What is Common Core?

There is so much debate about the common core that we tend to get lost in arguing over the details. I have been researching this topic for several months and have told many friends that I sound like a conspiracy theorist when I discuss it. They often respond, “That’s because it sounds like a conspiracy.” But everything I’m about to tell you is the plain truth – there is evidence for it all over the internet and news. The most important thing you need to know about common core is that is not an education agenda – it’s a business agenda, designed to turn public schools into profit centers.

A Brief History of Common Core

No Child Left Behind, rolled out by President Bush, was the first education package that required school and student “accountability” in the form of testing. When President Obama promised education reform many educators were thrilled to say goodbye to this disastrous legislation. But his Race to the Top program only made things worse. It doubled down on high-stakes testing tied to teacher performance, and promised funding to schools that signed on without having a curriculum in place to review.

At that time, the economy was collapsing and school budgets were already at bare bones, so of course governors around the country said yes to federal funding. But common core wasn’t finished yet.

Meanwhile…savvy businessmen sensed an opportunity. The owners of a curriculum and testing company approached Bill Gates and they began work on the common core (see the link above). They formed two panels, one for math, one for English, each with 15 “experts.” (Because we all know English and math are the only subjects kids need to learn.)

Who were these education experts? Mostly people from the testing industry (College Board and ACT), and politically connected think tanks. None of them were teachers, none had experience with special education, it’s possible none of these people ever stood in front of a classroom full of children. When they showed the outcome of these panels, the common core, to a real math and English teacher, they were horrified.

So thirty people who were not teachers wrote the basis of the nationwide curriculum for school children from grades K-12, without regard for children with special needs or English-language learners. Then required that all children get extremely high results on these tests or their teachers and schools would be in big trouble.

You may have noticed the outcome of common core requirements in our schools already – no recess or study hall, shortened lunch and between-class times, reduced gym time (because kids are awesome at sitting still for six hours a day). Because of common core, every possible minute of the day must be devoted to curriculum, with heavy emphasis on writing and math across the day. Music and art were already in trouble before common core – now kids have to choose them as electives, and art and music teachers are being told that they have to teach English in their curriculum.

But back to history. Bill Gates was meeting with senators, congressmen, and governors to present his education package. In a 2009 speech to senators he was quoted as saying (my emphasis):

“When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better. Imagine having the people who create great online video games applying their intelligence to online tools that pull kids in and make algebra and other subjects fun. All states and districts should collect common data on teachers and students. We need to define the data in a standardized way, we need to collect all of it for all of our students, and we need to enter it in something cheap and simple that people can share.

There’s so much wrong with that paragraph I don’t even know where to begin. What does he even mean? Gates doesn’t talk about education in terms of students, he talks about it in terms of market value.

And can I point out the irony of giving this speech in Philadelphia? The cradle of democracy? The very process that he completely sidestepped in implementing the common core nationwide, without any voter feedback.

So here’s where we stand:

  • Gates & his partners have created a curriculum, copyrighted it, and now own the rights to all textbooks, software, and materials that go along with it. Remember this curriculum will be required for all schools in every state.
  • Testing companies like Pearson jump in to create (using federal grant money) and sell PARCC tests (using state school budget money).
  • And the PARCC tests will eventually be required to be taken on – COMPUTERS! Which all schools across the country will have to buy. Does anybody know where you can get a computer?

There are many players who have discovered that they can use schools as profit centers. Up front, they receive government money from education budgets to prepare and develop tests. The schools are required to teach to the tests, buying materials developed by these players. The tests require computers bought by towns. I think we just figured out where school budgets have gone over the last decade. It turns out it’s not the bloodsucking teachers after all!

One more thing. After convincing senators and governors that they needed to sign on to common core, Gates and his friends went to the UN to promote it as a global curriculum. Megalomaniacal? Or just really good business sense?

I haven’t even gotten into what happens when kids start failing the tests. (Which if you haven’t looked at you really should.)

