#CommonCore: Business Invades Public Education

Spring morning in a neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest. K-5 students get on the bus in Evergreen School District to join their friends for a day of learning. (Photo by Kaley Perkins / Independent Journalist)

The landscape of public schools has changed dramatically since the days when only white males were welcomed through their doors. Today’s public schools serve 50.1 million students; employee 3.3 million professionals; and spend $591 billion per year to keep their doors open.

Since their establishment in the late 1780’s public schools have been controlled by local school boards and state legislatures. States have developed their own standards; local school boards have decided their own curriculum.

That is changing.

In 2009, President Obama announced the “Race to the Top,” an educational reform initiative designed to encourage states to invest in innovation in public education. Part of Race to the Top requires states who participate to adopt a uniform set of academic standards, known as the Common Core.

Because of America’s strong tradition of local leadership, any move by the federal government that is seen to exert control over public education is met with resistance. Supporters of Race to the Top reform have, therefore, been very careful to dub it as “state led.”

And technically, the initiative is state-led. More on that later. It is also heavily influenced by business interests.

Aside from political conservatives, liberal school reformers, and the 3.4 million people who staff the nation’s K-12 classrooms, few are aware of the trend towards standards-based educational reform, its history, or the potential it has to change the idea of what it means to publicly educate a child in America.

Legislation and Educational Research That Led to Current Standards-Based Reform

The move of the federal government into public education isn’t brand new. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s declared a War on Poverty and signed into legislation the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”). The ESEA funds programs that serve the most vulnerable populations in America’s schools. Title I funds are part of ESEA.

The timeline below presents a review of legislation, including ESEA, and educational studies initiated at the federal, state, and policy-maker level that led to the current educational reform. Notes with each slide explain how each step contributed to the current structure of the Race to the Top initiative. (Links provided to source documents and videos.)

Strategic Alliances & Race to the Top Foundation

The seeds for the Race to the Top initiative can be found in a 2008 report put out by the National Governor’s Association (“state led”), The Council of Chief State School Officers (also “state led”), and Achieve, Inc.

Page 4 spells out the five-step plan for preparing America’s students to compete globally, the first of which suggests the need for a set of national common academic standards:
Action 1:Upgrade state standards by adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12 to ensure that students are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to be globally competitive.

In 2006-2007, the National Governor’s Association, the Pew Charitable Trust, and The Pew Research Center put out a multi-state case study on best models in “Innovation.” The study found that innovation is most robust where there exist strategic alliances between government leadership, higher educational R & D resources, and participation from private enterprise. This is the model on which the Race to the Top was built.

  • Government: the National Governor’s Association.
  • Education: the Council of Chief State School Officers.
  • Private enterprise: established non-profit and for profit companies that provide educational services outlined by the criteria of the Race to the Top initiative; the corporations who have funded them.

The Common Core State Standards

Blue represents the annual recurring expense for public education in the United States. Red represents the one-time grant that will be divvied up among the participating states. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the United States spends $571 billion (link) on education annually. The Race to the Top money represents a one time 0.76% of the annual education budget.

Force was not required to make states adopt uniform national standards.

The Race to the Top earmarked $4.35 billion in federal money to be awarded as grants to states that would align their educational practices with those that standards-based educational reformers had recommended.

In the picture to the right, blue represents the annual, recurring budget for public instruction. Red represents the one-time pot of federal grant money that is being split amongst the 45 states who opted in.

The Common Core standards are just one of four Race to the Top criteria. To be awarded grant money, grant winners are required to:

The Opponents

Grassroot Conservatives

Political conservatives oppose the Common Core based on what they believe to be an over-stepping of the Tenth Amendment and privacy . Grassroots debate at the state level often revolves around this.

Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan’s characterized opponents to Common Core as “white suburban moms” who are upset because their kids will score lower on the new tests.  Janet Wilson - the white suburban mom to whom Duncan referred - started a “National Opt-Out and Refuse the Test” campaign and spreads the word that parents can opt their children out of standardized testing.

