By Sergio Flores.
My name is Sergio Flores, I have been a public school teacher for thirty-nine years. Ten years in Mexico and the rest in California in LAUSD and WCSD where I teach fifth grade now. I have been a member of NEA and CTA since 1991.
Six erratic years of Common Core State Standards have tens of thousands of parents and students feeling cheated, teachers more demoralized, and district officials troubled by the projected cost of testing alone. Enraged parents of the New York’s schools posting abysmal scores in the past two years brought national attention to irregularities of both the CCSS and their tests. In protest, 40,000 students opted out of the CCSS testing for next year[i]. In addition, in Chicago and Seattle, Florida, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey thousands of teachers have protested and even rejected to be part of the SBAC or PARCC testing[ii]. On top of these problems, now districts face a new expense to provide the computerized testing system. The cost of tests, bandwidth infrastructure, and devices in California alone may reach a billion dollar annually. [iii] So, in the face of this slow motion train wreck, I ask: why is NEA on board with Common Core?
Navigating the NEA website section Common Core State Standards (CCSS) gave me the impression of reading a paid promotional brochure. There are several subsections, articles, and informative videos explaining and promoting CCSS. Contrasting with the CCSS presence in the NEA website, the institution of public education receives minor attention.
Everything on the NEA section seems all right or innocuous; after all, it is information for NEA members. The CCSS “highlights” subsection stands out with a tool kit with links to CCSS materials; a Student Achievement Partners website full of free materials to better understand and implement CCSS; a list of propaganda explaining the worthiness of CCSS, an how already parents and teachers are cooperating to make CCSS work; and a new section about materials available in i-tunes and through the ASCD website, among other links. In addition, there is a selection of articles and multimedia giving a positive spin to CCSS. But is this is just information? What could be wrong about NEA’s CCSS page?
There are two major concerns about the CCSS promotional page in the NEA website. One is that the CCSS page itself is inappropriate: there is an evident promotion for CCSS in NEA’s website for no valid reason! But the bigger concern is: Why does NEA show such an inordinately vested interest in promoting CCSS in the first place?
To come up with an answer I found interesting and relevant information about CCSS. First of all, CCSS is copyrighted by the NGA Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). So, CCSS was not an NEA initiative or the product of a partnership with these entities. Secondly, there never was a serious debate on the issue of NEA supporting CCSS so committedly. As a matter of fact, the policy brief [iv] of the official NEA position on CCSS signed by President Van Roekel in 2010 is based on information from three privately funded entities: ASCD, The Economy Policy Institute (EPI), and The Hunt Institute. Thirdly, against proper procedure, CCSS was not even been properly piloted! This oversight alone raises reasonable doubts about the unwavering and expensive support the largest teachers association offer to CCSS[v].
I found peculiar that the NEA leadership has remained firmly supporting the implementation of CCSS[vi] despite the absence of academic or anecdotal evidence, or a valid reason to commit millions of dollars to it. I found even stranger that after dreadful results, NEA leaders keep asking millions of frustrated members to embrace CCSS. So, why are NEA leaders still doing it?[vii] A plausible explanation requires a more complete context.
Corporate Reformers Are Opportunistic Edupreneurs
For veteran educators, the potential long and short term consequences of the CCSS problematic implementation –confusion, sinking scores, lack of support and materials, students and teachers frustration, unreliable systems of evaluation, and so forth– would be good enough reasons to request a cautious and vigilant approach. However, there is another ignored reason that should be comprehensively considered: the undue influence of Bill Gates in the creation and promotion of CCSS. [viii]
Record shows that from its inception the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (B&MGF) has sponsored and promoted CCSS.[ix] Conceivably, given the fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has bankrolled or heavily supported all companies connected with the creation and advancement of CCSS, NEA could have been swayed by them. For instance, NEA has associated itself with:
1) the company ASCD, whose materials NEA promotes in its website, was awarded $3 Million to aid nationwide in implementing common core standards. 2) Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit organization founded by David Coleman, Susan Pimentel and Jason Zimba, lead writers of the Common Core State Standards, which received a grant of $4,042,920 in order to support teachers nationwide in understanding and implementing the Common Core State Standards. Prior to that, Achieve had received $23.5 million in Gates’s funding. Another $13.2 million followed after CCSS creation, with $9.3 million devoted to “building strategic alliances” for CCSS promotion.
