Critical thinking

Critical thinking

Common Core, America’s new educational standard

By Daniel Gelman 12/05/2013

What is it?

To some who are suspicious of the motivations behind the new K-12 educational standards known as Common Core, the proof is in a word and the devil is in the details. “Common” seems to imply, “Let’s all do the same thing.” While the “Obamacare” controversy rages, many local residents have been assembling recently to oppose what some call “Obamacore.” Opponents consider it a deceptive federal takeover of public education.

More specifically they see it as an attempt to herd our children into a pool of standardized future workers through the use of data mining, leftist propaganda and compromised curricula. Supporters say that’s mistaken at best and hysterical at worst.

“We have some very deep philosophical rifts in our country,” said Valerie Chrisman, associate superintendent of educational services at the Ventura County Office of Education. “I think the timing is really unfortunate. Because of their anger with the president, some people have grabbed on to the wrong cause. Common Core will make schools superior. I’m not toeing the party line. I’m toeing the grandma line.”

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is already incubating in your child’s school and those in 45 other states. It will be fully operational for the 2014-15 school year. Many local opposition events and literature have been sponsored by local Tea Parties or conservative-minded citizen groups. Although prominent Republicans like Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush support the measure, and governors from both parties adopted it, everyone else is either unaware of it or indifferent.

It’s packaged as new, rigorous “state-led” national standards (not curriculum), and related assessments in math and English language arts. It was “voluntarily adopted” by individual states, and intended to better-prepare students for college and the global marketplace.

Common Core was established in 2009 by two trade organizations known as the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with writing and development by the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners and Achieve Inc. All are based in Washington, D.C. Further input came from National PTA, National Association of State Boards of Education, Alliance for Excellent Education, American Association of School Administrators, ACT and the College Board.

But at the heart of the controversy is the true origin of Common Core, the roles of the federal government and Bill Gates, and the motivation and worldview of some of its key architects.

The rewards

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are staunch supporters of Common Core. The president offered states the chance to compete for $4.35 billion of federal “stimulus” money in the form of Race to the Top (RTTT) educational reform grants if they would sign on to the initiative. It worked, since many states adopted Common Core before it was even published and without knowing if they would qualify for the money. Opponents say the president made an offer that cash-strapped states couldn’t refuse, thus effectively bribing them.

He also offered conditional waivers from the proficiency requirements of former President George Bush Jr.’s No Child Left Behind Initiative (NCLB). It would have required schools to prove certain levels of progress by next school year. California was rejected for the waiver because teachers’ unions refused to use student test scores to evaluate teachers. The state has received about $75 million in RTTT funds for early childhood education, but in no other categories. The state will be distributing portions of $1.25 billion to districts for implementation of Common Core.

In an unprecedented move in August 2013, the federal government did grant individual waivers to eight California school districts, despite the state’s rejection. No districts in Ventura County were included.

“We didn’t adopt Common Core to get funding. We did it because we believe the standards are superior to what we had,” Chrisman said.

Data mining

One of the requirements of Common Core is the development of longitudinal data systems to mine information on individual students throughout their academic career. The information could include test scores, disciplinary records, health history, family income range, and religious affiliation, according to the National Data Collection Model. This aspect has incensed parents who were already suspicious of federal intrusion.

Although the U.S. Department of Education’s Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) originally forbade the sharing of such information, it was changed in 2011. Now the data can be shared with third parties like education technology companies for use in developing related products.

A February 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Education titled “Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance” reveals that the data mining may also include use of electronics to monitor students’ facial expressions, pulse and posture. This document is frequently referenced by resistant parents.

About 200 people filled the sanctuary at Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park on Nov. 6 to receive a legally vetted “opt-out” of data mining form, created by the nonprofit Pacific Justice Institute. The event was sponsored by Concerned Parents of Conejo Valley, founded by local school board candidate Tony Dolz.

Lyn Fairley of Ventura’s KVTA radio hosted the meeting and told the audience that it was being professionally filmed as an effort to create a national resistance movement. Brad Dacus, a lawyer and president of the Pacific Justice Institute, helped create the legal form.

“It is your legal right and there are no negative consequences,” Dacus told the audience.

“We have been collecting data on students for decades,” Conejo Valley School Board member Betsy Connolly, an enthusiastic supporter of Common Core, told the VC Reporter. “No data leaves our district with student names attached and the federal government doesn’t get individual student data at all. They get aggregate data. This will not change under Common Core.” When asked why others are opposing data mining so passionately, she told the VC Reporter that they are “throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks.”