(As of 4.9.14, Duncan appears to be backtracking from his support of Common Core.)

State Legislatures

Challenges are also emerging at the state level. Some state legislatures that previously adopted the standards are debating feasibility and legality. Implementation timelines; HIPPA and FERPA privacy violations inherent in biometric data collection;  perceived over-stepping of federal authority; need for sound fiscal analysis ; and resistance to standardized testing are issues being state legislatures around the nation. The Christian-based “Truth in American Education” tracks state-level legislation regarding the Common Core.

Connecticut introduced legislation that would prohibit the State Board of Education from spending funds on pro-Common Core publicity. The Board offered a $1 million contract to a PR firm that could help them turn around negative public opinion.

Business Leaders

Businessman, Jamie Vollmer was once a supporter of privatization, and now he is a vocal supporter of community - not business - involvement in public education. In his blueberry story, Vollmer explains how a veteran school teacher challenged him with a question that made him realize that education cannot be run like a business.

“We take them all, Mr. Vollmer, and that’s why it’s not a business. It’s a school,” says the teacher.

To an auditorium of returning teachers in Longview and Kelso school districts last fall, Vollmer presented a document listing the mandates that have been added to the public school system since the 1900’s.

“This list doesn’t say educate our children,” Vollmer told the crowd of teachers. “This list says, ‘Raise our kids,'” he said.

The auditorium filled with K-12 teachers erupted in applause.

Vollmer asked teachers to discuss why they thought that public opinion had become negative toward the teaching profession.

One teacher referred the media attention behind international benchmarking. The idea that America’s students are falling  is built into the standardized testing as well as the overall justification for a national set of standards.

In this audio clip, Vollmer explains why he considers the rhetoric about international benchmarking to be invalid.  He compares poverty statistics between the United States and Finland which, he believes, are a more accurate explanation for America’s poor international showing.

Another audience member claimed that corporate interests are usurping public education, limiting what teachers can do in the classroom. Vollmer responded on the topic of privatization.

Educational Reformers

Opposition to Common Core from the field of education is robust.

High scores on high-stakes, standardized testing is hardly accepted as the end goal of education in this arena.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, curates members’ anti-Common Core articles and distrubutes her own.

The titles of her two most recent books (here and here) clearly indicate Ravitch’s arguments against current educational reform. She and her engaged online community combat privatization, school choice, high-stakes testing, and what they identify as a profit motive behind the current Common Core reform.

Ravitch uses the term “corporate reform” to describe the Common Core.

Authors of the Common Core

According to an NGA announcement, the authors of the Common Core are employed by five companies. (Created by Kaley Perkins, March 2014)

Ravitch may be right on the money. In July 2009, at about the same time that President Obama announced the Race to the Top grant contest, the National Governor’s Association published a document listing the authors of the Common Core State Standards.

English Language Arts #CommonCore standards were written by two subject matter experts and employees from these five companies.

Aside from a couple of subject matter experts, the authors of both the math and English language arts Common Core standards represent a small fraternity of five companies. Each the these companies provides educational services and stand to benefit from the adoption of the Common Core, standardized tests, required school turnaround, teacher preparation materials, curriculum, and further consulting and commissioned research work.

The proportions in the graph account for the fact that some of the authors worked for, directed, or founded more than one of the five companies.

More Business Influence

While supporters of Common Core are quick to say that teachers will maintain autonomy over their classrooms, skepticism remains. Articles like the one out of Pearson predicting that data will upend current instructional models do little to allay their fears.

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and Director of the Gates Foundation, also does little to allay fears. His foundation is largely vested in Common Core, and Microsoft is poised to benefit financially from software, operating systems, and educational material design.

In an address to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Gates is careful to point out that the state standards are “state led.” In his vision of the future of public instruction, he sees the standards as being just the beginning. According to Gates in 2009, Common Core is just the beginning. Next will come a common curriculum and standardized tests. “It will unleash a powerful market of people providing services for better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large, uniform base of customers looking at using products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better,” Gates says.

