Rotten To The (Common) Core part 1
We should all know the story by now: After the Soviet Union launched a satellite into orbit before we did, someone discovered that Soviet children were outscoring their U.S. counterparts on standardized tests in math and science. So Chicken Little slowly wound her way to Washington to tell the President the education sky is falling, and Ronald Reagan decided the best way to reassure the frightened fowl was to appoint a federal commission to study the problem and figure out how to fix it.
The commission thoroughly agreed with Chicken Little. “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people,” cried out the authors of the commission’s A Nation at Risk report. And such a hysterical response struck just the right chord. It generated a groundswell of support for the commission’s solution, which would be to “reform” our education system by making math and science curricula more “rigorous,” and developing a nationwide regimen of standardized testing to hold students more “accountable.”
Thus, the standards movement was born and the precedent was set for future waves of high-level education bombing, with each subsequent President vying to one-up his predecessor’s efforts to push standards to greater heights. President George H.W. Bush set the tone when he decreed in his 1990 State of the Union address that America would beat the Soviet Union’s math and science scores by the year 2000. President Clinton then followed with Goals 2000, which introduced the idea of a single and expanded set of national academic standards and also of using federal funds to coax every state into adopting them. Next came President George Bush’s iconic No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB added a new wrinkle: extending “accountability” beyond the student to teachers and administrators by firing them if too many students flunked the tests, which were now to be administered with far more frequency. Next came President Obama’s Race to the Top policy requiring states to comply with a new, even more “rigorous” set of national standards, now to be known as the Common Core State Standards—and of course along with it an even more “rigorous” series of standardized tests—before they are allowed to compete for federal grant money to help pay for it all. It is this very recent initiative that in a few moments will become the real subject of this post.
But those less cynical than me might already be wondering, what’s wrong with the government trying to improve our education system so that American students become the smartest in the world, and so that we can then out-compete other countries in the global marketplace?
If you stick to the rhetoric accompanying all of the above plans and policies, there’s nothing wrong at all. Thomas Jefferson would be beyond pleased with such Herculean efforts to produce the kind of enlightened citizenry upon which he said a healthy democracy depends. However, as soon as you start digging around beneath the surface, you begin to see glimpses of powerful hidden interests that have precious little to do with Jeffersonian education ideals.
Take NCLB, for example. Or let’s back up just a little to Governor G.W. Bush’s so called “Texas Miracle,” which set the stage for NCLB. The “Miracle”: after Governor Bush instituted massive statewide standardized testing at every grade level, accompanied by the aforementioned draconian accountability measures, the scores of Texas high schoolers on exit exams began to measurably improve. Suddenly Bush was the “education governor” and the alleged success of the program enabled him to take it to the national level immediately after he was elected the “education president.”
It was only later that we learned of the “Miracle’s” true basis. What actually caused the rising exit exam scores wasn’t an increase in “accountability” after all. Or then again, maybe you could perversely say that it was because what the radically increased reliance on standardized testing did cause was a raging school drop-out rate. This means the real reason the high school scores improved was that the students who would’ve brought the scoring average down were forced out before they ever took the test. News of this scandalous subterfuge has been circulating in the underground media for years, but only recently surfaced in an MSNBC report. According to the report, after the drop-out fudge was factored back out Texas was actually found to be losing ground to the other 49 states.
Something else we weren’t told about Bush’s Texas policy, and subsequently NCLB, was the deep financial connections between him and the publishing companies that are reaping billions of dollars in profits from producing and scoring the tests and supplying the mandated textbooks upon which the tests are based (in Texas alone while Bush was governor, the annual budget for the testing program was fast approaching $500 million). In an August 3, 2006 op-ed in the Florida Times-Union by William L. Bainbridge, the CEO of a national educational auditing firm, we hear, for example, about the generations-long business ties between Bush and the McGraw family, owners of the leading textbook and test publisher, McGraw-Hill.
The bottom line here is exactly that—the bottom line. From the very beginning the driving influences behind NCLB were profiteering and influence peddling, not improving educational quality. As I think will become even clearer when we begin to look more closely at the evolution of the Common Core State Standards, what the launching of NCLB represents is the wedding between government at the highest levels and a burgeoning education industry.
I’m reminded of a similar union that took place between the Defense Department and the arms industry during the Cold War. President Eisenhower was so concerned that he used his farewell address in January, 1961 to alert us to its implications:
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. … We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
The marriage between the government and the education industry is rapidly maturing. Today we have an education-industrial complex that I believe is every bit as dangerous as the phenomenon Eisenhower made sure to warn us about before he left office. Nothing shapes the minds of future generations of citizens more than the educational system, and so we are in big trouble if the ways and means by which we educate our children are for sale to global corporations whose only real concern is finding newer and bigger markets for its goods and services.
… to be continued