Deliberately deceiving the public on Common Core

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On Nov. 17, 2015, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted not to move forward with the PARCC test (a national Common Core-based test) and instead to adopt a “hybrid” test called MCAS 2.0. Although it was widely reported that Massachusetts had dumped Common Core, the move by the Board was, in fact, a deliberate effort to make the public believe that the state had scrapped the controversial national standards in favor of the state’s own superior pre-Common Core standards.

Nobody – not the Board, the Commissioner, nor the Secretary of Education – mentioned that the hybrid test will have to be based on Common Core because of the Board’s 2010 vote to dump the state’s own standards in mathematics and English Language Arts and make Common Core’s standards the state’s official standards in these two subjects.

Reporters in the Bay State and across the country all seemed to assume that because PARCC was abandoned, so was Common Core. But in a blog on Dec. 1, 2015, Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, admitted that what had happened was not a significant substantive change, but rather a “rebranding for political purposes.” So far, the media have not sought to explain how they were all deceived in November by the vote, or how many citizens have been deceived by their own public officials, not only in Massachusetts but elsewhere as well.

Although the states that adopted Common Core’s standards did so legally (usually by a vote of their state boards of education), many state policymakers deliberately minimized public awareness and discussion of the standards’ academic deficits in order to ensure their passage and continue their use.

Sometimes state officials chose to deceive the public in outright defiance of the expressed will of the legislature to revise or eliminate Common Core’s standards. (This was the case in South Carolina, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Jersey.)

Although “rebranding” is the generic name of the strategy, the specific mechanisms used by state departments of education to ensure they maintain Common Core or Common Core-aligned standards has differed from state to state.

The following are a list of just some of the popular ploys that have been used to deceive the public:

— Changing the test’s name: Many states, like Massachusetts, have renamed their Common Core-based tests in order to make parents and legislators in the state think that they are getting something different. Thankfully, in Massachusetts, voters will have a chance to weigh in on the underlying Common Core standards, in the form of a November 2016 ballot question asking voters if the state should return to their superior pre-Common Core standards in mathematics and English Language Arts. Parent activists in the state already know that is the only way they can get rid of a Common Core-based test disguised as MCAS 2.0.

— Using restricted review methodology: Some states have used an online methodology that restricts statewide reviewers to a standard-by-standard review and allows state Departments of Education to claim that they have state-specific standards, in some cases mainly because they added standards for grades or courses that won’t be tested.

Stacking review committees and granting them limited purview: Many state departments of education stack revision committees with Common Core partisans and minimize participation by undergraduate teaching faculty in mathematics and English. Some state departments of education give review committees inhibiting directions, such as telling them not to change more than 15 percent of the standards because of laws against creating entirely new tests. Other faux-revision committees, such as those in Indiana and Pennsylvania, simply paraphrase the Common Core standards or, as in South Carolina, flood the Common Core standards with non-assessable objectives in order to make it difficult for legislators to spot the Common Core standards in their midst.

Skewing public discussions: Some states set up unbalanced public fora with speakers and commentators who desire further professional work with the department of education and who understand all too well what side of their bread the butter is on.

Relying on rigged external reports: Other states rely on seemingly unbiased external reports by groups such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Achieve, Inc., both of which are funded by the Gates Foundation, with a vested interest in the Common Core project.

Lest anyone think that acts of deception regarding Common Core have come only from only one side of the political aisle or from only state departments of education, perhaps the greatest act of deception is the preposterous claim about the thrust of the recent re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, by its major author Senator Lamar Alexander. In an op-ed in The Tennessean on Dec. 12, 2015, Senator Alexander implied that he had “repealed the federal Common Core mandate and reversed the trend toward a national school board.”

Instead, as Peter Cunningham, a former official in the U.S. Department of Education points out, “the new law that the senator from Tennessee is so proud of, the Every Student Succeeds Act, now mandates the very thing he rails against. Under the new law, every state must adopt “college- and career-ready” standards. Thus, the new law all but guarantees that Common Core State Standards — or a close imitation under a different name — will likely remain in place in most states.” It seems that Alexander, former president of the University of Tennessee, has managed to deceive not only his constituents in Tennessee and the entire country but also himself.

Although the bill was signed by President Obama as soon as it reached his desk in December, the nation has yet to learn who wrote the 1,000-page bill and who paid for it. It is clear that Senator Alexander and Senator Patti Murray co-sponsored the bill, but there is nothing on the bill to indicate authorship. In January, the House Appropriations Committee is to fund the bill. So far, there is no indication that the Chair of this committee will have the courage and moral fiber to ask for a hearing in order to find out who wrote the bill, who paid for the bill, and, most important of all for the states, what is in the bill.

Sandra Stotsky, former Senior Associate Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, is Professor of Education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read more by Sandra Stotsky here.

A version of this column appeared as a blog in Education News in December.