Keep Following the Money

In a letter to John Jebb in September of 1785, John Adams spoke of education as the means to keep the citizenry independent of a ruling class:

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the expense of the people themselves. They must be taught to reverence themselves, instead of adoring their servants, their generals, admirals, bishops, and statesmen.”

By electing to align with the Race to the Top criteria, states agree to adopt a national set of standards that was written by employees from five companies, all of whom stand to benefit financially from the Common Core.

On the one hand, successful businesses have experience running lean and nimble operations. Educational businesses have established publishing and distribution channels. Strategic partnerships exist between the innovation partners of governmental leaders, higher educational research facilities, educational research companies, and educational services providers.

On the other hand, the United States is a very diverse nation. Having its educational policy designed by a small fraternity of companies who share in a standards-based philosophy is suspect.  This is especially true when all of the companies stand to benefit by the adoption of the standards

Four of the five companies are non-profits which means the mission of the business is not to return an investment for investors. This does not, however, require that the staffs of non-profits sacrifice financially. In 2009, the outgoing director of The College Board, one of the five companies whose employees authored the Common Core, was compensated $1.3 million.

David Coleman is listed as an English Language Arts Common Core author. Coleman founded Student Achievement Partners with Jason Zimba and Sue Pimental; he is now the acting director of The College Board.

The College Board did not return a call to comment.

Mercedes Schneider’s has written a series of posts chronicling the more than $200 million in Gates Foundation’s  support for the Race to the Top adoption and implementation. All five of the companies whose employees authored the Common Core received funding from The Gates Foundation. The GE Foundation has also contributed vast sums to support the educational reform currently underway as a result of the Race to the Top contest.

The chart below shows investments that GE and The Gates Foundation are making into the five companies.

Sources: http://www.gefoundation.com/developing-futures-in-education/partners/


How Companies Will Benefit From National Adoption of Common Core

America’s Choice / Pearson

  • School turnaround consultation - Race to the Top requires non-performing schools to turnaround. Pearson (America’s Choice at time of Common Core authoring) consults with school districts on five year school turnaround contracts. Funds have come from Title I / ESEA funds. Elemenatary school contracts are $70,000 per year. Secondary school contracts run $75,000 per year.
  • Textbook publishing - Summarizing a study put out by the Center of Publishing Market Data, Lai Saetern with the Center for Digital Education writes that in 2007, the states spent $6.4 billion on K-12 textbooks. Saetern also cites trends toward digital textbook formats read on mobile devices ranging from $299-$999. Each device requires an operating system. Microsoft makes operating systems for mobile devices.
  • Received $2,999,047 from Gates Foundation.
  • Pearson was awarded the license to distribute Microsoft products.
  • Pearson research predicts further disruption of current learning models: “Data to Upend Current Learning Models

Achieve, Inc.

  • Established theme of current standards-based educational reform. In 2006-2007 Achieve co-authored “Ready or Not” report which solidified the “College and Career Ready” theme.
  • Introduced international benchmarking which further laid the foundation for standards-based reform. In 2008, Achieve, authors “Benchmarking” report.
  • Achieve is the tactical arm of the educational policy put forth by the National Governor’s Association and “business leaders.”
  • Company bio on “Benchmarking” report reads: “Created by the nation’s governors and business leaders, Achieve is a bipartisan, non-profit organization that helps states raise academic standards, improve assessments and strengthen accountability to prepare all young people for post-secondary success.”
  • Received $36.709,002 from The Gates Foundation and $7,000,000 from The GE Foundation.

Student Achievement Partners

  • Online resource for teachers who are working on classroom implementation of the standards.
  • Website announces that Student Achievement Partners does not receive money from local, state, or district contracts or from publishers.
  • At  $6,533,350 million in funding from the Gates Foundation and $18,000,000 from GE, SAP is funded, at least in part, by corporate foundations.

ACT, Inc.

