How Do You Sell Common Core Standards and Tests To Unwilling Parents? Hide Them

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An interesting game is being played by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), the major sponsor of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and by others who claim that ESSA both reduces federal control and restores some state and local control.

ESSA does allow states some leeway on how they choose to address accountability to the federal government, although their choices are subject to review by the U.S. Department of Education and the final chapter has not yet been written on the “peer review” process for state plans by federal education officials. (Nor is it clear that this process is constitutional.)

But whatever the leeway ends up being, ESSA does not eliminate Common Core standards and tests. ESSA simply uses willing state employees to deliver in a State Plan what the Obama-led federal education department wanted in order to further federal control. The public is thoroughly confused and deceived, state legislatures seem paralyzed, and the “mainstream” media are complicit.  A “State Plan” is a commitment by the state department, board, and commissioner of education to address the hundreds of programmatic requirements spelled out in a 1,000-page document approved by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress in December 2015 after its release two days earlier. The Plan indicates what the state will commit to do for at least four years, regardless of cost, to address those requirements, and to close achievement “gaps” in return for Title I and other federal funds.

The central issue for parents of school-age children is that ESSA does not restore any modicum of parent influence on local school policies.  In fact, it authorizes state departments of education or public instruction to do what the U.S. Department of Education cannot constitutionally do — establish “college and career readiness” state standards and tests and collect information on students. Parents were added to the long list of “stakeholders” to be consulted on the state plan (earlier drafts excluded them) just before ESSA was approved in December 2015, but parent groups in most if not all states have been kept out of the process to ensure they have little or no influence on their state plan.

Restoration or enhancement of local control was never intended.  ESSA doesn’t give any power to locally elected school boards (which, unknown to most members, still retain most of the authority on policy making they have had since their inception hundreds of years ago).  ESSA tries to give all authority for developing and finalizing the State Plan to state departments and boards of education (mostly unelected people) — not to state legislatures or a governor for even a cost-benefit analysis.  And state departments and boards of education are doing whatever they can to keep their state’s standards and tests aligned to Common Core despite the failure of the Common Core-aligned standards and tests used in most states today (regardless of what they’re called) to reduce “gaps” in academic achievement between politically defined demographic groups or to raise achievement in low-achieving groups — the focus of most federal legislation in education since the first authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965.

Why the blind faith in a failing if not failed project and its very wealthy funder — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation? (The “gaps” even seem to be increasing since the onset of Common Core but no State Plan suggests that the Common Core project may be the culprit.) One would never find out from “mainstream” media or seeming independent analyses that the project was defective from the outset and especially damaging to the students whose interests its advocates claimed it sought to protect.  Or that the public in each state has been deceived, each in its own way, usually by its own public officials and employees.

Deceptions abound — a different strategy from state to state.  Exactly how each deception played out we cannot learn from “mainstream” media. They may not know what the word means in a civic context.  Here are a few recent examples:

1.  Arizona.  Its eleven-member State Board of Education recently approved a “revision” of its original Common Core standards using fake expert reviews to assist the board in its decision-making. So far as is known, the Board invited most of the expert reviewers, including several 250-page reviews by Achieve Inc. in mathematics and English language arts (as well as a combined report), all on Arizona’s official stationery. Who paid for these lengthy reports is still not public knowledge, although Achieve Inc. has long been known as a Gates Foundation recipient and a Common Core promoter. Two faculty members in educational psychology at Arizona universities, Sara Abercrombie and Elizabeth Pope, were apparently invited to submit expert reviews in both mathematics and English language arts and did so.  Neither of these reviewers is known as an expert in mathematics or English language arts, both have academic appointments in a school of education, and neither has ever published in a discipline-based journal in either field. Achieve Inc.’s reviewers are unknown. 

Arizona ended up with both mathematics and English language arts standards that are worse than the original Common Core standards it had.  That was my judgment for English language arts:  I was officially invited by the commissioner of education elected in November 2016 to critique the revised English language arts standards. And as noted by an authentic mathematics reviewer, examples in parentheses in the original mathematics standards, intended to clarify their meaning, had been removed in the “revision” process. But no reporter seems to have glanced at the “technical” reviews or commented on whether there were any questions about what the reviewing committees appointed by the Department of Education had done to make both sets of standards vaguer and more difficult to understand than its original standards were. Several board members were or are college presidents.

2. Massachusetts. Its nine-member State Board of Education agreed to a “compromise” in November 2015 on what to call a Common Core-aligned state test. It could choose between a state test called PARCC and a state test called MCAS by the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act and until 2010 based on the state’s own pre-Common Core standards. By 2015, even MCAS was based solely on Common Core’s standards. The Board’s compromise was to call the state test MCAS 2.0, confusing everyone, including the media, about its contents.

The compromise grew out of controversy in the field over Common Core’s standards and the PARCC tests. In fact, a large statewide group consisting mainly of parents had sought to place a question on the November 2016 ballot allowing voters to decide whether they wanted to keep Common Core’s standards and tests. Gates Foundation grants to the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (over $400,000, according to an article in Bay State Parent) had enabled a small organization that had played NO role in the development of the state’s first-class pre-Common Core standards to hire Foley Hoag, a very expensive law firm in Boston, to challenge the constitutionality of the question that the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office had declared in 2014 was constitutional. Justice Margot Botsford on the state’s Supreme Judicial Court agreed with Foley Hoag’s peculiar legal reasoning that the release of used test items was unrelated to a test’s transparency and took away the opportunity for the state’s voters to decide on the use of Common Core’s standards and tests. She declared unconstitutional the question that the Attorney General’s office had declared constitutional a year earlier. She apparently also persuaded her colleagues on the court to follow her (and Foley Hoag’s) reasoning.

