Common Core Standards: Secretive, expensive and wrong
By Laurie H. Rogers, author of "Betrayed"
Columnist EducationNews.org July 14, 2009
In May, Washington State Gov. Chris Gregoire quietly joined most of the governors in signing a memorandum of agreement in support of a Common Core Standards effort. This effort – really a “movement” – is creating national education standards in mathematics and language arts. I asked for documentation on Gov. Gregoire’s decision, and some of what I received was heavily redacted. One critical document wasn’t sent to me because it’s “exempt” from my request.
Now I’m really curious.
The CCS movement was initiated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The first stage (the national standards) is well under way. The second stage will “develop and implement” national assessments. Also mentioned in the NGA/CCSSO’s memorandum of agreement (MOA) are textbooks, digital media, curricula, professional development and policy changes – all to be variously aligned, ensured, developed, implemented, or evaluated by “participating states.”
The concept of national standards isn’t new, but this particular movement is. The partnership between CCSSO, the NGA Center, and Achieve, Inc. was announced Sept. 9, 2008. On Dec. 19, a wish list of five “transformative steps” was announced.
Step 1: “Upgrade state standards by adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12.”
Step 2: “Leverage states’ collective influence to ensure textbooks, digital media, curricula and assessments are aligned to internationally benchmarked standards.”
From Dec. 19, things went quickly (and quietly). On June 1, the NGA/CCSSO publicly announced the intent to develop national standards. By then, most states had already signed the NGA/CCSSO’s memorandum, reportedly having been given a May 8 deadline. The movement’s leaders refused to announce until at least July the members of the “national validation committee” or the “standards development group.” A July 1 press release finally released some names but also said “the Work Group's deliberations will be confidential throughout the process.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan is supporting this movement with $350 million. He said so in a June 15 press release (seemingly his first on this topic). It must seem like pocket change to him – over a few months, he’s been doling out an extra $44 billion for public education. Meanwhile, the MOA signed by the governors says the “federal role” in the movement is to provide for: Revision and alignment of “existing federal education laws”; “greater flexibility in the use of existing federal funds”; and funding for the following:
- the writing and implementation of the standards
- the development of “common” assessments
- a “revised accountability structure”
- teacher and principal “professional development”
- “other common core standards over time”
- “a research agenda”
Wow. This is what happened in 1999. One minute there wasn’t a national program; the next, it was already signed, sealed and expensive. It makes me nervous.
- Influence: The more centralized the decision-making, the less influence parents have. Already, we have little influence beyond voting with our feet. In a national program, everything is vetted from far away and by committees of strangers.
- Secrecy: Leaders and participants haven’t been exactly forthcoming with names and details. Parents aren’t asked for opinions, consent or votes. The MOA said leaders would meet in an “open, inclusive, and efficient process” to develop end-of-high-school expectations – but it also set a target date of July 1, just one month after the movement was announced to the public.
- Cost: I’ve seen no estimates of costs to taxpayers in dollars, personnel, resources, benefits and expenses. What happens to current contracts, textbooks, funding programs, and assessments? State leaders predict this movement will result in decreased education costs, but I predict exponentially greater costs and more layers of $100,000 Ph.D.s at district, state and federal levels.
- Accountability: I fret over accountability to the public, especially considering the secrecy thus far. Who reviews these standards? What are their backgrounds? Where is the public in this? Who determines the efficacy of the movement?
- Outcome: The MOA says the standards will be “research and evidence-based,” “grounded in empirical research” and will “draw on best practices.” Uh huh. Much of the research and evidence in American public education is flawed, insufficient, biased, and weak as a newborn kitten. I want to see this evidence.
Despite any concerns, nearly all of the governors signed on. I wrote to Gov. Gregoire, asking for answers. One of her employees sent a copy of a letter from the State Board of Education dated May 20 that urged her to support the CCS movement. It didn’t take much urging, I guess. On May 20, copies of the MOA – signed by Gov. Gregoire and Superintendent Randy Dorn – were forwarded to interested parties. But not to the public. Neither of them issued a press release.
I was also sent a copy of an April 24 “Executive Policy Office Weekly Update,” in which the CCS movement is discussed. About two-thirds of this is redacted (blacked out so I can’t read it). I did NOT get a copy of the “Governor’s Decision Document” – dated May 15, 2009, and written by the governor’s executive policy advisor. This two-page briefing document was “exempted” due to “Executive Privilege.”
(What rotten luck. It’s probably the one I wanted.)
Whenever I see a “closed door” like this, I want to open it, see what’s behind it. Public education is full of doors that are closed, locked, stuck, too monolithic to budge, moved to a different building, stuffed in a dusty box in the backroom, or just wiped right out of existence. What do I do with this door? A lawyer stands behind it. The redactions and exemptions could be a matter of national security, or they might just be hiding Gov. Gregoire’s grocery list. Who knows? I want this information because the national standards movement is wrong-headed right out of the gate.
- Public education is a state responsibility. Even the U.S. Department of Education acknowledges this:
“Education is primarily a state and local responsibility in the U.S. In creating the Department of Education, Congress made clear its intention that the secretary of education and other Department officials be prohibited from exercising “’any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system.’ (20 USC 3403) The establishment of schools and colleges, the development of curricula, the setting of requirements for enrollment and graduation - these are responsibilities handled by states and communities, as well as by public and private organizations, not by the U.S. Department of Education.”
The U.S. Department of Education has already overstepped its role in public education. Despite constant assurances that the CCS movement is “state-led,” it has long-term federal taxpayer money and federal fingerprints all over it.
- The last set of “national standards” – from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics – plunged the country into a mathematical Dark Ages from which we have yet to emerge, and where we will remain until the education establishment once again believes in directly teaching real content.
- There is no avenue here for input from the real stakeholders: Parents and students.
I’ve sent more questions to Washington State’s Board of Education, the governor, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the National Governors Association, and the U.S. Department of Education. I’ll let you know what they say.
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