SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 13, 2014

Column: The mystery behind Common Core

Barbara Anderson
The Salem News

---- — “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

— Harvard President Derek Bok

You see that quote on bumper stickers. I’ve seen it used as an argument against property tax limitation, but Derek Bok may simply have been responding to complaints about the cost of a Harvard education.

Regardless, here’s a variation for 2014: If you think education as run by your city, town and state is deficient, try letting the federal government run it. Which brings us to Common Core, the latest trendy education thing out of Washington, D.C., following No Child Left Behind and somehow combined with Race to the Top, two of the more obviously silly slogan-government program titles.

Clearly, many children have been left behind since 2001, when No Child etc. was created by the Bush administration. And the Top we are supposed to be Racing to is already occupied by Asian children, who, the head of the Peabody Teachers Union said at a meeting Tuesday night, are being taught the way our students were taught 50 years ago.

This is what’s so interesting about Common Core: It seems to be bringing together, in common concern, a lot of people who don’t have much in common, most notably taxpayer activists and teacher unions. This may not be surprising when you consider what professor Sandra Stotky, guest speaker at the Tuesday meeting in Peabody, said about the Standards Development Work Group that wrote the new program: “High school English and mathematics teachers, English professors, scientists, engineers, parents, state legislators, early child educators, and state or local school board members” are among those groups not represented, or even asked their opinions.

Well, who wrote the standards then? Not to encourage cynicism, but don’t be too surprised to learn that they were written mostly by test and curriculum developers hired by three private Washington, D.C., organizations (the National Governors Association, Council for Chief State School Officers, and “Achieve Inc.”), funded for this purpose by a fourth private entity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

We can easily follow the money from curriculum development to those producing the mandatory tests. But I can’t tell you why Bill Gates is doing this except to note that just because a genius creates Microsoft doesn’t mean he can’t be used and manipulated by government bureaucrats who convince him he’s part of something very important.

The U.S. Constitution doesn’t allow federal intrusion into the state/local education arena; Common Core attempts to deal with this by using private sector developers. Then, federal stimulus money was offered to those states who accept Common Core, and with money comes control. The private organizations created a Validation Committee to “evaluate the soundness, rigor, and validity of the standards” they were developing. No information is available on how committee members were chosen. No transparency is required of the private sector.

Fortunately, one qualified person was on the Validation Committee: Sandra Stotsky, a Massachusetts expert on K-12 English education, who was involved in the implementation of the bipartisan Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.

A mathematics expert joined Stotsky as the two dissenting votes when the committee validated the standards. In the end, Stotsky told us, it didn’t matter, as the program that was eventually sent to the states that accepted the federal money wasn’t the same program that had been validated anyhow.

Common Core’s mission is to promote common educational standards and testing in the English and mathematics curriculum across the country. According to Stotsky, the common standards are lower than what we already have created in Massachusetts since the Ed Reform Act.

The Pioneer Institute is my go-to group for education issues; Stotsky serves on its advisory board for ongoing school reform. Pioneer reasonably asks why the federal government didn’t start its program with low-achievement states, trying to bring them up to our standards, instead of potentially letting us drop down to their level for the common goal.

The meeting Tuesday was called by concerned Peabody school board member Dave McGeney, and attended by the rest of the school board, the mayor, the three Peabody state legislators and at least 100 concerned citizens. They were given a fact sheet from Stotsky noting the lack of transparency of the entire Common Core process, as well as the chief deficiencies of the standards, notably stressing writing over reading (i.e., expressing opinions for which adequate information has not been acquired), and not encouraging the higher math courses that lead to the science and technology expertise our nation needs.

A young teacher at the meeting validated the argument that some of the standards are “developmentally inappropriate in the primary grades.” Stotsky predicted that programs for gifted students will disappear in favor of leveling the education playing field. Most ominously to me: her argument that “Common Core reduces opportunities for students to develop critical thinking.”

Very few adults I know have developed much in the way of critical thinking, so the nation’s education system hasn’t done its job for at least a few generations. Along with our math and science deficiency relative to other countries, it’s understandable that efforts are constantly being made to improve education standards.

Massachusetts has seen success with English and math testing since 1993’s education reform, and Pioneer argues that lifting the cap on charter schools will do far more good than letting the federal government take over. With the growing concern among parents, teachers and local education systems, the state department of education should put its acceptance of Common Core on hold, as New York has. If the state department doesn’t re-evaluate, local school boards should be allowed to opt out as more scrutiny uncovers problems.

The federal government taking over K-12 education: What could possibly go wrong?

Barbara Anderson of Marblehead is president of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a Salem News columnist.