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Rotten to the (Common) Core part 2


The soiled underbelly of the Common Core State Standards is just beginning to come into view. For starters, according to an ongoing series of posts by investigative blogger Mercedes Schneider, dating back to October, 2013, the idea that the Common Core State Standards, unlike the old NCLB version, were developed at the state level through a transparent process involving teachers, principals, parents, and education experts is a complete sham. The CCSS were actually “prefabricated,” as Schneider puts it, under another name in 2004 by Achieve, Inc., an allegedly independent, nonpartisan, and not-for-profit education reform organization that in reality is none of the above.

It turns out that Achieve is closely aligned with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing political organization well known for its efforts to privatize public education and bring about other “market-based” education reforms. ALEC has been one of Achieve’s major funders since day one; and, in turn, according to a flow chart of CCSS corporate connections compiled by education activist and journalist Morna McDermott and published in Truthout on 1/10/2014, the majority of ALEC’s funds come from Charles and David Koch, billionaire oil tycoons whose far-reaching political agenda includes privatizing public education and defunding public schools.

Following CCSS’s far from transparent money trail, Schneider and McDermott also uncovered a deeply embedded economic agenda. The web of financial interconnections is far too tangled to detail here; but a closer look at the business dealings of the three lead authors of the final CCSS language gives us an excellent tip-of-the-iceberg view of the extent to which CCSS, in Schneider’s words, is little more than a “multi-layered business deal.” Moreover, it is one that stands to profit the education industry at levels that will make the NCLB bonanza look, getting back to Chicken Little, like poultry feed.

In 2009 David Coleman, Jason Zimba, and Sue Pimentel formed the not-for-profit corporation Student Achievement Partners for the sole purpose of drafting and promoting CCSS. All three had already been profiting handsomely from the standards movement for years. For instance, in 2004 Coleman and Zimba founded the Grow Network, an education technology company that provides customized test reports and instructional materials to schools and families, and then sold it to McGraw-Hill later in 2009 for a figure rumored by insiders to be as high as $14 million.

I find CEO Harold McGraw III’s quote in a media press release announcing the merger to be a wonderful window into how nicely the hand fits inside the glove: “This acquisition is a major step in positioning McGraw-Hill Education as the leader in assessment reporting and customized content. We are excited that Grow will enhance our ability to help educators and families improve student performance. Its unique and proven reporting services help educators respond thoughtfully to the increased accountability and Adequate Yearly Progress requirements associated with No Child Left Behind.”

After the merger, Coleman moved on to become president of the College Board, where he is now earning $750K per year aligning the Advanced Placement and SAT exams with, you guessed it, the CCSS. This will also leave Coleman perfectly positioned when, according to current forecasts, the standards movement tunnels its way into higher education too.

The only information I could find about Jason Zimba’s present activities is that he is currently on academic leave from his professorship at Bennington College in order to “design policy interventions in K-12 education for large philanthropic foundations,” and that he is also a senior advisor at Illustrative Mathematics, a new education company that “provides guidance to states, assessment consortia, testing companies, and curriculum developers as they align themselves with the CCSS.”

As for Sue Pimentel, she is the co-founder of StandardsWork, Inc., a non-profit educational consulting firm located in Washington, DC, where she earned almost $500K in 2003 (the only year for which I could locate a 990 form). She is also still on the payroll at Achieve, where her annual salary is $180K. I found the backgrounds of StandardsWork’s board of directors to be particularly instructive:

◆    President and co-founder Leslye Arsht – deputy press secretary and assistant to President Reagan, and then a counselor to George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander.
◆    John Danielson – former Chief of Staff at the United States Department of Education, who later joined with George W. Bush’s former Secretary of Education Rod Paige to start an international educational consulting firm called the Chartwell Education Group. In addition, Danielson owns the BrightStar Education Group, which operates a national chain of for-profit post-secondary schools. He also works as a senior advisor at Pearson, which has surpassed McGraw-Hill as the world’s largest education publisher.
◆    Barbara Davidson – served under two secretaries of education and currently is the Deputy Director of Common Core, Inc., which as the name implies is one of the official developers of CCSS curricula. Note here that Common Core, Inc. CEO Lynne Munson spent 8 years as a research fellow at the neoconservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.
◆     Jim Nelson – Governor Bush’s Texas Commissioner of Education, who last year  retired as the executive director of AVID, a “not-for-profit” organization with total revenues of almost $40 million in 2012 that provides a CCSS college prep curriculum to schools around the country.

Mercedes Schneider and Morna McDermott’s far more extensive research, which shows that all except two of CCSS’s 29 principal movers and shakers are key players in the Education Industry, combined with my brief digging, makes it pretty obvious that once again the bottom line in so-called  “education reform” is the bottom line.

And then there is perhaps the most stunning revelation of all: The four organizations primarily responsible for CCSS—Achieve, Student Achievement Partners, the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers—have to date received $147.9 million from the Gates Foundation. And no I didn’t misplace the decimal point.

