December 25, 2014


Inside the Mammoth Backlash to Common Core : How a bipartisan education reform effort became the biggest conservative bogeyman since Obamacare. (Tim Murphy, September/October 2014, Mother Jones)

COMMON CORE EMERGED from the ashes of No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era education reform law that tied federal funding for the nation's schools to new, mandatory standardized tests. It was a time of sometimes-chaotic trial and error among educational reformers, who feared American students were falling further behind their counterparts in Finland or (gulp) China. But many teachers and parents were frustrated by an approach that seemed to punish schools for problems beyond their control, and the lack of uniformity from state to state--even zip code to zip code--made it impossible to tell how well kids were actually performing.

Common Core set out to change that. This time, the overhaul would be initiated by the states, not Washington. It would create a set of key educational benchmarks--concepts and skills students should be learning, but not specific curricula. The jumble of jam-packed, state-specific tests ushered in by No Child Left Behind would be replaced by new tests, consistent across state lines, that measured not rote learning, but the critical-thinking skills that demonstrated a real understanding of concepts.

It didn't take long for some conservatives to conclude that the Obama administration, which helped to bankroll the standards' rollout, was planning to program a new generation of godless socialist worker drones. One Florida lawmaker alleged that Common Core will "attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can." Glenn Beck, who wrote a book declaring the standards "slavery," rhapsodized about the "sci-fi, Gattaca kind of thing"--like a "wireless skin conductance sensor" and a "posture analysis seat"--that he claimed would find its way into schools in the name of Core-compliant data collection.

Common Core won't turn your kids gay (or Muslim, as one activist suggested to me). Still, it is an ambitious vision--not the Marxist pipe dream that tea partiers have decried, but the brainchild of corporate-bred reformers such as Bill Gates. And it could consolidate power over public education in the hands of a small cadre who, along with the for-profit textbook and testing companies that lobbied for its adoption, stand poised to cash in.

Yet what made Common Core such a potent wedge is that it mobilized not just the usual suspects, but also the suburban communities that sat out the last round of ed reform battles. In the era of No Child Left Behind, reformers like Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC, would take charge of a poor, struggling, urban school district, earn plaudits for shaking things up, and leave behind shuttered schools, angry teachers, and a riled-up electorate. According to its supporters, what Common Core did, by applying a more rigorous testing standard across the board, was pull back the curtain on the problems that had existed everywhere else. It turned out that a lot of suburban schools weren't doing so well either, although the system didn't show it. They had been administering the wrong kind of tests and teaching the wrong kind of math, and now it was their students and teachers who would feel the heat of the "accountability" ethic implemented by a group of technocrats. Now it was white suburban parents who felt betrayed by their elected officials. And now, finally, politicians were listening.

THE DEBATE behind Common Core is as old as public education itself: Who controls how--and what--children learn? But the standards are the more immediate creation of two men, David Coleman and Jason Zimba. They met as Rhodes Scholars in the class of 1993, and afterward Coleman headed to McKinsey while Zimba became a physics professor at Bennington College (where Coleman's mother happened to be president).

In 2000, they reunited to launch the Grow Network, an organization that helped large school systems make sense of the flood of data derived from No Child Left Behind-inspired tests. They found no shortage of clients.

"If you were from Maryland, you didn't have to learn trigonometry, but your neighbors in Virginia did. Maybe they have less triangles," Bill Gates quipped.
In 2008, Coleman and Zimba unveiled an ambitious plan for overhauling education in an essay for the Carnegie Corporation. "The standards must be made significantly fewer in number, significantly clearer in their meaning and relevance for college and work, and significantly higher in terms of the expectations for mastery of what is covered," they wrote. In reading, for example, they said schools should deemphasize literature and rely more on "informational texts"--speeches, magazine articles, government reports. As Coleman would later put it, "It is rare in a working environment that someone says, 'Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood.'"

Coleman and Zimba determined that most K-12 math lacked real-world applications, too. They wanted the focus to be on real learning rather than rote memorization. These were not groundbreaking theories; they were distilled from years of thinking among educators, but many states had neglected to incorporate those ideas. Instead, states would simply add new concepts to existing standards, which became so unwieldy that it was a struggle to cover everything in the course of a school year, let alone in a test with any real merit. Washington, DC's standards had swelled to the point where 80 percent of the math concepts students were tested on were superfluous, by Coleman's estimation. Fixing education meant doing less, not more: America, he said, needs "an eraser, as well as a pen."