3) NGA, which received $23.6 million from the Gates Foundation from 2002 through 2008. After June 2009, NGA received an additional $2.1 million from Gates, expressly to work with state policymakers on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and later $1,598,477 for “rethinking state policies on teachers’ effectiveness.”
4) CCSSO, to which prior to June 2009, the Gates Foundation had given $47.1 million (from 2002 to 2007), with the largest amount focused on data “access” and “data driven decisions.” Later, the B&MGF gave CCSSO $31.9 million, with the largest grants earmarked for CCSS implementation and assessment, and data acquisition and control.[x]
5) Hunt Institute,[xi] which played an instrumental role with a $5 million grant from the B&MGF. According to the Washington Post, the Hunt Institute “coordinated more than a dozen organizations — many of them also Gates grantees — including the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, National Council of La Raza, the Council of Chief State School Officers, National Governors Association, Achieve and the two national teachers unions.”
It easy to conclude that the B&MGF strategically positioned each one of these organizations to do a specific job for the concluding purposes of creating and promoting CCSS! As noted, all edupreneurs in these misunderstood non-profit corporations actually have managed millions of dollars courtesy of the B&MGF.
NEA is not a company like Achieve, ASCD, or the others; it is inherently different. Being a union or association, NEA leaders take their own decisions democratically and based on what is best for NEA members. Therefore, grants do not dictate or influence decisions.
However, it could be argued that the formidable influence of the B&MGF driving CCSS would warrant NEA members’ request for transparency and explanations. If the B&MGF funded each of the mentioned companies in order to support the cause of CCSS, would it expect the same from NEA?[xii] According to the B&MGF records, NEA has been the recipient of more than seven million dollars since 2009 for the purpose of advocating for CCSS.
Has this unsolicited money influenced leaders’ decisions in this, and perhaps, other matters? Perhaps even without that money NEA leaders would have approved having that well designed CCSS section anyway. Maybe as well, NEA leaders would have organized those several workshops and events for members to learn and implement CCSS.
What is certain is that when years ago the leaders of NEA and CTA unexpectedly became devoted agents for CCSS, these organizations gave this new and unwarranted project an undeserved validity. That legitimacy by association indeed exempted and protected CCSS from the timely, authentic, valid, and probably devastating scrutiny from rank and file members. Furthermore, a collateral damage was done to the image and reputation of dissenters and protesters. By NEA becoming a pro-CCSS agent, all dissidents were automatically disqualified and swiftly destined into isolation in their own associations.
Oddly, that exclusionary move did not dissipate the opposition. In fact, while many dutifully accepted CCSS at face value, some courageous teachers looked for alternatives to express their discontent. That reaction explains that thousands of non-conforming teachers formed a fringe group such as the BATs (Badass Teachers Organization), which devotes itself to question and challenge the new orthodoxy.
Unconscionably, by becoming agents for CCSS, teachers’ associations’ leaders took away their members’ prospect for dialogue, debate, or complaint. With the associations themselves reciting the reformers CCSS doctrine, unsuspecting teachers had to obey, comply, and conform. Tragically, when teachers could have put an end to feeling demoralized after a decade of NCLB, having NEA reinforcing CCSS mandates continued an even more frustrating path.
From a union point of view, embracing CCSS was a colossal blunder. Even NEA President Van Roekel acknowledged that teachers asked NEA to oppose it. NEA’s idea of helping teachers and public education by supporting CCSS failed; in effect, the attempt was counterproductive. As it happened, the confusing and frustrating process of implementing CCSS in New York, Chicago, and now in progress in California, does not seem to validate NEA’s faith in CCSS. In fact, the serious issues about CCSS manufacture and its implementation make a strong case for NEA members to redirect their efforts from CCSS toward rescuing and rebuilding our public education system[xiii].
