Common Core Standards Are the Tip of a Corporate Iceberg

To the Editor:

In response to recent several columns that embrace the Common Core Standards as a way to prepare students for college (“Use the Common Core. Use It Widely. Use It Well,” The Chronicle, June 10), I beg to differ.

There are several reasons why I am concerned about the Common Core Standards, along with virtually all teachers and professors I know:

1. They are the product of a push by private foundations acting in the interest of multinational corporations to colonize public education in the United States and in other areas projected be developed as core production and assembly areas in the emerging global economy. A recent Washington Post article using a well-placed source within the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation essentially confirmed what many critics have suspected: that Bill Gates effectively controls the Department of Education in the United States through his former employees who serve in leadership positions within the Department of Education. Our education secretary also does a lot of listening to Michael Barber of Pearson Education. Although Mr. Gates and Sir Michael, as well as other reformers, are doubtless well intentioned, they view the colonization of K-12 education in this country and elsewhere as a “win-win.” In their view, the quality of education will improve with greater accountability, and they will make billions creating and delivering accountability for students, teachers, and education schools. To implement their plan, they are willing to jettison all ideas of collective responsibility for public education in a classic privatization pincer move: Chicago School of Economics ideas of “free choice” and “free markets” are used to legitimate privatization through virtual control of the editorial boards of major papers—the Murdoch chain, the Tribune chain, The Washington Post (now run by a neoliberal libertarian), and The New York Times—as well as center-liberal media like PBS and NPR. Money is funneled into NPR and PBS by organizations that support privatizing school reform in the name of “support for education programing.” A Gates-funded Washington consulting firm, GMMB, works 24/7 to sell the Common Core Standards and all other elements of the Race to the Top mandates that call for more charter schools, a standardized-testing regime, and value-added assessments of teachers based on this testing regime. Likewise representatives of the Washington-based Fordham Institute work together with GMMB to send weekly talking points to major editorial boards and education reporters to ensure that representatives from an “independent foundation” are relentlessly quoted. Not surprisingly, the Fordham Institute is hardly independent, and is heavily subsidized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Michael Bloomberg, and the Broad Foundation, and many more funders of privatizing education. While GMMB attempts to control the discourse in the country’s major media outlets (Arne Duncan’s past press secretary is helping to coordinate this propaganda campaign within GMMB), McKinsey sells Microsoft and Pearson packages to fit the Race to the Top mandates. The Los Angeles Independent Schools boondoggle that packed Pearson Common Core Curriculum lessons within Microsoft tablets and software is the wave of the future. Districts are sold packages that they cannot afford to comply with federal mandates that are pushed by private multinational corporations. What I am attempting to describe is the tip of a corporate iceberg that amounts to corporate control of education policy with very little participation of classroom teachers, parents, or school boards. The idea that the Common Core Standards are the product of a democratic process is simply misrepresentation of fact—a big lie that GMMB, our education secretary, Bill Gates, Pearson Education, and the Fordham Institute propagate. What many rightfully be called corporate-education reform has bypassed the democratic process. For this reason alone, university faculty and administrators should not support the Common Core Curriculum and the Race to the Top.

