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Leaning Tower of P.I.S.A. – Part I

Leaning tower of pisa

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 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 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.

And Worser
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 websites are nothing more than infomercials for the Common Core State Standards. For instance, at 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 …


10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you for this piece. I have been following the privatization push for a long while and the interconnectedness of agents, agencies, corporations, and institutions is nothing less than the takeover of education by what James Moffett called the educational-industrial complex. The nasty web being spun does have connections to the CCSS but, as I have said before, the content of the CCSS is one thing, the nature of its promoters another. What I want to emphasize is the need to go after and go strong against the motives of the people and organizations you mention here, those motives shown up for what they are, anti-democratic and inhumane for the manner in which these forces define proper education and how they define it to fit their corporate desires. I think the analysis here is extremely helpful and I hope there is a way to broadcast the findings widely. As I have been watching the media undoing of Chris Christy and the media motives for participating in his undermining. Big story, scandal, but nothing quite so big, really, as the take over of the educational system, the intentional and terribly cynical move to co-opt the very institutions that should be working to help students attain skills, knowledge, and attitudes that allow them to participate effectively in a government that must be, by law, by and of the people. There is incredible drama here that needs to be exploited for the real consequences of the phenomena you address have to do with life and liberty and opportunity to pursue happiness. We are speaking here of what is, by virtue of the very democratic principles that govern citizen conduct in this society, illegal, unconstitutional, intolerable for those who care about the core values of the United States of America. These corporate and government conspirators need to be exposed for their corruption and for the damage they are doing to a society that exists to protect the rights of individuals.

    February 3, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Amen, Stephen.

      February 4, 2014
  2. m.i.l. Bunty Ketcham #

    Chris, look up the op-ed article written within the past several months in the NY Times by a Chinese teacher about why our kids don’t test as well as others. In it he says in general “don’t try to teach your students as we do…your education is better because your students can think for themselves and ours can’t…” Worth the effort of finding it.

    I look forwRD TO continuaTION OF pisa. bUNTY

    February 3, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks, Bunty. I know about that Chinese principal’s op-ed and in fact will be quoting him in Part II. Great minds think alike!

      February 4, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks, Stephen, I read the article and it is excellent.

      February 4, 2014
  3. Arnold Greenberg #

    We are witnessing the McDonaldization of education–very dangerous.

    February 4, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Very well put, Arnold.

      February 4, 2014
  4. Barry Elliott #

    I may have said this before. When there are holes large enough for a battleship to get through, sooner or later battleships will show up and breeze right through. Who is surprised by all of this? Who could possibly stop such powerful battleships from overwhelming the rowboats and canoes of ordinary educators and administrators? Exposing them might do some good under different circumstances, but these people talk a great game and they have powerful strategic forces and no small amount of popular support due to the lengthy history of conflict, controversy, failure, and downright hatred.
    I recently quoted a Mother Jones article in something I wrote which listed just the money contributed in the single state of Michigan by the Devos (Amway) family to right wing causes and to the charter school movement. I probably forgot to send that one to you. The numbers were staggering and they are a drop in the bucket when you tally up the many millions from the Koch brothers, hundreds of corporations big and small, and any number of other movers and shakers who have realized that nearly universal dissatisfaction with public schooling is an open invitation to make their pitch for whatever fits their conception for “good” educational opportunity, or an opportunity for exploitation.
    The alternative school movement merely provides more ammo for the “reformers” and mercenary vultures to use against traditional schooling. Either side you choose is on the road to inexorable disaster. Even if traditional schools are better than what the number-crunchers are peddling, sentimentality and emotional appeals to nostalgia and tradition offer practically nothing to turn the tide.
    A defining feature of addiction is a never-ending series of convenient excuses. There are always others to blame for one’s addiction and corresponding behaviors and failures. Typically, there is a lot of blame to go around. The addict has usually been truly let down in various ways by judgmental or rejecting family members or the society. However, blaming others turns into a distraction and a reason not to take the positive and constructive action that is essential to overcome the addiction. Until the addiction is owned and the addict has found a way to assume full responsibility and to stop obsessing about rationalizations, justifications, excuses, and other distractions, the self-destructive pattern doesn’t ever change. Educators have never had their house in order on the whole. Are they finding all these great new forces of malignancy and evil (billionaires and Common Core) in order to dismiss the sordid past and ignore the phenomenal series of blunders and gross errors associated with schooling? Are they trying to relive old glory days that were never glorious, and are they unable to look inward before they fault everyone else on the planet? Denial is fatal all too often. The old adage might apply here. Those living in glass houses should avoid rock throwing.
    These developments were entirely predictable. The increasing tide has been toward compulsive preoccupations with evaluation, “accountability”, statistical analysis, engineered curriculum, and all the rest. Those making serious efforts to resist have been marginalized, sooner rather than later. This is CAPITALIST America, with not just capital “C” but with all caps. Making billionaires, such as Bill Gates and his buddies who want privatization out to be demons or bad guys will never fly. The belief that we can measure, program, compel, and mass produce education is deeply ingrained. If you are going to go against the flow and try to change much of anything, you may as well go for the whole nine yards. Changing the roster or color scheme will get you the same thing that “reforms” have gotten thousands of other would-be reformers – nothing and nowhere.
    Americans are suckers for easy answers and fantastic facile fixes. They will fall for the party line on education every time unless or until they are forced to confront hard truths that make sense and confirm what they know intuitively by the persistent use of reasoned arguments and reliable information. The hard truth is that schools as we know them harm children, regardless of attempts to minimize or ignore the damage, they do not educate as a rule, and the primary defect is coercion, and arbitrary power in the hands of others within an authoritarian bureaucracy that erodes self-respect, autonomous thinking and action, hope, initiative, creativity, identity formation, healthy socialization, etc., etc. Even if you were to be successful in curing the symptoms, the disease would still kill the patient.

    February 6, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Okay Barry, I think it’s time to let you have your own say with a guest post about coercion.

      February 8, 2014

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