No Contest Between Corporate Reformers vs Public School Teachers
After learning how CCSS came about, one has to admire Bill Gates’s brilliance in selling the CCSS’s promotion to teachers. From the beginning, teachers were taught that CCSS were necessary standards and that in order to apply them properly they needed to accept a new paradigm. Unlike NCLB with its prescriptive, dry, lessons and bubble tests, the sales pitch presented CCSS as a teacher friendly, collaborative, and fresh approach to teaching! The pedagogical part of CCSS took center stage. Appropriate teaching methods were introduced by districts and teachers associations. Teachers would be in charge of planning, designing lesson, evaluating –everything. CCSS was wonderful![xiv]
Additionally, thanks to the grants offered by the B&MGF every stakeholder would vouch for CCSS — billionaires, politicians, administrators, board members, PTA’s, and the teachers’ associations’ leaders. As teachers were concerned, CCSS was a gift from heaven. NCLB was dead, long live CCSS!
Bill Gates and all the corporate reformers involved in CCSS could not be more pleased — the way the implementation was progressing meant good news for business[xv]. Privatizing policies were firmer in place than ever. Consequently, there would be more opportunities for profit and control[xvi]. As a matter of fact, some corporate reformers were already lobbying for the potential billions of dollars in revenue in computer data collection and testing alone. Clearly, corporate reformers knew what they wanted and worked diligently to succeed[xvii].
In a glaring contrast, despite public education being privatized, teachers showed neither goals nor interest to stop it. Understandably, teachers seemed to be content about CCSS being better than NCLB! In fact, NEA’s poll in 2013 showed that teachers strongly supported CCSS; teachers had only read the selling points in bold letters, and not the hidden obligations in fine print.
What corporate reformers conveniently kept for themselves was that CCSS is an all included and expensive package — It has standards, curriculum, and a convoluted testing plan, all in a package that included even more arbitrary accountability. In short, NCLB had been a road, and now CCSS was the highway to the privatization of public education. Indeed, later teachers found out that reality differed sharply from rhetoric, as the 2014 Gallup survey showed when more than 60% of teachers responded that they felt frustrated or worried about CCSS. But as expected, since teachers had no other direction or drive, they could not articulate opposition[xviii].
If NCLB had taught teachers a lesson, it was to distrust the corporate reformers when they tell them how to do their jobs.[xix]. No one would criticize teachers if they did not believe corporate reformers this time. By now it is evident that CCSS is not about solving the problem of identifying effective or ineffective teachers, or satisfy the need of standards to improve unrelated problems, or about giving those good and wise teachers something new and better to take from CCSS trainings. Certainly, it is not about not losing the ludicrous international competition. What is certain is that there is much more corporate reformers do not share with teachers about CCSS, as the Chicago Teachers Union realized a year ago when it passed a resolution opposing it[xx].
According to its short and hectic record, CCSS seems to be more the corporate reformers’ next and final step to take over public education, than a tool to fix and improve education. Public school teachers, who have been overworked already, will be even busier. They will spend extra hours learning anything in order to implement CCSS properly.
By design, teachers would be too busy and scrutinized to pay attention to the structural changes brought upon them. In the meantime, the responsibility of this bold project would be as always solely on teachers’ shoulders. As in the past, when the poor scores come, corporate reformers will criticize even more harshly public schools and teachers, and will come up with more privatizing solutions that would find no opposition. Following recurrent patterns, corporate reformers will keep this CCSS trend of controlling the direction of public education while being unaccountable and making profits in every possible way –consultants, materials, books, charter schools, and so on, while teachers do all the work for even less money in an arbitrarily imposed accountability system.
