Leaning Tower of P.I.S.A. – Part I
This isn’t going to be about that famous bell tower in Italy, the old marble one which was so well constructed it’s still standing over 900 years later even though it’s been tilting 4 degrees to one side almost the entire time. It’s also not about another type of tower, the ivory kind that connotes academic elitism and intellectual pursuits disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life—although that’s getting warmer. No, the subject for today is P.I.S.A.—Programme for International Student Assessment. It’s the battery of standardized tests given every three years with great fanfare to 15-year-olds in 65 countries around the world. If I were to refer to this PISA metaphorically, I would call it a house made out of cards that is likely to collapse any day now because it has no foundation in reality.
The day in early December when the test scores are released is now known as PISA Day. Here in the U.S. the Secretary of Education holds a special press conference to announce the results; panels of experts convene to parse their significance; television networks highlight the event with headline stories; and there is even an official PISA Day website.
This is where things got interesting. When I visited the site to find out more about all the hoopla, I found myself quite unexpectedly being sucked down the very same rabbit hole I just explored while researching my recent pair of “Rotten to the Common Core” posts.
My original intention behind writing this piece was to follow up on Alan Berger’s Nov. 14 guest post about PISA, in which he questioned the value of what the tests actually measure. I also wanted to step back from the massive hype surrounding PISA and reflect on the educational models of the countries whose students traditionally score among the highest. However, literally the first thing I saw on the pisaday.org home page was a prominent banner listing the website’s sponsors that reads like a who’s who of the heavy lifters involved in promoting the Common Core State Standards—Achieve, College Board, The Council of Chief State School Officers, etc.
Just the Beginning
Pisaday.org itself, as it turns out, belongs to an entity I hadn’t heard of before named the Alliance for Excellent Education. What is AEE? According to its website, it is a Washington, DC–based national policy and advocacy organization that “provides sound, objective, nonpartisan advice that informs decisions about policy creation and implementation.” (Where have we heard that before.) A little digging revealed that AEE was founded in 1999 by the Leeds family, owners of a large technology publishing company, after they sold the business for $920 million. Nine years before that the Leeds formed a similar organization called the Institute for Student Achievement. Interestingly, according to the ISA website, ISA merged with the Educational Testing Service in 2013. At the same time, according to a New York Times report, ETS has been busily transforming itself from a small, nonprofit educational institution into the world’s largest testing company, a multinational conglomerate with numerous for-profit subsidiaries and revenue now exceeding a billion dollars according to their 2011 990 form.
The first president of the Alliance for Excellent Education was Susan Frost. Before coming to AEE in 2001, Frost served for six years as an advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley. Then as President of AEE she was involved in the implementation of No Child Left Behind, and upon leaving AEE in 2004, she founded her own consulting firm, which according to Linkedin, represents “major” clients in the K-12 education sector. In 2009 the firm merged with the Sheridan Group, a powerful, DC-based government relations consulting firm. Do we sense a pattern here? In 2009 the firm merged with the Sheridan Group, a powerful, DC-based government relations consulting firm. Do we sense a pattern here?
It Only Gets Worse
My limited research capability was unable to uncover exactly who Frost has been representing since she left AEE, how much she earns for her services, or whether she is selling the same market-based “reform” agenda as the cast of Common Core State Standards characters I profiled previously. But the water in which Frost’s successor at AAE, former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, swims is identifiably muddy. In 2010 Wise partnered with former Florida governor Jeb Bush, an ardent supporter of school vouchers and for-profit charter schools, to form Digital Learning Now! DLN! advertises itself as a “national campaign to advance policies that will create a high quality digital learning environment to better prepare students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and careers.” Which is another way of saying their agenda is to promote online education as the solution to poorly performing schools and remove the legal barriers to public funding for virtual classrooms.
DLN!’s primary function appears to be to use $1.7 million from Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education to convene the Digital Learning Council, an annual two-day conference to which Bush and Wise invite education policymakers, think tanks, and corporations deeply embedded in the education industry. With the stated goal of creating “a road map of reform for local, state and federal lawmakers,” the inaugural 2010 council produced a 20-page report called “10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning.” The document was then presented later that year at the National Summit on Education Reform—also organized by Bush’s foundation. A glance at the document’s sponsors and acknowledgments pages reveals a lengthy list of businesses and organizations—charter school operators, online-curriculum providers, Pearson Publishing, and technology corporations like Apple, Dell, Google, Intel, and Microsoft—waiting to cash in on the virtual-education boom.
The keynote speaker at the 2011 Digital Learning Council was none other than Rupert Murdoch. According to an article in Mother Jones magazine entitled “Fox in the Schoolhouse,” Murdoch’s media monopoly, News Corp, had just spent $360 million to buy Wireless Generation, a Brooklyn-based education technology company that provides software, assessment tools, and data services to schools. “When it comes to K through 12 education,” Murdoch said in his speech, “we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.”
The Wireless Generation purchase signaled the opening of News Corp’s new education division, Amplify, whose CEO is former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein. (As it just so happens, Wireless Generation had already begun contracting with the New York City school system under Klein’s tenure). With the promise of helping schools to “meet the demands of the Common Core standards,” Amplify markets educational and assessment software along with the hardware to deliver it. The end game is the “digital classroom,” which will be made possible by the Amplify Tablet. In lieu of textbooks and other printed lessons, teachers just load the curriculum (sold by Amplify) and their daily lesson plans onto every student’s 10” portable electronic device (which, by the way, comes loaded with a wide array of Google apps). The student tablets are wirelessly connected to the teachers’ master tablets so that they can monitor student activity and provide “real-time assessments.” And then in a way that I can’t quite fathom, all of the tablets in the school can be managed remotely by someone at the district level.
Welcome to the Brave New World of education, all being orchestrated by corporate CEOs like Rupert Murdoch who know nothing about children and how they learn and develop.
Back at the PISA Day Ranch
Both the Alliance for Excellent Education and pisaday.org websites are nothing more than infomercials for the Common Core State Standards. For instance, at pisaday.org the most prominent headline reads: US Teens Lag in Global Education Rankings as Asian Countries Rise to the Top. Beneath it, visitors are guided to a recently released AEE report based on the new PISA data. Entitled “The Deepest Learners: What PISA Can Reveal About Learning That Matters,” it is a blatant propaganda piece that presents so-called “research” that links together the CCSS and PISA. The two are a perfect match, claims the report, because PISA was “designed from the outset” to measure the same “deeper learning competencies” that the CCSS are supposed to promote.
They make it all sound so lovely—deeper learning, critical thinking, real-world problem solving. And then the report cites two studies conducted by the originators of PISA, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The first shows that Canadian students who scored well on the reading test were “were much more likely than those who did not to be in college at age twenty-one. [Also,] high performance in reading was associated with higher earnings in the workplace.” A second study found that “even modest improvements in PISA performance could result in large gains in the U.S. gross domestic product over the next few decades.”
But I’m not buying it…
To be continued …