“The Education Industry is Proud to Award This Diploma to…”

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remarked during an interview with National Public Radio that the best ideas in education are “never from Washington.” This ostensibly humble yet revealing comment betrays a great deal about the real actors and interests behind the creation of the Common Core standards in Math and English language arts (ELA), which 45 states have opted into since their codification in 2009 (lured by $4.35 billion in federal money and exemption from No Child Left Behind’s unattainable goal of 100% proficiency on standardized tests).

At best, the creation and adoption of Common Core represents another victory by educational companies in their attempt to corner the market – in other words, it is an expensive blunder – a gift to whom Thorstein Veblen a century ago called the “captains of erudition.” At worst, it represents a massive redefinition of what an ‘education’ is, such that the word is becoming synonymous with the acquisition of the mentality and skills that are marketable in a fluid, information-age economy – rather than with the formation of conscientious, critically-minded citizens.

Though billed as the product of a collaborative, state-federal partnership, the Common Core standards are the brainchild of lesser-known foundations and businesses that have long planned the rewriting and nationwide implementation of a business-friendly curriculum. In 2004, the Fordham Institute, the Education Trust, Achieve Inc., and the National Alliance of Business produced a report called “The American Diploma Project.” The ADP established benchmarks in Math and English  designed to give high school graduates the “‘must-have’ knowledge and skills most demanded by higher education and employers.” The Common Core’s State Standards (CCSS) Memorandum of Understanding, written in 2009, cited the 2004 ADP as one of its inspirational texts.

In 2009, the National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) created two Work Groups of roughly a dozen “experts” each to draft the standards for ELA and Math. Feedback Groups in both areas provided comments and recommendations, and remarkably, only one K-12 classroom teacher was involved in this process. Of the 25 members of the two Work Groups, six worked for College Board (the company that produces the SAT) and five worked for ACT – the producers of the country’s other major college admissions exam.

This point bears emphasis: 11 of the 25 people who wrote the Common Core standards worked for the companies that produce the tests that most college-bound high school students take (once upon a time, this was called a ‘conflict of interest’). One of the five lead writers, David Coleman, who had a major hand in writing the ELA standards – and despite having never taught or written standards before – is currently the President of College Board.

Conservatives, who are the most vociferous opponents of the Common Core because it smacks of big government infiltration of the classroom, are, as per usual, misdirecting their ire. Not only do states have the option to opt in (and out) of the Common Core, but it was the states and corporate captains of erudition who held hands as they initiated, carried out, and finalized the entire process: Tim Pawlenty, for example, served in 2009 as both the Governor of Minnesota and as co-chair of Achieve Inc.’s board of directors.

The federal government’s role, with its incentivizing Race to the Top grants, is thus merely that of an accomplice or facilitator (one recalls Marx’s epigram that the state is the executive committee of the ownership class). The real scandal is the vertical integration of the education industry – the conscription of millions of children into the “school-university-work” mill – and our initial acquiescence to its acceptability (more on this at the end of the article).

With 85% of the nation’s students attending schools in states that have adopted the Common Core, there are quite a lot of textbooks to rewrite, assessments to draft, and data to gather and sift. But, of course, this was the plan all along. Here is Secretary Duncan’s chief of staff Joanne Weiss‘s outlook on the windfall opportunities that fell into the education companies’ laps (it is germane to know that Weiss previously worked at NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group that received donations from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which itself sprinkled $150 million into the coffers of dozens of like-minded foundations that pushed for the Common Core):

The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.

Because the Common Core standards will not be implemented in most states until the 2014-2015 school year, it is premature to forecast just how much money the major education companies stand to profit from the mass production of new educational materials, standardized tests, and data analysis. Nevertheless, there are accurate estimates for how much schools will be charged per pupil for the administration of tests designed by the two major consortia: PARCC and SBAC – both of which offer assessments that align with the educational priorities of the Common Core (to be discussed shortly).

PARCC’s tests, which are given annually in grades 3 through 11, cost $29.50 per student: because there are 16 million students who will take PARCC’s tests each year, the costs to these states will be $480 million. SBAC’s tests, mandated in grades 3 through 8, are roughly $7 cheaper than PARCC’s tests and are taken by fewer students. Still, these consortia (a euphemism for a collection of participating states) contracted the test-writing to, who else, Pearson and ETS. States are also working directly with education companies to write specially-crafted tests: Kentucky and New York are working directly with Pearson, and the ACT is designing its own CCSS-based assessments to foist upon pupils for $20 a piece. College Board has even announced that it is considering the introduction of Common Core-oriented materials into elementary schools! Can one stomach the thought of the following letter (it is genuine) – from a concerned mother to Georgia Tech’s admissions office – becoming normal?

Dear sir or madam, my second grader has decided on a career in electrical engineering. He is leaning towards MIT. But I do not find them helpful and would prefer a Southern culture.Would you please tell me how to prepare him for admission? He will be an Eagle Scout by then and wants to go to the best school. Please advise.

However, I’ve neglected to consider that these new guidelines and tests may be brilliantly written and uniquely valid. But members of the Validation Committee who offered recommendations for the Common Core standards (and, implicitly, the tests that will be based off them) have found the new guidelines to be woefully subpar. James Milgram, a college math professor who failed to sign off on the Committee’s Math standards, relates that standards writer Jason Zimba used a “fuzzy definition” of college readiness, one that views completion of Algebra II as sufficient for college preparedness, but only preparedness for “the colleges most kids go to, but not for the colleges must parents aspire to.”