I believe that by learning more than what they are taught about CCSS, NEA and CTA members will find reasons to care once again about their public schools and their profession and less about CCSS. With the revelations about CCSS, and after more than twenty years of looking at the reformers demonizing, underfunding, and privatizing public education, NEA and CTA rank-and-file members will find appropriate to stop validating and promoting CCSS. Perhaps teachers will organize themselves to save our schools as Alfie Kohn has suggested.
I for one find NEA supporting CCSS unethical, outrageous, and self-destructive. It is contemptible to support CCSS so resolutely while deserting public education when is being privatized[xxi]. This shift from CCSS to defending public education would be a step in the right direction.
CCSS or Public Education
An anti-public education ideological campaign has been carried out for decades. Neoliberalism asks for schools to be managed as business competing to succeed or fail in free-markets. Indeed, it has rendered teachers unable to appreciate the public education’ social value or their own role as stakeholders.[xxii] Civic values –democracy, solidarity, justice, fairness, and the common good–which shaped the attitudes and norms that sustained America’s public schools have been eroded. Slowly, these values have been crowded out by market values like profit, efficiency, competition, and choice. Corporate reformers use these effectively to criticize, cut, fire, dismantle, and privatize. As a result, public education has been devaluated even in the eyes of teachers, while CCSS has been placed as a chief piece of the reforms. Privatization is accepted because teachers have been conditioned to think and act less as citizens and more as consumers.
According to the corporate reformers’ narrative, schools have been failing to their students, and it is the teachers’ fault. Oddly, they have been declaring that for decades already without serious questioning from teachers[xxiii]. Hence, corporate reformers have shown absolute confidence instructing teachers in how to fix the alleged problems time after time, despite their record of consistent failure. After their failing record, it is incredible that corporate reformers still control teachers to the point that they do not question or challenge their unwarranted alternatives, or let alone defend their own public schools from being privatized. Now, they proposed the notion that high standards are the missing factor to finally get the reforms right and teachers agree once more. Well, they are wrong! As the late Gerald Bracey explained in 2009,
Higher standards as a curative for school ills have been actively promoted for over 100 years. It seems to have had no effect, at least from the perspective of the public school critics. Secretary Duncan spoke of the “education crisis” in virtually all of his early speeches, coupling it to the economic crisis. Thus, after 100 years of cries for higher standards, we are still in an education crisis. The push for higher standards has not worked. Perhaps it is time to try something else. The Sidwell approach looks good to me. Can it work in schools such as the one Linda Perlstein describes in Tested? She thinks so, but not while high-stakes testing displaces true education. This is the critical issue. As Yong Zhao pointed out in the Detroit Free Press, “President Barack Obama and national education officials appear to be moving the United States toward national K-12 standards—a mandate that would cause irreversible damage to an education system already suffering from No Child Left Behind. [xxiv]
In closing, I cannot remember the last time any stakeholder seriously defended or advocated for public education in public! Disturbingly, with a well-funded and motivated group of profiteers attacking it now with CCSS, and nobody devoted to defending it, public education in America seems to have its days numbered. Will the teachers break the spell of CCSS on time to rescue public education?
Who wins, who loses, who cares?