So what does happen with the test scores? The healthy schools in wealthy towns, you’re doing fine, here’s some (as little as we can spare) money for you. Middle ground schools, maybe with higher populations of special needs or ESL learners, you’re not doing great, we’re going to come investigate you. Schools in impoverished, diverse, or crime-ridden areas: you failed everything. We’re putting you in receivership. Students fail the tests because they aren’t designed to be fair, teachers lose their jobs because of high-stakes requirements, and the private company Teach Plus (funded by Gates) moves in to take control of the schools. So at the end of this cycle, schools aren’t a government project anymore, they are a business project.

I know, you’re still thinking conspiracy. Here is a recent article from the Washington post:

“At the 2012 education summit sponsored by Jeb Bush…those pushing Common Core reforms bluntly explained their strategy: First, politicians will actually embrace the Common Core assessments and then will use them to set cut scores that suggest huge numbers of suburban schools are failing. Then, parents and community members who previously liked their schools are going to believe the assessment results. Finally, newly convinced that their schools stink, parents and voters will embrace reform.”

The thing that gets me the most about this is that Gates says all children need to have better education because he can’t find skilled workers. If he had invested as much money as he has on Common Core – over $2 billion so far – into his own company he’d be able to hire all kinds of workers. But it is far cheaper to produce computers in China, so that was the choice he made.

A high school blogger sums it up well when he says:

“The testing industry has become larger than the NFL, with over sixteen billion dollars in revenue in a single year. Mega-businesses such as British scoring company Pearson Education have racked up billions in sales while paying their essay scorers close to minimum wage to read over two hundred essays a day. Essays that students have slaved over, reduced to a thirty-second skim through and a snap decision.”

We need to stop haggling over the details of the quality of the common core standards or the merits of high-stakes testing and return the control of public education to the people actually doing the job: teachers. A teacher friend recently told me, “This is the only profession where the person doing the job is not the expert.” The Gateses are not experts. Common core is not about improving education for your children. It is a predatory system designed by for-profit companies who plunder school budgets, require unpassable tests, and blame the kids and teachers for failing.

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6 thoughts on “What is Common Core?

  1. Thank you for your insight on this subject. One thing we can do is refuse to let our children participate in the testing, which reminds me of Teacher Tom’s blog on this subject in which he concludes:
    People, too accustomed to the cynicism that the monied elites rely upon, often feel like there is nothing they can do, but look at what is happening. Look what can happen. None of us have to do it all, we just have to do our part, talking to our friends and families, reading, sharing our opinions, and, when necessary engaging in small acts of civil disobedience like opting our children out of high stakes testing. This is how our parade is made, this is how self-government works. And this is how we are going to transform public education in America.

  2. I read a homework test that a young friend in Texas brought home to do. It was too hard for me to understand. I have BS degree and couldn’t even understand the language or what the questions were asking. This child was in fourth grade! Tests should be about a body of knowledge, not a tricky, confusing inquery designed to make the sudent fail.

    • Thank you for your comment – I would refer you back to the Jeb Bush paragraph. The people behind this want us to believe that our schools are failing, and it honestly hurts when I see parents buying into the lies. Thank you for sharing your story and keep up the fight!

  3. Hi Amy, you and I have been lamenting the outcome of NCLB for many years … so I think you know where I stand when it comes to the issue at hand. I would quibble with one tiny point you make here: standards are not curricula. They are educational goals. The one thing that public school systems still have local control over is their curricula. Are those curricula being aligned to CCSS?–yes–so the point I’m making may be a worthless distinction to make in the argument you set forth here. As a public educator of 20+ years, however, I do think it’s important that people know that curriculum development is a much more involved process than the standards we base them on. And what the Common Core State Standards have done is replaced the content standards that were once devised by individual states. They are not a curriculum. That said, I appreciate the time you have taken to research your information and to question current trends in education. I think it’s important for people to fully realize the implications of No Child Left Behind and what it has done to our educational system.

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