Similarly, regarding the ELA standards, Dr. Sandra Stotsky clashed with Mr. Coleman’s reduction of the study of classic literature to 50/50 parity with the study of “informational texts” (the scale tips 70/30 in favor of these non-literary texts at the end of high school), forcing English teachers to ditch poetry lessons and replace them with a prolonged discussion of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Its this evacuation of the English literary canon that compelled Dr. Stotsky to declare that the new curriculum would leave students with “empty skill sets” and lacking “the literary and cultural knowledge needed for authentic college coursework.”

The foundations and businesses behind Common Core would like the public to believe that there has been a quiet revolution in the writing and grading of standardized tests: these tests will be different; effective. However, a recent study concluded that the current tests (PARCC and SBAC) are “far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes.” It is hard to disagree with this conclusion. Take a look at one of the sample 11th grade ELA questions I plucked from PARCC’s website:

PARCC 11 ELA sample

Not only is this question obviously a two-parter, but it contains six answer choices. It seems as though this question in particular was optimally designed to overwhelm, frustrate, exhaust, and bore the student. However, the biggest joke of all is, and always will be, the writing portion of standardized tests. The application of “objective standards” to the rapidly-processed scribblings of third graders is and should be an impossibility. (Amazingly, in some states, third-graders’ responses are given six scores a piece: a score of 1-6 in six areas: ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency & conventions!)  The pretense of objectivity is best exposed in Todd Farley’s Making the Grades,who witnessed the following scene when a supervisor training prospective test-graders admits to a minor mistake:

At some point Maria’s shoulders slumped. She looked up at the ceiling. She looked down at the ground. For a couple of minutes neither she nor Ricky said a word. Ricky busied himself shuttling papers between piles, making a point not to look at his boss, as Maria stood like a statue. Eventually she spun on her heel and looked at the crowd. “I’m sorry,” Maria began. “I’m very sorry. It was not my intent to confuse you, but I was wrong. The state rangefinding committee is calling Qualifying Paper #20 a 3, not a 4….” Whatever she said after that was lost to the uproar of the crowd. Screaming and swearing ensued. Some were yelling with glee that their score of 3 was now correct, while others were despondent their once “right” score of 4 had become, shockingly and suddenly, wrong. Bellowing came from everywhere. “Are you kidding me?” “I knew it was a 3….” “But I thought you said it was ‘adequate’?”

If those who design and enforce the rubrics themselves are unable to differentiate a “3” from a “4,” what hope do poorly paid graders who skim dozens of essays per hour have in accurately scoring responses that will help determine a student’s proficiency, next-grade advancement, or college readiness – not to mention the fate of teachers’ careers and school funding?

The main point – the one that simply cannot be made enough – is that the value of education is essentially unquantifiable. Any instructor who has spent three days inside a classroom knows, knows, that there are some students who will be successful, even if they are mediocre test-takers. The regurgitation of knowledge with little-to-no real world applicability is just one skill that a student may have: it just so happens to be the most convenient one to measure. The ominous and tacit assumption that public education is a laboratory for producing workers informs Secretary Duncan’s educational worldview: he claims, “The more productive response for a community or a state is to ask, ‘What can we do to get better, so our students can graduate from high school, succeed in college and be competitive for good jobs?'”

Again, good jobs are important, but it is a matter of emphasis. In fact, it is independent discovery, creativity, and outside-the-box (rather than inside-the-bubble) thinking that leads to the most important, innovative, and yes, profitable solutions. It should be the goal of teachers and administrators to foster the kind of thinking that produces what David Foster Wallace in his incomplete novel The Pale King, set in a 1980s Midwest branch of the IRS, calls an éclat – in this case, one that saved the IRS $1.2 billion:

Sylvanshine said: ‘What Dr. Lehrl saw, as some no-account GS-9 auditor, was insufficient incentive for the filer to report dependents accurately. Institutional incentive. In retrospect, it seems obvious.’

‘That’s the way of genius, of éclat.’

‘And his solution looks simple. He simply suggested requiring taxpayers to include the SS number of each dependent.’

‘Requiring an SSN right next to each name.’

‘Since everything in the Martinsburg database at the time was keyed to SSNs.’

‘Which actually didn’t make it all that much easier to check really.’

‘But the filer didn’t know that. The requirement would greatly increase the filer’s fear of a phantom dependent being detected.’

‘Such was the power of the SSN.’

‘It created, in other words, an added incentive for compliance on dependents.’

How much talk inside the DoE or NGA is there of educating inspired, inquisitive, independent, well-rounded citizens, ones that will have the pleasure and success that comes with having éclats of their own? Or, what good is a population of tech-savvy graduates who can design and build smartphone applications and microprocessors and self-driving cars but can’t learn to skeptically investigate the mendacious claims of cellophane politicians, or appreciate – much less recall – cultural artifacts from Dickinson to Huxley to Whitman to Ginsberg? One conservative state education official made the obvious yet philistine observation that “reading Shakespeare won’t help a kid fill out a job application.” It’s precisely this kind of ignorance and monomania that we should be inoculating our children against, and exactly why ditching the Common Core is not only an educational necessity, but a cultural one, too.

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About Andrew Gripp

Andrew Gripp received a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Delaware and an M.A. from Georgetown University, specializing in Democracy and Governance. His interests include U.S. and international politics, moral and political philosophy, science and religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @andrewgripp.
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One Response to “The Education Industry is Proud to Award This Diploma to…”

  1. Great article, Drew! Education policy is certainly a blind spot for me, but I’m not that long away from the public education system to recall with horror just how awfully similar it was to an assembly line factory. I was an excellent bubble-sheet-test taker, but it wasn’t until late college that I learned to THINK. Unfortunately, the sentiment expressed by that uncultivated conservative is making ferocious headway in our universities, particularly my alma mater, Stanford, where “practicality” and “productivity” rule.

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