Common Core is a Racket

Katie Aguilera

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published a report titled A Nation At Risk and set in motion a series of education reform efforts that ushered in an ever-growing, insatiable industry for private education companies.  Like so many things: healthcare, drug use, war, etc…education has become the target of, and is being driven by, greedy corporations seeking yet another avenue to increase profit.  With A Nation At Risk, the Reagan administration had successfully conjured up a crisis in public education, one that was certain to destroy the nation due to failing schools and illiterate citizens.  A crisis to which the inevitable solution would be to pour billions of taxpayer dollars into the hands of private education companies.

The National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) had 18 members, appointed by then US Secretary of Education Terrel Bell.  The formation of this commission was likely driven by a need for more political support from women who tended to lean democratic, and also the need for a scapegoat for the precipitously lagging economy.  A poorly educated populace tends to be more of a drain on the economy than a boost to it, after all.

Their report was armed with strong words and lots of statistics that appeared to show the destructive decline in public education, and it got a lot of media attention from the moment President Reagan announced it’s release.  The clamor for improving public education grew, and the promises to do so became political campaign ammunition with the right and the left each proclaiming their plans would be the better solution.  The lobbyists and corporations swooped in, leading eventually to No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and Common Core, but not a lot of improvement in public education.

It didn’t matter that another study in 1990 by the Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico found the statistics to show a different picture than the one painted by the NCEE.  The decline in test scores from 1963 to 1980, according to A Nation At Risk, was an indication of the failing public education system.  But when the scientists at Sandia Laboratories examined the statistics in individual subgroups, such as ethnic minorities, rich versus poor students, and student rankings, they found the averages held steady or even increased for the same period.  This difference is explained here as Simpson’s paradox.  “The average can change in one direction while all the subgroups change in the opposite direction if proportions among the subgroups are changing.”  The number of students taking tests increased in those years, causing the proportion of those students that ranked high to decrease.  This resulted in the total average scores declining, even as they held steady within different subgroups of test-takers.

It also didn’t matter that the National Commission on Excellence in Education was made up largely of school administrators and only one teacher.  Administrators chosen and appointed by the Secretary of Education with what appears to be the goal of proving a fore-gone conclusion.  Consider the following statement in this May 2015 Salon article:

A Nation At Risk began from the assumption that our public schools were failing.  Of course our public schools were failing.  Our public schools are always failing.  No investigative panel has ever found that our public schools are succeeding.

Well, of course, because schools that aren’t failing don’t need reform, they don’t need new curriculum, texts, and tests year after year.  They don’t generate steady profits for private corporations.

The Sandia study should have highlighted the question of whether or not attempting to gauge the success or failure of a nation’s public education system can be accurately accomplished with statistics and averages while ignoring the problems of individual schools and students.  But it was never released by the government, it wasn’t published until 1993, in the Journal Of Educational Research.  The criticism that the Commission was made up of administrators rather than teachers, parents and child development professionals should have called into greater question the usefulness of the findings in defining positive reforms, but such criticism was lost in the fearful rhetoric on the risks of failing schools.

None of that mattered because by then, the education-reform machine had gained a full head of steam and was well under way.  There were voters to sway and profits to be made.  And now, decades later, the Common Core State Standards Initiative is just the latest iteration of this education reform racket.  Indeed, the development of the Common Core standards seems disturbingly similar to the development of A Nation At Risk with its disregard for the input of teachers and parents in favor of pandering to corporate interests.

According to this site, the US federal government spent $621 billion on elementary and secondary public education in 2011/12.  And that money is supplemental to what each individual state is spending on education.  While compared to military spending that is only a tiny fraction of the money the US government is spending, its still a tempting pot to dip into for corporations looking to profit from public education.

Race To The Top was a competitive grant program launched by the US Department of Education in 2009, ostensibly to encourage schools to make substantial improvements in their standards and outcomes.  States would compete for a share of the $4.35 billion in grant money, and one of the easiest ways they could do so was to adopt the Common Core Standards.  And of course, increased use of high stakes testing in order to measure the improvements and maintain funding.  This proved to be highly successful in pushing CCSS into the public education system, ensuring states would then spend a small fortune on curriculum and test changes.  (Ironic, considering that ultimately states will spend more implementing CCSS than they gained from RTTT, read more on that here.)

The director of RTTT, Joanne Weiss is quoted in this Breitbart article as writing in her own article (subscription required), “…the large pot of funding we had to offer was a significant inducement for states to compete.”  The Breitbart article goes on to say she adds “the surprise number of 46 states willing to sign onto the Common Core standards initiative was due to ‘our decision to leverage the spirit of competition.'”  Weiss states:

It [RTTT] arguably drove more change in education at the state, district, and school levels than any federal competition had previously been able to achieve.

The nationwide cost of implementing the CCSS, according to this article, is around $15.8 billion to $16 billion.  In my own state of Oregon, it is estimated to cost $182.027 million, according to a resolution opposing CCSS by Oregon Republicans quoted here.  To be fair, it is difficult to gauge the cost of implementation because it can always be argued that states will be spending large sums on improvements all the time.  As this Watchdog.org article points out, the money would likely have been used in education anyway, and the article points to a claim that CCSS could actually save states money for “an educational product far superior to what is being offered today.”

