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 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.


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.


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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Will the Higher Standards of Common Core Improve Early Childhood Education?


Katie Aguilera

If the experience of “doing school” destroys children’s spirit to learn, their sense of wonder, their curiosity about the world, and their willingness to care for the human condition, have we succeeded as educators, no matter how well our students do on standardized tests?

Steven Wolk, Joy In School

It is a well accepted fact that growth and development happen in stages, and research into brain development has shown that the human brain is still developing into our early 20’s.  With that in mind, it seems reasonable to believe that specific skills are best learned when the brain is developmentally ready to understand and conquer them.  Most experts in child development and early childhood education recognize this.  Unfortunately, it appears that the creators of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) either do not, or were unwilling to take that into consideration when the standards were written.

In March of 2010, in response to the January 2010 draft release of the CCSS, an impressive group of early childhood health and education professionals issued a joint statement through the Alliance for Childhood stating their concerns with the Common Core standards for young students.  In this statement (which I encourage you to read) they list their four primary concerns with the standards, and conclude with the following statement:

We therefore call on the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to suspend their current drafting of standards for children in kindergarten through grade three.
We further call for the creation of a consortium of early childhood researchers, developmental psychologists, pediatricians, cognitive scientists, master teachers, and school leaders to develop comprehensive guidelines for effective early care and teaching that recognize the right of every child to a healthy start in life and a developmentally appropriate education.
Edward Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Paige wrote a critique of the CCSS in January 2013 in which they address the disregard the CCSS creators showed for early childhood development and the concerns raised in that joint statement.  They write, “we reviewed the makeup of the committees that wrote and reviewed the Common Core Standards.  In all, there were 135 people on those panels.  Not a single one of them was a K-3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional.  It appears that early childhood teachers and child development experts were excluded from the K-3 standards-writing process.”
As for the joint statement signed by so many early childhood professionals?  Well, Miller and Carlsson-Paige go on to say:
We know that the instigators of the standards at the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers were aware of the Joint Statement well before their summary of public feedback was written. Copies of it were hand-delivered to eleven officials at those two organizations, including Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the CCSSO, and Dane Linn, director of the Education Division of the NGA, who were primarily responsible for the creation of the standards.
Why were early childhood professionals excluded from the Common Core Standards project? Why were the grave doubts of our most knowledgeable education and health experts missing from the official record of this undertaking? Would including them have forced the people driving this juggernaut to face serious criticism and questions about the legitimacy of the entire project?
Why indeed?  And what are the potential ramifications of pushing these standards on elementary schools?  Well, as so many early childhood professionals and parents around the nation have been repeatedly saying, there are numerous to consider.
In this Forbes article by Alice Walton, it is pointed out that there is no research or evidence to support pushing higher standards for young students to meet.  In fact, there is evidence to support the opposite.  Consider what David Elkind, child development expert at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child, is quoted as saying in that Forbes article while pointing out that “children are not standardized”:
Some children attain these abilities—which enable them to learn verbal rules, the essence of formal instruction—at different ages. With the exception of those with special needs, all children attain them eventually. That is why many Scandinavian countries do not introduce formal instruction, the three R’s until the age of seven. In these countries children encounter few learning difficulties. Basically, you cannot standardize growth, particularly in young children and young adolescents. When growth is most rapid, standardization is the most destructive of motivation to learn.
Finland provides a good example of what Elkind is getting at.  Students in Finland consistently rank at the top in worldwide studies of education.  This BBC News article states that “children in Finland only start main school at age seven.  The idea is that before then they learn  best when they’re playing and by the time they finally get to school they are keen to start learning.”  It also points out that “Finnish children spend the fewest number of hours in the classroom in the developed world.”  It appears their education model works very well, yet here in the US, with no research to back it up, we are moving the opposite way by pushing greater expectations on younger and younger children.
This puts our children at risk of failure due to classroom burnout or frustrated despair.  Carol Burris, named New York State high school principal of the year in 2013, points out in the Forbes article, “if this continues the way it’s going, my prediction is that by the time they get to high school, they will not like learning.  We’ll see tremendous academic push back, over-anxious kids, and school phobia issues.”  Gene Beresin, Executive Director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School is quoted as saying, “if kids are pushed to work on material too far above their intellectual level, it could be highly demoralizing, and some may simply give up…”
According to this article by Amanda Morgan, Rae Pica, in her book What If Everybody Understood Child Development, discusses how this sort of stress can effect early child education.  Morgan writes:

Rae Pica cites Dr. Willis’ work in this chapter as well as Dr. William Stixrud who said, “stress hormones actually turn off the parts of the brain that allow us to focus attention, understand ideas, commit information to memory and reason critically.”  So why would we expect our youngest learners to gain more from a high-pressure environment?