 Tests labeled MCAS 2.0 were given to Bay State students in March and April 2017.  Now Rhode Island’s Department of Education wants to use the tests there, thinking that tests called MCAS will calm down Rhode Island parents angry about PARCC tests and Common Core standards.  Bloggers on Diane Ravitch’s blogsite have commented on the deception. It is not clear if Rhode Island’s governor (Gina Raimondo), commissioner of education (Ken Wagner), and department of education have all been snookered by Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester. He once served as chairman of PARCC’s advisory board; this deception, if it spreads nationally, would get PARCC out of its financial hole. Maybe Rhode Island state officials really believe that tests called MCAS 2.0 bear some resemblance to the original MCAS tests and the standards they were based on.  Only one reporter in the Bay State has apparently tried to look into the matter and there’s no evidence anyone in Rhode Island read his article.

3.  New Hampshire. Its seven-member State Board of Education has told its new state commissioner of education, Frank Edelblut, appointed by a new governor elected in November 2016, that he cannot review and revise its recently “revised” or adopted standards for mathematics, English language arts, and science. Edelblut recently stated he wanted to review all of New Hampshire’s “official” standards. And, in fact, he has the statutory authority to do so.

Under state law, the Board may advise the commissioner of education; the Board may work in conjunction with the commissioner who “shall develop and implement” statewide education improvement and assessment programs; “the general court requires the state board of education and the department of education” to work together “to institute procedures for maintaining, updating, improving, and refining the minimum standards for public school approval …”; the Commissioner has an “ongoing” duty to develop state standards; and “the Commissioner shall review, on an ongoing basis, the development and administration of standards.”

A sitting board may refuse to approve revised standards, but it seems to have no authority to block the commissioner from reviewing and recommending new standards, which is his duty. More will come on this very current issue in the next month or so.

But thanks to the work of the previous commissioner, the state board of education, and the staff at the New Hampshire Department of Education, Common Core-aligned standards and tests are in its State Plan, despite opposition to the Common Core project from parents and teachers across the state. (For details about teacher and union protests in Nashua, see this article; and for opposition by a parent group to the state’s recently adopted science standards as well as its Common Core-aligned standards, see here.) No “mainstream” reporter or editorial has yet covered the brazen attempt by a state board to veto efforts by a new commissioner of education to strengthen public education, especially when the science standards adopted by the Board have been severely faulted in detail by two scientists.


Let’s sum up:

  1. ESSA does not restore any clear measure of control of local public schools to parents and local school boards.
  2. ESSA does not reduce federal authority over local public schools. The U.S. Department of Education still threatens to withhold Title I money if local schools don’t curb opt-out rates even though parents have the right to opt their children out of federal or state-mandated tests — without needing permission to do so.
  3. ESSA authorizes state departments and boards of education to do what those who wrote and paid for ESSA (still unidentified) want done but can’t easily do at the federal level — establish Common Core-aligned standards and tests in the State Plan.
  4. ESSA’s goal is not to increase academic achievement in all demographic groups — or in low-income groups — but to close “gaps” between these groups, as its introduction indicates.
  5. ESSA’s goal is to centralize education decision-making in this country via State Plans, ostensibly in the name of “equity.”  
  6. Most Republicans and Democrats seem to approve of that goal — and Congress happily adds more money to ESEA re-authorizations when they happen. Most of the costs today for the Common Core project will be borne by local taxpayers for the testing infrastructure deemed necessary in the name of equity and for the increasing personnel needed to gather, synthesize, and transmit personal and test information on schoolchildren to the intermediaries who will relay the information to the federal government in the name of “workforce development” — a goal sought by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other Gates Foundation recipients. 


More sophisticated approaches to the devious tactics of the Gates Foundation may confuse naïve state legislators, local school boards, and parents. They tend to confound “corporate” America and philanthropy, as if these abstractions explain why deceptive strategies are being used by state boards of education, commissioners of education, and departments of education to keep damaging standards/tests in place. The Givers: Money, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan, published in 2017 by Knopf, is not a direct apologia for Gates. As a New York Times reviewer puts it, he sees “both sides of the story, with a healthy dose of skepticism. His interest from the first pages is to examine the power of philanthropists to shape America.”

As Callahan notes, philanthropists have often contributed to the “public good.” And when things go wrong, it is often “unintentional.” But lumping Bill Gates with the Koch brothers implies “a plague on both houses.” In Callahan’s book, we hear from few if any parents of children in Common Cored schools and wonder if Callahan or the reviewer has any children or grandchildren in the public schools. Moreover, Callahan’s own initiative Demos has been a “core” recipient of Gates Foundation funding since 2008.

Gates is not just a benevolent philanthropist with $60 billion-plus to spend on his “vision” for the education of other people’s children. (His own children are safely enrolled in a classically-oriented private school in Seattle.)  There’s a lot more to be told about the activities of the many organizations receiving grants from his Foundation and the present and future costs his foundation and its recipients have burdened taxpayers with. Its funding of today’s charter school movement alone deserves far more reporting than it has received.

The massive deception of the public in state after state, with strategies tailored to each state’s unique constellation of personalities and civic institutions, points to something more than philanthropy gone awry. The “mainstream” media’s indifference to children’s educational well-being may reflect the possibility that many reporters and editors don’t have any school-age children or have any in the public schools. It is a major part of the problem in getting coverage of what has happened to the public school curriculum. But the media’s acceptance of institutional manipulation as a price they are willing to pay for ignoring the actions of those who claim to be interested in improving the education of low-income children portends ill for the future of this republic and those children’s future.


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas.  Read her past columns here.