Of course, that is based on the premise that the Common Core Standards do represent a superior product, one that will enact positive reform to our ‘failing’ public education system.  A premise that numerous corporations are happy to promote.

One such company is Pearson PLC, which according to Wikipedia is the “largest education company and the largest book publisher in the world.”  Pearson has a considerable stake in the roll out of CCSS.  This Huffington Post article from 2013 states that Pearson says “that education business accounts for more than 60% of earnings and sales,” in a statement issued in 2012.  The Huff post article also says: “As of May 2012, Pearson worked with eighteen states in the U.S., as well as Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.  In New York, Pearson held a $32 million, five-year contract to produce standardized tests.  In Texas its contract was worth $500 million.”

In 2014, Pearson was awarded a “major contract to administer tests aligned to the common-core standards, a project described as being of ‘unprecedented scale’ in the U.S. testing arena by one official who helped negotiate it,” according to this  EdWeek Market Brief article.  This contract was awarded by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium of states tasked with creating exams that are aligned with the CCSS.  The EdWeek article goes on to state:

While a number of companies inquired in response to PARCC’s request for proposals for the project, ultimately Pearson was the only bidder, said James Mason, who helped negotiate the contract as part of a team of PARCC state leaders.

and:

While a number of companies initially inquired about bidding for the contract, in the end Pearson was the only one to bid, Mason said. Despite that, PARCC state officials are convinced the process was sound and resulted in the best vendor getting hired, Mason said.

Surely there is no cause to question how Pearson managed to be the sole bidder on what is undoubtedly a lucrative contract, or how the PARCC members felt so certain that Pearson would be the best company for the job.  Or is there?

Pearson has proven willing to go to questionable lengths before in order to secure contracts.  According to this 2011 New York Times article, “since 2008, the Pearson Foundation, the nonprofit arm of one of the nation’s largest educational publishers, has financed free international trips–some have called them junkets–for education commissioners whose states do business with the company.”  The trips are supposedly for attending conferences with “educators from around the world to get ideas for improving American schools.”  But the NY Times article also points out that they meet with “top executives of the Pearson company” on these trips as well.  It goes on to say:

Illinois is paying Pearson $138 billion to administer the state’s standardized testing program; Virginia is paying $110 million and Kentucky $57 million.  All three of their commissioners have attended the conferences.

This 2013 New York Times article follows up by stating “The Pearson Foundation, the charitable arm of one of the nation’s largest educational publishers, will pay $7.7 million to settle accusations that it repeatedly broke New York State law by assisting in for-profit ventures.”

The New York State attorney general, in an inquiry into the foundation’s actions, “found that the foundation had helped develop products for its corporate parents,” and “had helped woo clients to Pearson’s business side by paying their way to education conferences that were attended by its employees.”

The case shed a light on the competitive world of educational testing and technology, which Pearson has come to dominate. As federal and state leaders work to overhaul struggling schools by raising academic standards, educational companies are rushing to secure lucrative contracts in testing, textbooks and software.

Unfortunately, those paying the price in all these manufactured ‘failing schools crises’ and the resulting “rushing to secure lucrative contracts” is the students and teachers.  As the CCSS are implemented, the need to assess how well students are meeting them becomes critical in order to maintain funding.  This means that, in spite of the claims that the CCSS do not impose specific curriculum on states, the curriculum will be structured to ensure students perform well on the CCSS aligned assessments.  Schools will be forced to “teach to the test” because their job depends on their pupils passing those tests.  The end result:  narrowly focused curriculum, memorization rather than learning, an undermining of the development of critical thinking skills.

Consider a few quotes from How A Generation Lost Its Common Culture by Patrick Deneen (and please please go read the entire essay!):

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation.

and:

Our students’ ignorance is not a failing of the educational system – it is its crowning achievement. Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts — whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about — have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings.

and finally:

Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes “flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical).

In such a world, possessing a culture, a history, an inheritance, a commitment to a place and particular people, specific forms of gratitude and indebtedness (rather than a generalized and deracinated commitment to “social justice”), a strong set of ethical and moral norms that assert definite limits to what one ought and ought not to do (aside from being “judgmental”) are hindrances and handicaps.

“Cookie cutter” students indeed.  Good little boys and girls who will not be taught to  question, who will not be taught to reason for themselves.

Common Core is just the latest in what is sold as a desperate need for school reform, for improvement in public education in order to compete with other nations, all while companies like Pearson rake in huge profits.  All while public education not only does not improve, but becomes more and more uniform and indoctrinating.  If we are to truly improve our children’s education, we must stop allowing our public schools to be turned into profitable markets for greedy corporations.  We need to return the control to the local level, to the educators and parents and students.

As a footnote, here is a link to a 17 minute video of a TedX talk by Joshua Katz (thanks RD for sending this my way!) that explains the “toxic culture of education” we find ourselves in currently, I highly recommend watching it.

You can read my other posts on Common Core related issues at the following links:

Will the Higher Standards of Common Core Improve Early Childhood Education

Common Core: Is There Sense in the Mad Math?

Common Concerns With Common Core

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