As Rae writes: “Imagine the lost potential as students continue to struggle to learn when anxious and unhappy.  Imagine the ever-increasing number of students stressed out, burned out, acting out, and dropping out if things don’t turn around and quickly.  Imagine the lost potential if students are kept from discovering the power of joy in the classroom.”

Proponents of the CCSS will argue that the standards do not dictate the curriculum chosen by individual states and schools, nor do they call for the elimination of the sort of activities that might keep the play and joy in the classroom.  But as Carol Burris makes clear in Walton’s Forbes article, it is much more time consuming to teach students things that they are not developmentally ready to learn.  She says, “if you have goals that are developmentally inappropriate, so much time is spent getting students to achieve what they’re supposed to, that there’s very little time left for music, social studies, science.”

Amanda Morgan, in her article, adds to that by pointing out that these increasing expectations have a “trickle-down effect.”  It is changing not only K-3rd grade classrooms, it is affecting preschool as well with preschool teachers attempting to prepare their young charges for Kindergarten.  She writes:

I’ve listened as some preschool teachers have said, “With kindergarten the way it is, I just can’t do preschool the old way anymore.”  So they get rid of the sand table and the dramatic play area and cut back on outdoor play time.  And they spend more time sitting at tables, filling in worksheets, and, well, being quiet.

This is the opposite of what we know about what children need developmentally.
[Emphasis supplied.]

These are all very real concerns with the potential for very serious consequences for our children.  What appears to me to be pretty blatant ignorance of the developmental needs of our young and vulnerable students is incredibly disturbing and brings me back to the question of why?  Why were the Common Core State Standards developed without the input of early childhood educators, and why were the concerns of so many early education professionals, and parents, ignored as the standards were completed and approved?  Why are those concerns still being ignored today as CCSS is being implemented around the nation?

These are questions I’ll tear into in my next post, “Common Core is a Racket.”


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Common Core: Is There Sense In The Mad Math?


Math has always intimidated me.  Well, honestly, it has always terrified me.  I was never able to make a connection with numbers like I did with words, and so I struggled all through school with math.  I had many great math teachers who offered a variety of methods to solve problems, but since I didn’t understand math easily, I never pushed myself to make sense of it.  I did just enough to get along, enough to pass, without ever really gaining a solid grasp of the concepts.

Meeting my old math nemesis once again through viral internet memes about Common Core math problems admittedly made me defensive and dismissive of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Bizarre, incomprehensible math problems being shared on Facebook and YouTube by frustrated parents were basically my first introduction to the CCSS, as is probably the case for many.  And there is no question that there is an abundance of bizarre math problems shared online to choose from these days.

This strange math being developed for new, common core compliant curriculum around the nation has become one of the most loudly and frequently targeted parts of the CCSS, especially in the realm of social media.  This may have made it somewhat of a distraction from what I see as much more worrying complaints about common core, but because it is a valid concern, it should be addressed.

I certainly believe there are reasons to question the changes in the way math is being taught.  When what should be a simple equation is made into a series of confusing and complex steps in order to find the answer, it seems reasonable to ask if this is only going to make math even more intimidating and challenging for children.  Are we sacrificing speed and accuracy by moving away from rote memorization?  Are we requiring students to master mathematical concepts they are not yet developmentally ready for?

Since math was so challenging for me as a student, I really tried to dig into this issue with an open mind.  After all, had I been taught math fundamentals in a different way, perhaps it would have been easier for me to understand.  And the truth is, I have found some explanations and examples of the reasoning behind the mad math of common core that do make sense.