2. As a teacher at a school that prepares students for colleges and universities, I know that the Common Core Standards will not be the best preparation for the next level. I have taught in large public high schools and at one of the best independent schools in the country. I have seen education from many different angles. I was a teacher in Texas in 1985 when the standardized testing regime that we now associate with Race to the Top and the Common Core Standards was first instituted. This regime failed in Texas and it has failed everywhere it has been tried. Whatever one may think of the Common Core Standards on paper, because they are tied to a standardized testing regime, they will fail. The literature on this issue is voluminous, but our current educational-policy makers simply ignore it. Teaching to standardized tests narrows the curriculum and results in teaching to the test. Administrators will encourage drill-and-kill exercises to increase test scores and will be forced to allocate precious resources and time to preparing for standardized tests. Here in Chicago, principals are letting go of essential school staff—counselors, librarians, art teachers, and others—to pay for tutoring and the computers that will be used to assess students. As a graduate student at the University of Texas in the mid 1980s, I taught a section in a remedial reading and writing program for freshmen who did not read and write at a college entry level. We made our courses as interesting as possible by assigning the nonfiction of Larry McMurtry and Robert Graves. But what I discovered when I talked to my students was that kids did not write enough in high school for two interrelated reasons: Their classes were huge, and they were assessed by multiple-choice tests because their teachers had difficulty grading class sets of 35-40 papers as a portion of five class loads of 165-180 students. Consider that the assessments administered to measure the Common Core Standards will be either multiple-choice questions or algorithm-scored short essays that require regurgitation. To adequately prepare students for college, they need to be challenged with books and documents, contextual understanding and textual understanding. The Common Core Standards emphasize the textual understanding of documents and the diminution of creative writing and contextual analysis beyond a given document or passage. While intratextual analysis certainly has its place in any classroom, the Common Core comes close to reinstituting the dragon that many professors in the humanities have worked hard to slay—“the New Criticism.” The Common Core Standards and assessments seek to bring the dead dragon back to life! Most of the Humanities professors I know here at the University of Chicago and elsewhere think this is laughable. The reaction typically is, “this is stunningly ignorant, but I want to write, not refight these ridiculous battles.” The Common Core Standards seek to teach literacy, but in doing so, they neglect developing essential tools of critical and contextual analysis that are predictive of college success, the development of the ability to produce a complex essay or research paper (a paper that goes beyond what an algorithm can assess), and the development of ideas about social or civic responsibility that run counter to the core value of neoliberalism: “get what you can for yourself, nothing else matters.” This notion simply does not jibe with what I am hearing when I am visiting colleges with my rising high school senior son where the emphasis is all about service. What I have heard at every college visit is that admissions officers have determined that standardized testing does not predict college success. The challenges that a student takes on and is able to overcome and the rigor of the courses that a student takes are much better predictors of college readiness. Because the Common Core Standards, curricula, and assessments focus on literacy, multiple choice tests, and essays that regurgitate key words, they do not adequately prepare students by developing analytical abilities every college professor I know wants to see. The Common Core Standards prepare students in areas that experience issues with literacy for work at the community-college level. Applying this one set of standards to all American students represents a national policy error of catastrophic proportions.

3. The Common Core Standards must be viewed as a part of a larger effort to de-skill teacher K-20 teaching. Many within the professoriate are very skeptical about MOOCs. Believe it or not, MOOCs, the Common Core Standards, and Race to the Top are a part of the same floating ice-block. I just spoke to a friend of mine who is a professor at Columbia. He tells me that the professoriate is splitting between the one percent—typically, law, medical, and business professors who make money outside of the academy—and the lowly humanities professors who don’t bring in the big value-added bucks. But the number of non-tenure-track and non-benefitted professors has grown exponentially during the last twenty years. As state legislatures begin to demand value added measure for university professors and the new federal plan to encourage “reform” in higher education kicks off, the professoriate is beginning to hear the same sorts of messages that K-12 teachers have heard for twenty years. When the chancellors of major universities begin to send messages embracing the Common Core Standards like those recently published in The Chronicle, my guess is that the same foundations that are pushing for K-12 reforms are beginning to push for undergraduate education reforms. The Gates Foundation has sponsored a lot of research and dozens of named professorships, and when the Gates Foundation wants a heavily funded university on board with Common Core, it can make itself heard very easily. After all, the Gates Foundation seems to have a great deal to say about who is admitted to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences recently. While the big foundations that have the potential to add a great deal of value to major public and private institutions put the word out that some grants might not be granted to institutions that do not support the Common Core and state and federal pushes for college and university reform, they sooth our system chancellors with the siren song of plenty of money for research in exchange for public support of the whole program that will ultimately reduce the cost of labor on campus. Once courses are MOOC-ed and the rights sold, courses can be traded, bought and sold on markets. Once the scripted Common Core lessons are mandated, taught, and assessed, the value of teaching declines as teachers become as interchangeable and as cheap as computer tablets. Whatever can be digitalized, can be cheapened. University faculties, graduate students, and teachers need to understand that they must stand together because administrative and union leadership is already bought or is presently under a great deal of pressure.

That The Chronicle could publish so many articles in support of the Common Core Standards and about the “IT Takeover” of higher education should serve as a wake-up call. The one percent in academe, those who are closely tied to foundations, think tanks, politicos, insurance companies, and multi-national corporations, are ready to sell the rest of you out. Next the professoriate will see attempts to standardize and digitalize your teaching and assessments. Then, when your digitalized evaluations fluctuate with the abilities of the students you teach, your wages will be garnished. College and university educators will no longer be permitted to scare students out of classes with impossibly demanding syllabai; they will be asked to put up and shut up as their workload increases and as your salaries and benefits (pensions anyone?) decline. The Common Core Standards as a part of the Race to the Top do for K-12 education what a new round of reforms propose to do for higher education. The reformers seek to reduce the costs of teaching to create a profit margin for potential investors and markets for big education vendors. This is the brave new world that all K-20 educators face. We must learn to stand together.

Paul Horton
History Instructor
University High School
University of Chicago Laboratory Schools
Chicago

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