But the Council of Chief State School Officers states “continued commitment to disaggregation” as one of its official goals in its Common Education Data Standards Initiative.


The Gates connection

The single largest nongovernmental funder of Common Core is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to the tune of about $175 million. Gates funds multiple Common Core advocacy groups, such as Stand for Children. Opponents say his motives are less than altruistic because he’s looking to capitalize on technology that will serve Common Core. He also funds data miner inBloom.

Microsoft has a cooperative agreement with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization regarding its Education for All campaign. Some say it is related to that group’s international movement for “sustainable development” known as Agenda 21.

“Identifying common standards is not enough,” Gates told a conference of state legislators in 2009. “We’ll know we’ve succeeded when the curriculum and the tests are aligned to these standards. 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 uniform base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.”

Social justice

When it comes to the origins of Common Core, opponents smell a rotten egg in the form of “social justice.” Obama was the chairman of the board for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge in the ’90s. That was an unsuccessful attempt by former domestic terrorist and education professor Bill Ayers to align public schools with his worldview.

Ayers is best known as a former member of the Weather Underground that bombed the U.S. Pentagon over the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He and Obama used more than $100 million of philanthropist Walter Annenberg’s money to promote the philosophy that teachers should be community organizers for “social justice.”

Instead of focusing on academics, they distributed funds to community organizing groups, including ACORN and Ayers’ own Small Schools Workshop that promoted African identity, bilingualism and political causes likeresistance to American racism and inequality. The results after six years showed no definable improvement.


David Coleman, president of the College Board, is considered by many to be the “architect” of Common Core because his nonprofit company Student Achievement Partners developed the standards. He is now in a position to align national tests to Common Core. His philosophical connection to Ayers and Obama goes back to the ’90s, when they contracted his services.


Arne Duncan was the head of Chicago public schools back then, too. Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor who works for one of the companies developing Common Core assessments, has published multiple times in journals about social justice that were edited by Bill Ayers. Opponents say, “Birds of a feather flock together,” and that these birds are continuing their political and cultural mission via Common Core.

 

Curriculum

The English language arts component includes a new emphasis on reading “informational texts.” As students get older, they will read much more nonfiction than classical fiction.


“The standards, if applied as intended, will increase the level of rigor for students,” said Armando Zuniga, a content specialist at Ventura County Office of Education. “Cognitively, students will be asked to think more deeply about complex texts, make meaning of their new knowledge, be able to apply it in different ways, and be reflective about their reasoning and methodologies.” He added that “There is no official list. The California Department of Education cedes to local control. That is to say, it leaves those decisions up to individual districts.”


Examples of informational texts could include speeches, debates, editorials or marketing materials. These may include a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the Gettysburg Address. Other texts could be procedural manuals.


English professor Dr. Mary Grabar wrote, in her research for public policy think tank the Selous Foundation, that books like Nickel and Dimed, Fast Food Nation and Master of Deceit (about former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) are examples of informational texts: “What Common Core will in effect do is allow the infusion of ‘social justice’ objectives and a leveling of all students, the goal of Ayers and Darling-Hammond all along, as their writings and speeches indicate.”


Brian Tash is a teaching consultant who prepares California teachers to teach to the math standards. “The Common Core has decreased the number of math content standards so students can spend more time focusing on important math ideas. It includes process standards which focus on the way mathematicians think about math. The ‘whys’ become as important as the answer. I believe it’s more rigorous because students can no longer be passive learners. The Common Core math supports 21st century skills. In the job market you have to defend why the strategies you used to solve a problem make sense,” he told the VC Reporter.


Stanford math Professor James Milgram served on the Common Core validation committee, but he is highly critical of the math standards and refused to sign off on them. While advising the state of Indiana, he referred to the former Soviet Union’s use of similar math standards as a “total disaster.”


According to Doug Lasken, retired L.A. English teacher who has consulted for the state, “California’s previous standards are considered world class by virtually everyone in the field who does not stand to make money from Common Core. They were quite rigorous but achievement did not go up.”


Even Common Core’s most ardent supporters admit that it will take several years to determine if the bang is worth the buck. Others recoil at the idea of their children being guinea pigs. One speaker at the meeting in Newbury Park told the audience, “Somehow this nation put a man on the moon without Common Core.” It remains to be seen who will say, “We told you so.” 

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