[i] In a “Poison Pill for Learning” R. Hiller and A. Cody make the point that CCSS is damaging both teachers and students. http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2014/09/02/the-common-core-standards-are-bad-for-teachers
[ii] The Opt-Out movement is growing nationwide. This article provides information about its dimension and impact. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/05/03/why-the-movement-to-opt-out-of-common-core-tests-is-a-big-deal/
The Commission on State Mandates could compel California officials to come up with the money, if the panel finds that the state failed to fully fund a program that it requires, said Heather Halsey, the commission’s executive director. State officials also could opt to shut down or limit the testing system.[iii] http://www.ocregister.com/articles/districts-649666-state-school.html
[iv] The policy brief repeats the talking points made by CCSS promoters: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Campaign for the Whole Child resources at www.wholechildeducation.org Economic Policy Institute. Broader Bolder Initiative resources at www.boldapproach.org The Hunt Institute. Blueprint for Education Leadership, Numbers 3 and 4, June 2009 and June 2010, www. hunt-institute.org Common Core Standards Initiative. The standards and resource materials. www.corestandards.org http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/PB30CommonCoreStateStandards2010.pdf
[v] The NGA/CCSSO common core standards should be subjected to extensive validation, trials and subsequent revisions before implementation. During this time, states should be encouraged to carefully examine and experiment with broad-based school-evaluation systems. http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/PB-NatStans-Mathis.pdf
[vi] Not surprisingly the protests were centered in the abysmal results in the testing associated with CCSS, and not by the implementation. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/03/27/as-testing-opt-out-movement-grows-so-does-pushback-from-schools/
[viii] Lindsey Layton wrote in the Washington Post: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn’t just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards. With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes. Bill Gates was de facto organizer, providing the money and structure for states to work together on common standards in a way that avoided the usual collision between states’ rights and national interests that had undercut every previous effort, dating from the Eisenhower administration. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-bill-gates-pulled-off-the-swift-common-core-revolution/2014/06/07/a830e32e-ec34-11e3-9f5c-9075d5508f0a_story.html
[ix] Merceders Shneider writes: The four principal organizations associated with CCSS– NGA, CCSSO, Achieve, and Student Achievement Partners– have accepted millions from Bill Gates. In fact, prior to CCSS “completion” in June 2009, Gates had paid millions to NGA, CCSSO, and Achieve. And the millions continued to flow following CCSS completion. https://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2013/08/27/a-brief-audit-of-bill-gates-common-core-spending/
[x]Researcher Mercedes Schneider explains better than anybody the intricate web that Mr. Gates’ philanthropy has made around CCSS http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mercedes-schneider/a-brief-audit-of-bill-gat_b_3837421.html
[xi] The foundation, for instance, gave more than $5 million to the University of North Carolina-affiliated Hunt Institute, led by the state’s former four-term Democratic governor, Jim Hunt, to advocate for the Common Core in statehouses around the country. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-bill-gates-pulled-off-the-swift-common-core-revolution/2014/06/07/a830e32e-ec34-11e3-9f5c-9075d5508f0a_story.html
[xii] NEA has a section titled “NEA’s involvement in the Common Core State Standards? It reads: NEA decided to join the partnership for two major reasons. First, it is clear that that there is broad support from many groups of stakeholders for common standards. Second, NEA wanted to be sure that the concerns and voices of teachers were considered as these standards were developed. That has happened as the project staff met with groups of mathematics and English language arts teachers who were NEA members and National Board Certified.
There is evidence that they listened carefully to our members and incorporated many of their suggestions into the subsequent drafts of the standards. Three of our teachers from the review group were on official review committees for the standards. http://www.nea.org/home/46665.htm
[xiii] Diane Ravitch points out a devastating flaw in the CCSS’ creation: The Common Core standards cannot be considered standards when judged by the ANSI (The American National Standards Institute) requirements. According to ANSI, the process of setting standards must be transparent, must involve all interested parties, must not be dominated by a single interest, and must include a process for appeal and revision.” http://dianeravitch.net/2014/03/24/the-fatal-flaw-of-the-common-core-standards/
[xiv] In the CTA webpage, one reads: “We will be spending much of this year dealing with the implementation of Common Core Standards. They put teachers back in control of crafting and tailoring the education of their students. Critical thinking skills can now be part of our students’ educational foundation, and we can decide how to best teach that. http://www.cta.org/en/Issues-and-Action/Testing-and-Standards/Common-Core-State-Standards.aspx
