What a difference a year can make.
A year ago, Dennis van Roekel's message to NEA members was, "Well, if not Common Core, then what in its place?" This year, his message was, "Common who? Hey, look at this toxic testing badness!"
With all the tight aim of a finely-crafted focus-group-tested PR campaign, DVR used the NEARA convention as a launching pad for a campaign to push back hard against The Big Test while also, as Fred Klonsky put it, building a firewall around Common Core.
DVR's keynote seems (full disclosure-- I wasn't in Denver and I am depending on the reports of those who were) a work of exceptionally fine tuning, the kind of careful tap dance that you can't perform without knowing every inch of the dance floor.
He led off with a history of the last several decades of school reform, name-checking the usual rage-inducing suspects (even in a speech, it seems, She Who Must Not Be Named is red meat click bait) without getting lost in details. But somehow a study of the evolution of various ill-fated, teacher-blaming, education-crushing reforms did NOT bring DVR to Common Core. Rather, the evil bad boy of school reform is high stakes testing, first bullying its way into the spotlight and now ruining the entire show.
Look! Look over there, at that Bad Testing!! No no no-- not over here at the CCSS! It's the tests! That's what done it!
DVR outlines four points for getting the accountability train back on track:
1) expand early childhood education to improve school readiness,
redirect resources away from testing companies and toward improved
conditions of learning and teaching,
3) create high standards for all
4) take ownership of and responsibility for a quality
1 is harmless. 2 is an interesting pipe dream. 4 is perhaps the most interesting, representing an intention of the union to finally get involved in teacher quality. And 3, of course, reaffirms the NEA's devotion to the Common Core. Not that DVR ever mentioned the Core. Focus-testing apparently made it clear that it was not a guaranteed applause line.
No, the purpose of this initiative is two-fold. Attack the tests. Defend the brand.
It helps that the tests deserve attacking. They're a weak target at this point, and they are the backbone, teeth and testicles of the entire CCSS movement. And they are odious, awful, wretched excuses for anything useful. They are every bit as bad as DVR said they are, and that's part of the campaign's strength-- it's based on truth. It just stops telling the truth once we get to the question of why we have these tests in the first place. Because for some reason, the imperative is to protect the CCSS brand.
Gates proposed moratorium on testing is likely the same thing. At all costs protect the brand.
CCSS is a hot air balloon struggling to avoid crashing back to earth, and testing is the overweight guy who may have been our BFF when we took off, but now we need to get rid of anything that is dragging the CCSS balloon down, so over the side with you, buddy.
Likewise, CCSS foes were chortling yesterday to see Robert Pondisco at the Fordham Institute's blog eviscerating a model teaching example from engageNY's Kate Gerson, who demonstrated an example of why Common Core is often associated with students who would rather have their eyebrows plucked bald one hair at a time. Gerson appears to be channeling the worst teaching techniques of the 1960s, and my heart goes out once again to NY teachers who have to deal with this drivel.
But is Pondisco, shooting holes in the Core? Of course not. The Fordham has been relentless in defending the brand-- from everybody and anybody including She Who Must Not Be Named and Arne Duncan himself. The Fordham applies the same technique over and over again-- they spot something egregious or stupid, and instead of making the amateur hour mistake of trying to protect it because it's Core, they get out their knives, carve it up, and declare, "This is NOT Common Core. This is what you get when some idiot does Common Core wrong." They have mastered a not-easily-mastered skill, because defending yourself from your enemies is easy; defending yourself from your friends is way harder.
Look, I welcome NEA attacking tests. As I've written before, the tests are the very worst, most destructive part of the reformy beast. But if we keep supporting the idea of national standards, we are going to keep getting national standardized tests. Railing against the testing while defending the CCSS is like cutting off dandelions and carefully tending their roots.
This circling of the wagons around the Core is good news for those of us in the resistance. For one thing, Core supporters are way over-estimating how easily CCSS can be cut loose and protected from the effects of things like a testing system that was built right into the Core's dna. For another, the fact that they're willing to try is a measure of how much trouble they're in.
And if, a year after defiantly defending it, DVR is ready to go through his last speech without even mentioning the Common Core, there is hope that my national union might be starting to get the beginning of a clue.