  • ACT provides college entrance and America’s graduating students.
  • In 2013, 1,799,243 American students took the ACT exam. Tests cost between $34 and $49.50, depending upon inclusion of writing portion. ACT published “The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013” report.
  • At $34 per test, ACT, Inc. would make just under $61.2 million annually on college assessment tests.
  • The number of tests given stands to increase substantially. Instead of tests in 3rd, 5th, 8th, and for college assessments, all students in all grades will be tested annually.
  • As stated above, some states are debating legislation that would allow them to do fiscal feasibility studies before full adoption of the standards and assessments that are part of Race to the Top.

The College Board

  • The College Board produces the SAT college entrance assessment as well as the nation’s Advanced Placement tests.
  • The SAT test alone costs $51. In 2013, 1,660,047 students took the SAT test. 1,666,047 x $51 = $84.6 million.
  • The College Board partnered with Khan Academy to provide free SAT preparation classes.
  • The College Board is redesigning the SAT test to align with Common Core standards.
  • The College Board expands customized college entrance assistance to low-income students.
  • Instead of tests in 3rd, 5th, 8th, and for college assessments, all students in all grades will be tested annually.

An interesting sidenote about private funding sources is that private companies are not required to comply with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They must comply with FOIA requests regarding money they receive from the federal government. In a scenario where the privatization of public schools takes root, there is a potential for private donors to have influence over the policy-makers and providers of educational services that are used to educate the nation’s youth.

Teachers Embrace Standards, Are Leary of Emphasis on Standardized Tests

For teachers, reality is what happens in the classroom.

Rod McHattie served as Principal at Mark Morris High School until he became the Special Education Director at Longview School District in Longview, Wash. (Photo hosted on Longview School District’s website.)

Rod McHattie attended a Common Core training in February 2014. McHattie is a former principal at R.A. Long High School in Longview, Washington and is now Director of Special Education for the School District.

McHattie said of Common Core, “It’s really just asking teachers to teach the way we taught 35 years ago. We are asking kids to do activities at higher levels of taxonomy.”

McHattie has no issue with the standards. He refers to research coming out of West Coast post-secondary educational research labs at Seattle Pacific University, University of Washington, Portland State University, and UCLA. “The standards are based in research,” McHattie said.

“What I don’t like about the Common Core,” McHattie continued, “is the legislation tying teacher evaluations to standardized testing.”

“We are being asked to help students engage meaningfully with content in a collaborative way… respectfully,” says the former manager of a staff of teachers. “But then it is turned around and teachers are penalized if kids don’t perform well on tests.”

“It’s all stick and no carrot,” McHattie said.

The Implementation

Alexis Murray is a student teacher at Sunset Elementary School in Vancouver, Wash. In this slideshow, Murray uses Common Core principles to structure the science lesson she teaches to her fifth grade students.

“I feel lucky to be in a school that is implementing the Core,” Murray says. In her teacher preparation program at local Washington State University, Murray says Common Core was just a class she took. “(The Common Core standards) are based on research and make sense, so I’m not sure why people are so resistant to them.”

In the 30 school districts that make up Educational Service District 112 in Southwest Washington State, Marilyn Melville-Irvine is the person responsible for making sure teachers know how to use the standards. As a 25-year veteran English language arts instructor, Melville-Irvine says, “I have seen the pendulum swing more than once in my career,” she said. “Our students need to be stretched with rigorous standards.”

About concerns specific to Common Core, Melville-Irvine says, “People just need to look at the standards.” (Math, English Language Arts) She is less concerned about politics and more concerned about helping teachers succeed in a state that  is proactively adopting them. Melville-Irvine anticipates collaboration across the nation and points to resources like The Teaching Channel to demonstrate the power that technology has to empower teachers.

In the video below, Melville-Irvine and other instructional coaches from Longview and Kelso School Districts hold the second of three trainings for the English Language Arts (ELA) standards. A common question that teachers had for the instructional coaches was how to modify the more challenging content for their students with lower reading levels. In the video one teacher who has been using the standards for the year reports that the higher level analysis her students have been using is seeping into their discussions.

Common Core Training: Washington State Teachers Learn How to Implement the Standards from Kaley Perkins on Vimeo.

(Update on May 6, 2014) The following thesis accompanies this project:

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