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With a set of standards that appear to be more aligned with the profit motives of big business than any curriculum, the real problems with Common Core are far-reaching and are quite plentiful

by Anitra D. Brown

Consider that in Louisiana alone, where there are about 757,500 public school students, a testing service company would make anywhere from $10.9 million to $21.8 million a year to provide the test material for students with the test fee paid by the state to the company ranging between $15 and $30 per student.
Consider that in Louisiana alone, where there are about 757,500 public school students, a testing service company would make anywhere from $10.9 million to $21.8 million a year to provide the test material for students with the test fee paid by the state to the company ranging between $15 and $30 per student.

In what was supposed to be the first year of full implementation, legal wrangling and fighting in Baton Rouge between the governor, state education superintendent and the BESE Board over the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) make for a fine subterfuge. But let’s not forget that Gov. Bobby Jindal was a steadfast advocate of the Common Core back in 2010 when Louisiana and 38 other states agreed to implement the new set of standards. It was not until recent months that he decided that Common Core violated the Tenth Amendment (states’ rights) and some federal law he obviously only determined of late was worth adhering to.

Whether one agrees with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s reasons, there are definitely problems with Common Core. And they exist despite what leaders of organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and even the National Urban League would have us believe as they press for CCSSI implementation for reasons as confounding as the Common Core State Standards Initiative itself. However, the real problems with Common Core are not only legal or political. They are pedagogical.

No one would argue that standards of the highest caliber are in order for the public education system. Students are expected to learn, reach milestones, and achieve goals. Actually, teachers and students managed to accomplish these important tasks long before the first do-or-die high-stakes test ever came into existence.

So it seems odd, if not inane, for Common Core proponents to talk of standards and measurements as if they are something new. In Louisiana, public school students have been burdened with so-called standards and standardized testing for more than 20 years now as have students in other states around the nation. And the reality has been that many students continue to perform poorly on these tests. From LEAP in Louisiana to TAKS (now STAAR in Texas) to MCT and SATP in Mississippi to MO MAP in Missouri to STAR in California—the measure of success for educational success in America is cooked up in a pot of alphabet soup to create a hodge-podge of acronyms, none of which seem to spell EXCELLENCE or LEARNING. And when education officials finally are ready to publicly admit that the program—whatever it is at the time—is not working, the answer seems invariably the same: tweak the standards, change the test, but never examine ways and pour resources into actually improving learning for better educational outcomes.

And that is the fundamental problem with what Common Core brings—repackaged standards and a new test, without much more attention paid to learning, teaching, and resources. While Common Core is long on standards and continued reliance on standardized testing, it falls woefully short on addressing how to improve teaching and motivate students, especially considering the vast number of issues students face both inside and outside the classroom. Certainly, it seems far too injudicious to worry about CCSSI in New Orleans where mostly poor, mostly Black students are falling victim to a reckless brand of education reform that places the desires of privately-held charter school operations ahead of parents and students and where the BESE Board has consistently ignored the concerns of local parents, students and education advocates regarding the takeover of public education here.

Indeed, many education experts and advocates contend that the Louisiana Department of Education its squandering efforts and a good deal of taxpayer’s money concentrating on benchmarks instead of instruction.

Barbara Ferguson veteran educator, attorney and co-founder of Research on Reforms says, money, time and effort should instead be spent on “methods and strategies for teaching students who have not had the same access to education” as opposed to the “implementation of standards”.

Corporate Interests are the Core

Just how Common Core will be play out as it relates to student performance on a battery of tests remains unknown. Here’s what we know for sure: A few people and big corporations are set to make the big bucks from the national adoption of Common Core.

Their interest, to us, is reminiscent of big businesses’ entry into the public space through the privatization of prisons and healthcare or any area where they can find new ways to profit from and exploit programs that are designed to serve the public good.

In the case of Common Core, first, there is a multi-billion dollar textbook industry. To be sure, text book publishers have been moving with great haste to produce a line of readers that are aligned with the CCSSI just in time for the 2014-2015 school year. Pearson, Houghton Mufflin Harcourt, McGraw Hill Education—considered the Big Three in the K-12 textbook world—all claim to now have Common Core aligned texts. And they have also busied themselves with developing digital and on-line content to sell to school districts as not to miss out on the booming K-12 e-learning industry.

But an article in Education Week earlier this year, blasted many of the claims of CCSSI-aligned texts as false, based on the work of two education experts and researchers. It read, in part:

“Hoping to boost their share of a $9 billion annual market, many publishers now boast that their textbooks are “common-core aligned” and so can help spur the dramatic shifts in classroom instruction intended by the new standards for English/language arts and math.
But in a Feb. 21 presentation of his research at a seminar in Los Angeles hosted by the Education Writers Association, William Schmidt, a professor of statistics and education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, dismissed most purveyors of such claims as “snake oil salesmen” who have done little more than slap shiny new stickers on the same books they’ve been selling for years.

