Core standards do the same.
  • State standards vary widely. Students in some states are being held to lower standards than others. Lower expectations result in lower achievement. The hope is that establishing high standards for all students will lead to better performance by low-achieving students and help narrow achievement gaps.
  • We live in a highly mobile country and a globalized economy. It makes sense for students to be learning subjects in the same sequence so they aren’t repeating some topics – or missing others – if they move to another state while in school. It also makes sense to prepare them for college and careers in the 21st century, no matter where they live.

The biggest objection to adopting the CCSS in Massachusetts has come from the Pioneer Institute, which expressed concern that our state’s high standards would be lowered. State education officials pledged that they would not take part if the national standards were lower than ours, and the feedback we hear from most classroom teachers is that the new frameworks do not lower standards.

After commissioning an independent comparison between the former state standards and the CCSS, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education voted to recommend adoption of the CCSS.

The standards call on students to master both content and important learning processes. For example, only a limited number of specific literary texts are listed in the standards, giving teachers and schools the latitude to incorporate their own materials. The CCSS also have literacy links to history, social studies, science and technology.

The standards emphasize reading, writing and speaking grounded in evidence from the texts, both literary and informational. Those skills cannot be “drilled” into students with test prep. 

The PARCC tests are billed as “next generation” assessments. According to the PARCC consortium, “In ELA/literacy, the PARCC assessments will look much deeper at student writing abilities and critical-thinking skills. … In math, students will have to solve complex problems, show their work, and demonstrate how they solved the problem. Unlike pencil-and-paper bubble tests, these new assessments will more closely resemble high-quality classroom work.”

Understanding the new standards and developing curricula and the lesson plans to address them take time. That is why in June, the NEA and the AFT joined a dozen other national education groups in calling for a moratorium of at least one year on any high-stakes decisions being made based on new assessments pegged to the new standards.

They made this call after New York and Florida began using new evaluation procedures that were heavily tied to student performance based on the new standards before all districts and teachers had aligned curricula and assessments to them. Massachusetts, thanks largely to the effective advocacy of MTA members, has avoided the use of student data in a high-stakes manner.

Still, there is much to be done now and in the coming years to align instruction with the new standards and assessments. At the national and state levels, we will continue our work to make sure that timelines and expectations are reasonable and that resources are available to support your work.

Your local association should be at the forefront in advocating for the professional development, common planning time and individual preparation time you need to help your students become proficient in standards that aim to make sure all students are ready for college or a career when they graduate from high school.

For further information on the Common Core State Standards, please visit: