The debate over the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is not politics as usual. At first blush it may appear to be just another round in the 100-year war between progressive and traditional educators, but on closer inspection it is deeply weird. Instead of the usual suspects divided along predictable ideological lines, the CCSSI has made unlikely allies of groups with little else in common. Proponents of the Core have included Republican and Democrat governors, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), state DOEs, teachers unions, the mainstream media, and two of the richest men in the world, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. Large corporations such as Exxon-Mobil, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Houghton-Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, IBM, and Pearson, to name but a few, have invested heavily in the curriculum and infrastructure to implement the CCSSI. This nexus between Big Government and Big Business has spurred growing opposition from a disparate group of parents, teachers, and citizens. In something akin to a secular miracle, unionised public school teachers find common cause with parochial schools and homeschoolers in resisting standards, curricula, and tests over which they have had no say. Much of the debate concerns substantive disagreements over details of the standards. Vital as these issues are, however, it is more important for traditionalists and progressives alike to focus instead on the dubious process used to develop, fund, and implement the CCSSI. The system being put in place would harm students, parents, teachers, and society no matter what the standards finally contain. It behooves anyone interested in liberal education to join in stopping the CCSSI.
“Gates has been the driving force behind the CCSSI. In addition to creating and funding Achieve, Inc., to draft the standards, he has lobbied state and federal governments to assure ongoing funding and compliance with the program.”
Advocates claim the CCSSI is state-led, internationally benchmarked, and based on the latest research, yet it is none of those things. In addition to manifest pedagogical shortcomings, Common Core is dangerously close to an army of crony capitalists, anxious to cash in on the bonanza of federal, state, and local contracts. Critics charge the CCSSI with doing for education what the military-industrial complex has done for defense – spawning expensive and wasteful boondoggles overseen by burgeoning bureaucracies that harm the very people the system purports to help. The groups pushing the Core operate in a murky area between government and business in which their activities are shielded from the oversight normally afforded civil servants by public hearings, sunshine laws, and FOIA requests. Unlike regular government programs, the CCSSI is opaque and unaccountable. Equally important, top-down control of the standards, curricula, and tests will lead ineluctably to prescriptive practices that reduce teachers to assembly-line workers punching out widgets.
The story began in 2008, when then-Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, director of the National Governors Association (NGA) Educational Policy Division, created a taskforce of governors, education leaders, and corporate CEOs to recommend changes in science and math education. The CCSSI’s Ur-document was the taskforce report. After the report was issued, three groups funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — the NGA, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and Achieve, Inc. — formally joined forces to make the goals of the report a reality. The U.S. DOE began providing funds in 2009.
Gates has been the driving force behind the CCSSI. In addition to creating and funding Achieve, Inc., to draft the standards, he has lobbied state and federal governments to assure ongoing funding and compliance with the program. On July 21, 2009, a month after receiving commitments from 46 state governors and CCSSOs (and a year before the final standards had even been written) Gates told the National Conference of State Legislatures:
“We’ll know we’ve succeeded when the curriculum and the tests are aligned to these standards. Secretary [of Education] Arne Duncan recently announced that $350 million of the stimulus package will be used to create just these kinds of tests – next-generation assessments aligned to the common core. When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well – and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better …”
Gates was forthright about the creation of a huge captive market paid for with billions of taxpayer dollars. He was also frank about standards being inextricably linked to curricula and assessments. Despite his candor on some issues, however, the transparency of the process used to write the standards is debatable since deliberations were kept secret by mandatory confidentiality agreements. Confidentiality is common in test preparation, but the CCSSI is public policy, which normally requires and benefits from the input of people most affected by proposals. The CCSSI’s authors may have reasoned (correctly) that had people understood the standards they would have strangled the Core in its crib. While the authors may have been cagey about this, the states also share the blame for failing to do due diligence before joining.
“This nexus between Big Government and Big Business has spurred growing opposition from a disparate group of parents, teachers, and citizens. In something akin to a secular miracle, unionised public school teachers find common cause with parochial schools and homeschoolers in resisting standards, curricula, and tests over which they have had no say.”
According to the Huffington Post, the Obama administration incentivised the CCSSI with its Race to the Top (RTTT) competition. Stunned by the recession, cash-starved states signed up before knowing what they were getting into. Funding for RTTT alone, announced in July 2009, was $4.35 billion, not including billions of state and local tax dollars used to implement the CCSSI. To receive federal funds, states were required to adopt the standards and join one of two approved assessment consortia: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). These consortia began overseeing high-stakes testing in 2014-15. The U.S. DOE withheld funds from states that did not submit to the CCSSI (and PARCC or SBAC). Initially, 46 states and Washington, D.C. joined. Minnesota, Nebraska, Virginia, and Texas refused. By February 2015, 17 states had quit the consortia (New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Wyoming, Arizona, Utah, and Alaska). Four more are now undecided or actively considering withdrawing (Massachusetts, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Michigan). This 46 percent dropout rate is telling. Many school districts have already spent millions on new Core-aligned textbooks; that money is gone, further locking them into the untried standards. Regardless, half the states have quit. The more teachers, parents, and state officials learn about Common Core, the less they like it. Supporters say the CCSSI is state-led and voluntary; critics say federal funding is bribery and intimidation.
As Gates was addressing legislators in 2009, the 24-member Standards Development Work Group was writing the Common Core math standards (CCMS) and standards for English language arts (ELA). The Gates Foundation and its creature, Achieve, Inc., probably selected the staff though exactly who, how, why, and upon what criteria the decisions were made is unknown due to confidentiality constraints. The members came mostly from the staff of Achieve, Inc., and three companies: American College Testing (ACT), America’s Choice, and College Board. Two Work Group members were businessman David Coleman, and Bennington College professor Dr. Jason Zimba. Dr. Sandra Stotsky and Dr. James Milgram were named to the 25-member CCSSO/NGA Validation Committee (VC) to review the standards. In 2010, Stotsky and Milgram, among others, refused to approve the standards.
“In their paper, Milgram and Stotsky explained that they refused to sign off on the CCSSI because the standards are not rigorous and do not do what they purport to do, despite repeated assurances to the contrary.”
Coleman, a businessman with a Masters degree in philosophy, was lead author of the ELA standards. Zimba, Coleman’s friend and business partner, was lead author of the CCMS. Their Chicago company, Grow Network, had multimillion-dollar contracts from 2001-04 with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) when Arne Duncan was CEO of CPS. In 2004, they sold their business to McGraw-Hill, which continues to service CPS. It sells copyrighted materials including “lesson plans, and curriculum resources … identical to those now being used with Common Core,” according to EAG News. Coleman has since become president of College Board where, in accordance with plans announced by Gates, he is revising the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) to bring it into line with the Core. These changes in the SAT are seen as crucial since methods embedded in the standards would thereby be codified in college admissions tests. Changing the tests effectively forces states to change curricula or see students fail. The proposed ELA and American history standards have been severely criticised, but since literature and history are fuzzier than math, we will limit ourselves here to the CCMS and SAT.
On November 29, 2012, Coleman declared his support for “reform math” thus: “There are two types of people in math in my judgment. There are the kind of groovy, understanding people, then there are the mean, rote people.” According to experts, however, the reform math in CCMS does not add up. They say the standards fail to prepare students for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and are a retreat from current best practice in many states. Dr. Milgram, the only mathematician among the members of the VC, is professor of mathematics emeritus at Stanford University, and served on the Advisory Board of NASA. In 2011, he told Texas legislators he refused to approve the standards because committee members wanted to make them as “unchallenging as possible” and to make “sure their favorite topics were present, and handled the way they like.” He explained, “by the end of fifth grade the material being covered … is more than a year behind most high-achieving countries … By the end of seventh grade Core Standards are roughly two years behind.” The CCMS delay or eliminate high school requirements in Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, and exclude Euclidean geometry including proofs and deductive reasoning. While most countries expect high school graduates to have passed calculus, the CCMS do not even mention it.
Dr. Stotsky is professor of education reform emerita at Arkansas University, a former member of the VC, and former Senior Associate Commissioner of the Massachusetts DOE where she was in charge of developing that state’s leading ELA program. The literature-heavy curriculum she developed for Massachusetts is credited with that state’s first-place ranking in national reading scores. Like Milgram, she refused to approve the final Core standards. In a white paper prepared for the Pioneer Institute titled, Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math fails to prepare high school students for STEM, Milgram and Stotsky tackled the issue of whether the standards are capable of accomplishing their declared goal of making American students college- and career-ready. In their paper, Milgram and Stotsky explained that they refused to sign off on the CCSSI because the standards are not rigorous and do not do what they purport to do, despite repeated assurances to the contrary. Stotsky and Milgram’s detailed critiques to the Work Group were ignored without comment.
Milgram and Stotsky’s paper details a dispute over comments made by Jason Zimba, lead writer of the CCMS. In 2010, Zimba told the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that “the concept of college readiness [in the standards] is minimal and focuses on non-selective colleges.” In 2013, Zimba claimed he was misquoted. Fortunately, a video of the meeting exists including his exchange with Stotsky, who was a member of the board. In his opening remarks, Zimba said, “We have agreement to the extent that it’s a fuzzy definition, that the minimally college-ready student is a student who passed Algebra II.” When Stotsky asked him to clarify his remarks he stated, “Well, for the colleges most kids go to, but not for the colleges most parents aspire to.” Stotsky: “Not for STEM? Not for international competitiveness?” Zimba: “Not only not for STEM, it’s also not for selective colleges … whether you are going to be an engineer or not, you’d better have precalculus.” Stotsky objected to Zimba’s claim the standards make students college-ready.
Milgram also coauthored a Pioneer Institute white paper with Richard Phelps titled The Revenge of K-12: How Common Core and the new SAT lower college standards in the U.S. Phelps is the author of four books on standardised testing and founded the Nonpartisan Education Review. Their paper details many discrepancies between the declared values of the CCSSI and the standards produced. Phelps and Milgram were especially critical of the lack of qualifications of the lead writers of the standards. In particular, they noted that Coleman and Zimba were former business partners and that Coleman has “no teaching experience in K-12 or above.” Furthermore, they reported that Zimba “had never written K-12 standards before or studied the standards of high-achieving countries … Both he and Coleman were likely selected to be standards writers by the [Gates Foundation].” Other writers for CCMS and ELA are closely connected to the Gates Foundation, but similarly ill equipped for writing usable standards. Milgram and Phelps found no evidence that the CCMS standards had been compared with international standards, much less benchmarked. To the contrary, they found the standards inferior to “Korea, Japan, China, Singapore, [and] the Netherlands.” Phelps and Milgram wrote, “The CCMS ended up as a political compromise. The document was designed to look attractive to both education schools and content experts. However, in mathematics, these are mostly incompatible objectives.” They concluded that the standards are “poorly written and very confusing.”
Yet another issue raised by Phelps and Milgram is the ruinous effect of likely changes in the SAT. They wrote, “the greatest harm to higher education may accrue from the alignment of the SAT to Common Core’s high school standards, converting the SAT from an adaptable test predictive of college work to an inflexible retrospective test aligned to and locking in a low level of mathematics.” There are two kinds of tests, they wrote: “Achievement tests are retrospective, they measure knowledge already learned, whereas aptitude tests are predictive, measuring readiness for future activities.” The two types of tests have different purposes and measure different, though overlapping, skill sets. To create a high-quality aptitude test, the makers correlate items on the test with later performance. They explained the key differences: “Predictive tests can be periodically adjusted to optimise their predictive validity (tossing poorly predictive test items and drafting new ones); retrospective tests are less flexible — their test items must cover the high school content domain, whether or not they are predictive. Further, in the case of … PARCC and SBAC, they are required to test the material listed in the … standards.”
Since its inception, the SAT has been a predictive test, something Coleman intends to change. Phelps and Milgram wrote, “On March 5, 2014, Coleman announced planned changes in the Mathematics SAT.” While the precise questions have yet to be unveiled, the changes appear to resemble the 1989 and 2000 standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) that moved away from assessing mathematical skills and techniques to assessing philosophical ideas about mathematics. This does not bode well, since the NCTM standards to which they referred “met catastrophic failure after lowering outcomes in every state that attempted” to implement them. According to Phelps and Milgram, reform math was too groovy even for California: “The NCTM standards were adopted there in 1992. By 1996 the resulting problems had become so acute that a rebellion led by parents and the state’s high tech industries forced the state to create new standards.” Maryland and Kentucky suffered similar fates in the 1990s.
The scholarly work of Stotsky, Milgram, and Phelps is in stark contrast to Coleman’s views, which one must read to fully appreciate. On November 29, 2012, a few weeks after becoming head of College Board, Coleman spoke at the Brookings Institution. According to the Brookings website, Coleman explained: “assessment is an extremely powerful signal for instruction, but you’ve got to own it. You’ve got to cut the [expletive] when you’re like, ooh we wrote this test and all these people are doing test preparation. They shouldn’t test preparation. They should look at the standards. I mean, is it a — like [expletive] you, like no. I hate that disingenuousness. If you put something on an assessment, in my view, you are ethically obligated to take responsibility that kids will practice it 100 times. So when I look over an instrument like SAT, I want to say to myself is it worth it. Is this work worth doing?” Maybe Coleman got carried away; perhaps he did not yet grasp the function of the SAT; or maybe he was, like, stricken with logorrhea.
Parents should be troubled by the fact that their children’s education is in the hands of unqualified and unelected people like Gates, Coleman, and Zimba. Teachers should be troubled by the fact that an assessment system run by unaccountable elites will inevitably lead to a prescriptive national curriculum with neither local control, nor room for the reflective practice of teaching. The standards belong to the CCSSO and NGA; publishers hold proprietary rights to curricula and textbooks; and assessments are owned by testing companies. Teachers can modify exactly none of this. Even if everyone agreed with NCTM’s reform math, Coleman’s groovy math, and turning the SAT upside-down, the fact that the system empowers an inscrutable, centralised bureaucracy impervious to input even from its own Validation Committee should give us pause.
We must assume that the road to CCSSI was paved with good intentions. The idea of common educational goals, a national curriculum to reach them, and a robust data collection system to track it all must have made sense to Gates, Coleman, and Zimba. Surely they did not anticipate the reaction their plans have elicited. Advocates claim Common Core is independent of the federal government, internationally benchmarked, and based on research, but as we have seen, it is far from it. Supporters use buzzwords like global competitiveness, 21st-century, critical thinking, career- and college-ready, and higher-order thinking. However, students, parents, and teachers are learning the hard way that calling something magic does not make it so. There are better ways to build a curriculum than corporate cronyism and secret standards. The question remains: Is this the best we can do? Clearly it is not. The CCSSI should be rejected on the merits because it fails to provide for a high-quality liberal education for American children.
Image | Robert S. Donovan