“Mr. Schmidt, who also co-directs the university’s Education Policy Center, and his team recently analyzed about 700 textbooks from 35 textbook series for grades K-8 that are now being used by 60 percent of public school children in the United States. Of those that purported to be aligned with the new standards, he said, some were “page by page, paragraph by paragraph” virtually identical to their old, pre-common core versions.

“University of Southern California professor Morgan Polikoff, meanwhile, reached a similar conclusion after analyzing seven 4th grade math textbooks used in Florida. Despite publishers’ claims, the books were “only modestly aligned to the common core” and “systematically failed to reach the higher levels of cognitive demand” called for in the new standards, Mr. Polikoff said in a presentation to the EWA.”

Perhaps their findings offer some insight into why the state of Louisiana struggled in recent years to approve new textbooks for elementary and secondary education.

In November 2012, an article regarding the state’s decision to hold off on endorsing new texts for the 2013-2014 school year appeared in Education Week:

“Louisiana is poised to reject every math and reading textbook submitted by publishers in its most recent adoption cycle, citing concerns that the materials are not fully aligned to the Common Core State Standards’ expectations, state officials announced today.

Though the Pelican State isn’t the first to deal with a textbook-adoption process colliding with the common core, it does appear to be the first time alignment has been cited as a key factor in eschewing an endorsement.

Superintendent John White said in an interview that state reviewers found that the textbooks generally didn’t adequately match the skills measured in preliminary tasks unveiled by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of the two testing consortia designing exams aligned to the common standards.

The decision would effectively delay state adoption of K-2 math textbooks and K-5 English/language arts for several years.”

Supt. John White’s response, according to the Education Week article:

“It’s no one’s fault; there no logical reason to expect a publisher to be ready for an assessment that is two years from being completed,” White said.

While the textbook companies may have to work out a few kinks, the corporations that make their money designing the high-stakes tests that determine if students pass, fail or graduate in some instances are way ahead of the curve when it comes to cashing in on Common Core. In short, it seems that more emphasis has been placed on picking a designing high-stakes tests aligned to Common Core than publishing books that are.

Take for instance Pearson, which in addition to its textbook division, has long had a profitable arm in the testing services area of secondary education. The company has been awarded a $240 million a year consortium contract with PARCC to provide the test to public school students in 14 states. Another testing service company has filed a protest, putting the Pearson contract in limbo for now. While Pearson and other giant testing service companies battle it out, the reality remains that any testing company is set to rake in  millions if they land PARCC contracts to provide tests to one even state (though it seems that PARCC is set to award testing contracts for consortiums of states, not just one) that has adopted Common Core.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted Common Core, with each state ostensibly representing a testing contract worth millions of dollars each year. Consider that in Louisiana alone, where there are about 757,500 public school students, a testing service company would make anywhere from $10.9 million to $21.8 million a year to provide the test material for students with the test fee paid by the state to the company ranging between $15 and $30 per student.

In fact, it is the purchase of the PARCC test by Pearson that Gov. Jindal is now attempting to block in Louisiana, claiming that the use of the test is essentially being decided by PARCC and does not meet the state-approved bid process.

Also, much is also being said regarding how computer giant Microsoft (Bill Gates) is also poised to make plenty of dough from the implementation of Common Core. For those who have trouble believing that, a quick visit to a product page on Microsoft’s website titled “Tech Essentials for Testing Success” will help make the truth more clear.

A sentence to the left of the page reads:

“Upgrade your school’s essential technology to meet State Standards for on-line assessments, including new Windows. Start by talking to a representative.”

And the page’s opening paragraph is perhaps most telling:

“Ready or not, testing for the State Standards is about to become a reality for schools in 45 states, Washington, D.C., and four US territories. That means a switch to on-line testing beginning the spring of 2015. For many districts, it’s a move that has left school and IT administrators in a quandary as to what to do.”

Common Core’s PARRC testing will be computer-based. Could it be that Microsoft either knew that or helped to solidify it through its support of the development of CCSSI? To fully grasp Microsoft’s link to Common Core, there are a few things that must be told. Despite what you might hear from the pro-Common Core propagandists, the National Governor’s Association (NGA) was hardly the guiding force behind it. The organization was brought along to provide the pretext that this was a movement led by state education leaders and governors. But many experts, advocates and observers contend that the real forces behind Common Core are individuals from groups such as Student Achieve Partners, whose leader David Coleman is known as the chief “architect” of the Common Core Standards (he now heads the College Board), ACT, the College Board (the organization responsible for the SAT and Advanced Placement tests and that is now led by Coleman), and others.