Consider the ‘ten-frame’ being used in early grade level math.  According to this site, “a ten-frame is a hands-on and pictorial model that teaches number sense and mental math.”  This idea goes along with the concept of breaking larger numbers into groups of ten in order to make them easier to work with.  When multiplication was explained to me in this way, I see the reasoning.  For example, if you consider 6×12 as 6(10+2), you can do the multiplication this way:  6(10) + 6(2) is equivalent to 60+12 which equals 72.  That is a simple equation, but if I apply the same method to bigger numbers, I can do multiplication in my head pretty quickly that used to take me a lot more time and thought, or a pen and paper.

I think one more good example to look at is the use of the number line.  This article from by James Goodman gives this example of solving a problem using a number line that does look confusing at first glance.  However, the article goes on to explain the method this way:

If you haven’t yet made sense of the second diagram, think about the way that people used to give change at the store (perhaps a bit of a lost art these days). Suppose you purchased something that cost $8.27 and paid with a $20. The clerk would start at the value of the item purchased (in this case $8.27), then start with the change, bringing you first to $8.30, then to the 50 cent level, then to an even dollar amount, then a ten dollar amount, and so forth, until the value was brought up to the $20 you paid with:
“Okay, $8.27, 30 cents <putting three pennies in your hand>, and 20 more is 50 cents <putting two dimes in your hand>, and two quarters makes nine <dropping two quarters in your hand>, and ten <giving one dollar>, and ten more makes twenty <giving a ten>.”

This makes sense to me, and I can see many reasons for giving kids different tools to solve equations.  Children all learn differently, as we well know, and it seems advantageous to allow for different problem-solving methods.  Proponents of the Common Core math standards repeatedly point out that this gives greater flexibility at the classroom level, as well as stronger math fluency for all students.   According to this USA Today article,

Learning math this way leads to deeper understanding, obviates the need for endless rule-memorizing, and provides intellectual flexibility to apply math in new situations, ones for which the rules need to be adapted.

That article goes on to say that the CCSS expectations for math “have been endorsed by every major mathematical society president, including the American Mathematical Society and the American Statistical Association.”

However, these arguments in defense of the Common Core math standards do not take into consideration the very real effect that high-stakes assessment testing is having on curriculum development.  This is a note-worthy problem that I will get into at greater length in an upcoming post.  In isolation, the ideas behind the math standards sound sensible, great even, but the reality on the ground tends to show that the benefits are quickly lost in the application.

Along with the problems associated with test-driven curriculum, there is also the question of whether these math standards are developmentally appropriate.  Is it realistic to push pre-algebraic thinking on elementary school students, with the expectation that their young brains can successfully absorb the ideas for future expansion?  This is certainly a difficult question to which there is no easy way to find answers.  Yet it must be asked if the Common Core math standards are to be regarded as an improvement in education.

In a Huffington Post article from May 2014, it is posited that Common Core math standards are modeled on reform mathematics which it describes as math where “kids should explore and understand concepts like place value before they become fluent in the standard way of doing arithmetic.”  It goes on to say,

Stanford University mathematician James Milgram calls the reform math-inspired standards a ‘complete mess’–too advanced for younger students, not nearly rigorous enough in the upper grades.  And teachers, he contends, are largely ill-prepared to put the standards into practice.

‘You are asking teachers to teach something that is incredibly complicated to kids who aren’t ready for it,’ said Milgram, who voted against the standards as part of the committee that reviewed them.  ‘If you don’t think craziness will result, then you’re being fundamentally naive.’

I would like to point out that James Milgram, Professor emeritus in Mathematics at Stanford University, served as a member of the Common Core validation committee, and you can find more of his opinions on CCSS here.

I do think there is much to be said for the fact that it is always hard for parents and educators to transition into something new.  Remember the emergence of computers and the internet in schools, and now the increasing use of tablets (and WiFi with it’s potential dangers).  I realize it can be difficult to accept having our children taught differently than we were, and, of course, we should be able to set that aside in order to be open to improvement in education.  However, I also believe there are intended improvements that might actually prove to be detrimental, and it is imperative that those be questioned, highlighted, and scrutinized.

That gets to what I consider to be even deeper problems with the Common Core State Standards than math that is hard to understand out of context.  Problems that these bizarre, confounding, maddening math problems all over social media may well be distracting us from.  Problems I will continue to explore and write about at length in upcoming posts.


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