[xv] In 2012, Jeff Paux explains : You start to see entire ecosystems of investment opportunity lining up,” Rob Lytle, an business consultant earlier this year told a meeting of private equity investors interested in for-profit education companies. According to Stephanie Simon of Reuters, who reported on the event, investment in for profit education has already jumped from $13 million in 2005 to $389 million in 2011. Among others, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase have created multimillion-dollar funds for education investments. http://www.epi.org/publication/education-profiteering-wall-street/
[xvi] As Diane Ravitch explains: Reform” is really a misnomer, because the advocates for this cause seek not to reform public education but to transform it into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy. The groups and individuals that constitute today’s reform movement have appropriated the word “reform” because it has such positive connotations in American political discourse and American history. But the roots of this so- called reform movement may be traced to a radical ideology with a fundamental distrust of public education and hostility to the public sector in general. http://billmoyers.com/2014/03/28/public-education-who-are-the-corporate-reformers/
[xvii] Education privatization would not, per se, create a net new stimulus for the economy. But by diverting large existing flows of money from the public to the private sector it would create new profit-making ventures that could be capitalized and transformed into stocks, derivatives and leveraged securities. The pot has been sweetened by a 39 percent federal tax credit for financing charter school construction that can double an investor’s return in seven years. The prospect of new speculative opportunities could well recharge the animal spirits upon which Wall Street depends. http://www.epi.org/publication/education-profiteering-wall-street/
[xix] In “Campaign for America’s Future: Get Ready for the Next Wave of Education “Reform,” Jeff Bryant warns teachers: As anti-democratic pressures appear to be easing on the federal front, they are ratcheting up in states across the country. In fact, the next form of education “reform” may be as bad as or worse than what NCLB imposed. http://nepc.colorado.edu/blog/get-ready .
[xx] Jim Horn argues in a post for EdWeek that the Common Core standards are essential to the long-term strategy of leaders in business-industry-and-government to eliminate unions, to replace experienced teachers with Teach for America, and to hand public schools over to private management. He warns: The Common Core deskills the teaching profession by turning the teaching into a delivery machine. Relationships with students are to be ignored and replaced by the mechanical delivery of scripted lessons in a particular sequence. In effect, the teacher craftsman will be forced to work on an assembly line. Evaluations will be based on a standard Charlotte Danielson rubric that has its origins in Kaplan’s “Balanced Scorecard” and “Value Added Measures” based on student test scores…. http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2014/02/paul_horton_why_the_common_cor.html
[xxi] Noam Chomsky explaining privatization in a nutshell: Manufacture Crisis —> Privatize Public Resources
1) Manufacture Crisis: budget, edu-performance and/or consequences of NCLB/grant compliance failure (often measured against known unattainable standards)
2) Fail close/take over public schools
3) Replace with charter schools linked to private CMOs (Charter Management Organizations), corporate eduservice providers (Pearson) and for-profit online learning. Staff with Teach for America temps who are indebted recent college graduates. Done.
[xxii] It is time to open debate on the premises and goals for public education. “Markets are useful instruments for organizing productive activity. But unless we want to let the market rewrite the norms that govern social institutions, we need a public debate about the moral limits of markets.” ― Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?
[xxiii] Professor Steven Krashen provided substance to challenge corporate reformers’ premises for their reforms. He exposed that: (1) Our schools are not broken. The problem is poverty. Test scores of students from middle-class homes who attend well-funded schools are among the best in world. Our unspectacular overall scores are due to the fact that the US has the highest level of child poverty among all industrialized countries (now over 21%, compared to high-scoring Finland’s 5%). Poverty means poor nutrition, inadequate health care, and lack of access to books, among other things. All of these negatively impact school performance. (2) Existing evidence strongly suggests that improving the economy improves children’s educational outcomes. Yes, a better education can lead to a better job, but only if jobs exist. (3) There is no evidence that national standards and national tests have improved student learning in the past. http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/our_schools_are_not_broken.pdf
[xxiv] Gerald Bracey (RIP) was a harsh critic of the so called reforms and became a true champion for public education. This piece is an excellent read for those who want to understand the fallacies behind the reformers’ alternatives. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/bracey-report