Meanwhile, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, $150 million – $200 million has been funneled through these and other organizations, including state departments of education (LDOE received more than $7 million in Gates Foundation grants in 2012) to support development of the Common Core State Standards Initiatives. No doubt, a couple hundred million in grant money is a drop in the pocket compared to the billions Microsoft will stand as CCSSI is fully executed around the country and school districts are convinced that they must upgrade their technology in order to fully implement the standards.

In short, Microsoft hopes to make a grip from school districts eager to ensure that their schools have the necessary hardware and software, not to mention the additional contracts that Microsoft can enter into with PARCC, CCSSI and other companies that create the assessments, the practice tests and even on-line tutorials perhaps leading to a situation where CCSSI is only supported by Microsoft technology. Rest assured it spells money in the bank for Microsoft.

A Common Rip-off

A few weeks before the new school year got into full swing throughout metro New Orleans, a trip to a local parent-teacher educational supply store revealed shelves filled with what at first glance appeared to be Common Core teaching aids. At roughly $20 each, the shrink-wrapped sealed box claims that inside lies “the complete Common Core State Standards Kit” for Kindergarten.

But don’t let the word “complete” mislead. Anyone tearing through the packaging with the hope of finding a syllabus, curriculum, real teaching tools or merely some simple instructions to assist their child or students in reaching the educational milestones designated for the grade level will be met with disappointment.

No lesson plans. No how-to guides. No course of study. Not one helpful hint for the Andrew Jackson just spent—just a box of “I can” statements. And in smaller type-face, the container indeed reads that inside one will find “everything” needed to “display” (not meet) the standards along with “I Can” declarations for language arts and math.

Just a few are:

“I can describe an object’s length and/or weight.”

“I can add and subtract in many ways.”

“I can act out words to show I understand what they mean.”

“I can use prepositions.”

“I can be duped into wasting 20 bucks at the teacher supply store.”

Okay, so maybe that last statement wasn’t in the box. But it ought to be. For a retail price that starts at $20 a box, North Carolina-based educational publisher Carson-Dellosa is selling the package of nothing more than, well, declarative statements printed on glossy cardstock that describe the goals Kindergarten students in Louisiana should reach by the end of the school year, with not so much as a study guide that helps to specify how they will reach them.

A Road Trip, Map Not Included

And make no mistake, Common Core is just that—a set of standards without an established curriculum designed to help students meet them. That fact is one of the chief complaints among Common Core critics. Before a single lesson plan was aligned with Common Core, it has already been paired up with a high-stakes test that many education advocates and even the actual students that have taken practice Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests have described as difficult and incongruous to what they are actually learning. Pushing difficult assignments and assessments on unprepared students only set them up for failure.

The lack of a curriculum perhaps helps explain why school districts across the nation have spent several years “implementing” Common Core.

So just how important are a curriculum and clear teaching material, strategies and methods?

Well, think of the classroom as a road trip in unfamiliar territory. Let’s say the destination is Whitefish, Montana. Yes, it is a real place. The mission is to get from where you are (in this case, not understanding the required information or meeting the standard) to Whitefish (actually understanding the required information or meeting the standard). Of course, there are roads, thoroughfares, bridges, waterways, tunnels and winding mountain roads stretching in every direction. Surely, one or more of them lead to Whitefish. And some of them lead to different destinations all together. No doubt, one or two of the paths that actually lead to Whitefish are better—more effective, valuable and useful—than all of the others. But you don’t know which one to choose. All you know is that at the end of the trip, you are supposed to be able to say “I can get to Whitefish, Montana.”

Do you start your journey turning right or left? Do you go straight? Is one path smooth and clear-cut? Is there another with rocky terrain that you might want to avoid? If it’s a long trip, what is the best route to ensure adequate fuel, food and lodging stops if needed? If you make a wrong turn or get lost, how will you know? Well, if you were really in your car taking a cross-country trip to a place you’d never been before, you would get a reliable map or a working GPS system. That is what a curriculum and aligned teaching material are—they are the maps, the global positioning systems that show where you are, where you want to go and the best way to get there.

Who would dare take a road trip under those conditions? Yet, it is how we expect students to learn and teachers to teach. The result has been that in classrooms in states across the country where Common Core standards have been adopted as far back as 2010, it still could not be fully implemented because states, school districts, schools and teachers don’t have the map to Whitefish. Instead, there are some classrooms where teachers are pulling from a multitude of text books and ancillary material to piece together their own atlases.

Meanwhile, parents trying to learn more about how they can assist their children in meeting the standards are directed to one website or the other to simply discover what the standards are for their student’s grade level.

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