Although Schneider and McDermott have yet to find any proof of a Gates hidden agenda, Schneider has made some telling discoveries about the former Executive Director of Education for the Gates Foundation. Tom Vander Ark, who oversaw more than $1.6 billion in grants from 1999 to 2006, is a prototypical Brave New World “educator.” Before going to work for Gates, he parlayed mineral engineering and energy finance degrees into becoming the first business executive to be hired as a public school superintendent in Washington State—with semi-disastrous results. He then left Gates in order to become a full-blown education entrepreneur. After failing to launch a series of for-profit charter schools in depressed areas in and around New York City, he started a company called Open Education Solutions that promotes online education and is also currently a partner at Learn Capital, a venture capital group that invests heavily in the education technology market and features Pearson Publishing as its largest client

Even without direct evidence of any Gates involvement in the rampant insider trading we’ve just gotten a brief glimpse of, I think it is safe to say that the Education-Industrial Complex is right on the cusp of seizing total control of education in this country—and that what we are witnessing is the beginning of the end of education as a democratic institution.

Maybe Chicken Little was right and the education sky is falling after all.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Once again, there is little here to criticize the actual standards. Indeed, I have real problems with the David Coleman connection, considering his current position, the links to the AP tests and the organization’s publication of the Springboard curriculum. Still, I want to hear the critique of the individual standards for, if they allow for instruction that is potent and related to the skills, knowledge, and dispositions by which students and the society in which they live benefit, then you have before you, in the form of standards, a template for education that just may work to create a public smart enough, well educated enough, well informed and thoughtful enough to deal of any of problematic side effects that might be caused by the industrial-educational complex’s possibly sinister motives. Perhaps the evil ones are not stupid and, possibly desirous of a relatively smart public if, for no other reason, because some of their products will sell only to people who can think. Careful, please, because these standards, as I read the actual standards, offer me something I have been craving for the whole of my 26 years in the field of education, robust goals that I can offer those I teach, future teachers of English, robust and meaningful goals sanctioned by authorities who, up until now have authorized and mandated goals that had little to do with the growing of intelligence.

    January 21, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks for weighing in again, Stephen. I apologize for being late to my own party, but because of that I’m going to repost the same response I just gave to your comment about Part I:

      I have read through the Common Core, too, and I totally agree with you on the level you are addressing it. Deeper conceptual knowledge, critical thinking, better problem-solving skills, real preparation for the adult world—what’s not to like?

      But on another level, as is evident in the TEDx talk I gave in Brooklyn not too long ago, I’m pretty much a fundamentalist. Children are born exquisitely equipped and abundantly inclined to deeply understand things, solve problems, master adult skills, etc. They don’t need a preconceived curriculum to make it happen for them. In fact such an artificial construction often constricts the learning process.

      Why? Curriculums are created by people who decide what children ought to know at a certain point in time and then arrange it into a logical, linear framework that teachers then lead groups of children through step by step. And what’s not to like about that? First of all, most learning, especially the deeper kind the Common Core rhetoric refers to, isn’t logical or linear. It self-organizes contextual moment by contextual moment according to each individual child’s intrinsic dynamics. Second of all, the idea that there is an objective body of knowledge “out there” that every child needs to learn in order to be an educated person is an illusion passed down to us by the completely outdated Newtonian scientific paradigm. As leading-edge cognitive theorists like Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela are trying to get us to understand, there is no objective “out there.” Our knowledge of the world emerges spontaneously as we encounter that world through our own concrete experience. And the knowledge is embedded in our experience and not in the “objective” reality we feel like we are knowing.

      Anyhow, before I go any farther down this long, obtuse road, let me address the problem I have with the Common Core on another level. There’s no escaping the fact that curriculums and standards are a package deal because they stem from the same faulty model of learning that I just stopped ranting about. As soon as you create this artificial construct that all children must learn, you have to come up with a way to measure their performance, and also a way to motivate them to work on things that very often have no absolutely no meaning or interest to a particular child at the particular time they are required to learn it. There is now a voluminous body of research on creativity that makes it crystal clear that extrinsic motivators like standards and deadlines are deadly to the creative process.

      Plus there’s still more to the package deal, which, as I tried to demonstrate in the two posts on the Common Core, is the I think inevitable likelihood that the people who create the curriculums and control the standards will then proceed to work the process to their own advantage.

      January 26, 2014
  2. Steve Zimba did just start a blog!

    January 24, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      My ears are burning.

      January 26, 2014
  3. Chris Mercogliano #

    Tell everyone to stay tuned for a piece I’m researching right now about how PISA is nothing more than a propaganda tool being pushed by the same groups that are engineering the Common Core.

    January 26, 2014
  4. Chris Mercogliano #

    Tell everyone to stay tuned for a piece I’m researching right now about PISA being nothing more than a propaganda tool being pushed by the same groups that are engineering the Common Core.

    January 26, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks, Brinan. But here we go wagging that dog.

      January 28, 2014
  5. A Concerned Teacher #

    The Common Core!! I am beginning to live in dread of this thing about to take hold. It’s the test that’s so damn unfair. Who cares how balanced the CC is if the test assesses such a narrow skill set. I got in an uncomfortable argument with my dept head who said my exam didn’t reflect the CC and I was arguing that it reflected critical thinking!! CC is pushing skill sets over critical thinking. So units are “expository writing” and not, “what happens to a culture when it allows fear to take control?” Like in The Crucible. Which unit would you rather focus on?

    Of course we teach expository writing! But through ideas, CC has flipped it on its head. Use lit to teach skills. So you can use anything. And no no room for poetry.

    January 28, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      It’s good to hear from the front lines, David. I’m sorry the news has to be so depressing. I totally agree with you that the way students learn to write well is by writing about that which is meaningful to them.

      January 30, 2014
  6. Chris Mercogliano #
    January 26, 2014

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