Coleman and Zimba weren't alone in seeking a fix. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a national organization of education commissioners, had been stymied by the same issues Coleman and Zimba had faced: whether the tests measured any actual learning. Adding another layer of complication, under No Child Left Behind, each state's tests and standards were different, making it hard to determine who was really improving, and frustrating colleges and business leaders who wanted to be sure of what their applicants knew.

Coleman and Zimba's plan attracted widespread support within the commissioners' group and the National Governors Association. The two organizations decided to work together to devise "a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12"--something that could put the United States on the same level as the fabled Scandinavians. It wasn't a curriculum: For, say, statistics, Common Core would suggest a standard like "use random sampling to draw inferences about a population"--and leave it up to schools to figure out how to get kids there.

But the reformers soon realized that as cash-strapped states confronted the Great Recession, funding a sweeping education initiative would be nearly impossible. So in 2008, Coleman and a top CCSSO official flew to Seattle to pitch Bill Gates.

For Gates and his wife, Melinda, it's not hard to see why the idea of achieving uniformity would have a unique appeal. Gates has built his fortune by taking a standardized platform--Windows--and crafting a platter of services to fit it. He compares Common Core to the electric socket--under the old system, it was as if appliance makers had to make a different plug for each state. "If you were from Maryland, you didn't have to learn trigonometry, but your neighbors in Virginia did. Maybe they have less triangles," Gates quipped to an audience of teachers in DC this past March.

Gates, who had already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into public education, bought in, and his foundation began spreading grants around to think tanks that could get the ball rolling politically, as well as to the governors' and state school officials' groups. He has channeled more than $200 million toward Common Core's implementation, with the money flowing to dozens of universities, state departments of education, policy institutes, and trade groups--recipients ranged from the progressive Center for American Progress to the conservative US Chamber of Commerce, which was awarded $1.38 million last year to whip up support for the standards.

Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, liked the Common Core concept and wanted to aid the implementation process by offering states major incentives to sign on. During his campaign, Obama had vowed to "fix the failures of No Child Left Behind." Now, he offered a carrot: If states agreed to adopt new "college and career readiness standards," they could compete for funds from a $4.35 billion Department of Education program called Race to the Top. The program awarded extra credit to states that tracked students' development from kindergarten through high school. No Child Left Behind had, for the first time, collected a huge amount of data about schools, but Duncan wanted schools to drill down deeper, zeroing in on individual students as they progressed through the education system. [...]

Common Core itself did not call for data collection (it was the federal Race to the Top Program that incentivized it), but the standardization it sought was a major goal for educational number crunchers. In the previous decade, studying student data had been a bit like comparing stats in a basketball league in which all the hoops were a different height. Common Core would ensure the rims were at the same level across the board.

And the reformers had bigger goals for student data: The Gates Foundation, along with the Carnegie Foundation and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., created a $100 million nonprofit database called inBloom, which would allow schools and testing companies to share information they collected about individual students, from attendance records and parents' names to test results. In the name of innovation, the data would also be made available to for-profit companies seeking to peddle a variety of educational products and services to school districts. (This spring, inBloom was scrapped over privacy concerns.)

With the education industry on board, the governors and school officials got to work. At a joint meeting in 2009, the two groups tapped Coleman and Zimba to lead working groups of math and language arts educators who would draft the new standards. Forty-eight governors agreed to participate in the development, with only Texas' Rick Perry and Alaska's Sarah Palin holding out.

Even the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation's largest teachers' unions and a frequent skeptic of high-stakes testing, hailed the project as "essential building blocks for a better education system." Coleman was triumphant. "Tell me a significant domestic policy area where Republicans and Democrats have gotten together and gotten something done outside of education," he later boasted. [...]

Far from reassuring Quackenbush, Common Core's bipartisan backing only made her more suspicious. She brought up George Soros, the liberal financier; Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and possible Republican presidential candidate, who has made the standards a central mission and has a financial stake in them through his education ventures; and Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and social-conservative icon, who was an early supporter.

"We have George Soros, we have Bill Gates, we have Jeb Bush, we have Huckabee, and you would think that those would be very strange bedfellows, but in fact they are the corporate elitists," she told me.

Posted by at December 25, 2014 7:38 AM

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