Where We Stand: Common Core

books_smLast updated: Monday, February 24, 2014

The Common Core standards (CCSS) made several headlines last week, as officials in New York State and the president of the National Education Association criticized the way the standards have been implemented. But one crucial question has been largely overlooked in the mass media conversation about CCSS: who stands to benefit most from it—children, or corporations?

Contrary to what is suggested in the New York Times article about CCSS opposition in New York, many of the first people to speak out against national standards were progressives who were concerned about the corporate origins of the Common Core project, recognizing it as yet another example of how education policymaking in America has become less about the educational interests of children and more about the financial interests of corporations.

As public school advocates’ opposition to the Common Core grew, the professional Right seized on the opportunity in order to further their own goals to eliminate the very institution of public education, and to pick yet another fight with the Obama Administration. The subsequent media coverage of the political fight over the standards has drawn attention away from the deeper concerns about the profitization of education that earlier critics have tried to raise. For the sake of our students and public education more generally, we need to return to that first conversation.

There is still much we don’t know about how the Common Core standards came to be, given the secretive nature of the development process. For instance, we don’t know the extent to which the federal government was involved in their development, which is one of the key pieces of information we are seeking in our recent FOIA request.

Yet we do know that the standards were ostensibly created by working groups convened by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), two organizations whose corporate partners include profitable education companies like Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, nonprofit-in-name-only Educational Testing Service, and more.

All of these companies profit from the sale of tests and curriculum products, and all of them stand to benefit from the possibility of a national market for those products. Or, in the words of one Common Core advocate,

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.

Those words were written by Joanne Weiss, former CEO of New Schools Venture Fund and the original director of Race to the Top, the federal education program which required states to adopt the standards to be eligible for funding, and which awarded federal funds to testing companies via the two assessment consortia created to make tests aligned to the Common Core. Her words and actions illustrate why we at Integrity in Education are so concerned about revolving door politics in education policy: we object to our government officials using our tax dollars to enact policies that put corporate interests ahead of our children’s interests.

Meanwhile, as the politics of Common Core were discussed last week, Pearson and Microsoft—the world’s most profitable education company and the world’s most profitable software company—announced their plans to collaborate on new CCSS products, including connecting Pearson’s already-dominant digital CCSS course content to Microsoft tablets. It should be noted that Microsoft is also a corporate partner of the NGA and CCSSO, and that their founder and second largest shareholder is Bill Gates, whose foundation has funded literally every aspect of CCSS from development, to implementation and promotion.

But they are hardly alone in this. Other companies have already made millions on the Common Core, even before it has yet to be fully implemented nationwide. Yet as they and others profit, teachers, students and parents have already complained about numerous problems with these products.

For example, teachers in New York State have objected to the formulaic, scripted nature of the curriculum modules. These were developed in part by Pearson, among other vendors. Teachers and parents alike are also concerned nonsensical activities, like the one that asked students to “draw a picture of nobody.”

On the Common Core tech front, states including Oklahoma, Indiana, and Kentucky all experienced serious problems when trying out new computerized testing platforms last spring. And in the rush to get more tablets loaded with CCSS-aligned content into students’ hands, companies like Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify may have overlooked both quality and safety. Guilford County, NC schools sent back thousands of tablets after problems including broken screens, glitches that prevented some from even connecting to the internet, and after some students’ chargers melted. Many local residents question whether the tablet pilot was a worthwhile investment.

In many ways, the Common Core is a solution in search of a problem, that has begun to cause more problems. There was nothing in states’ previous standards that prevented teachers from creating interesting, challenging learning environments or students from having deep, meaningful learning experiences. And there is nothing in these standards that will automatically prevent classroom teaching and learning from devolving into rote memorization or drill-and-kill instruction, especially if they’re tied to high-stakes standardized tests that reward that kind of instruction.

When all is said and done, standards don’t teach or learn. Teachers and students do. What they’re able to accomplish in the classroom depends on whether they have the time, energy, resources, and freedom to create and pursue meaningful learning opportunities. By cutting school budgets and imposing test-driven policy mandates, elected officials doing the bidding of corporate interest groups have threatened their time, energy, resources and freedom. Imposing new mandates related to Common Core won’t restore what they’ve taken.

The primary people who benefit from Common Core are those who sell products necessitated by the large-scale adoption of new standards. As citizens, we need to ask ourselves if an initiative that mainly benefits a small group of for-profit education companies is really worth the increasingly scarce time, money, energy and attention that is being devoted to this at the expense of other pressing educational concerns.