The BLOG: Voices

Why we need to be allowed to vote on Bay State education standards

Why teachers and parents need a voice in the standards their public schools address:

1.  They had no voice in the process leading to the adoption of Common Core’s standards in 2010.

2.  A substantial amount of the financial support for our public schools comes from local sources and taxes. Most of the technology infra-structure needed for testing as well as the personnel for managing it must be financed at the local level.

3.  The secret ballot at a state election in November 2016 is the only way that parents and teachers can express their views on the very narrow education that one extremely wealthy person wants for other people’s children.

4.  The many hours put in by parents and others to collect 100,000 signatures in order to put an initiative petition on the November 2016 election ballot should be honored. The petition allows all voters to decide if they want to keep the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s standards or if they prefer the superior standards the state once used, with proven benefits to all students.

The heavy hand of the Gates Foundation on Massachusetts education policy

The Gates Foundation played a key role in getting the state board to dump its superior standards in English language arts and mathematics for Common Core’s standards in 2010. First, the Foundation funded the writing of the state’s application in 2010 for a Race to the Top grant. In addition, the Foundation indirectly funded, via the James B. Hunt Institute in North Carolina, the 2010 report by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) urging adoption of Common Core’s standards. Released just before the Board’s vote in July 2010, the report claimed Common Core’s standards were as good as the state’s own first-class standards, a claim not supported by any experts not funded by the Gates Foundation.

Gates also gave Teach Plus, an organization for training prospective teachers in the Bay State, 7.5 millions in 2014 to testify for Common Core at public hearings sponsored by the state’s own department of elementary and secondary education in 2015. Why does Teach Plus want to serve the purposes of a very wealthy man whose own children attend a private school not using a Common Core-based curriculum or test? For a list of other recent recipients of Gates Foundation grants on education policy in Massachusetts, see the September 2015 issue of Bay State Parent Magazine.

In February 2015, the MBAE put out another report claiming recent MCAS tests didn’t predict college readiness well — a claim contradicted by a later study not funded directly by Gates. IRS 990 filings show that Gates gave the MBAE a considerable amount of money in both 2013 and 2015: 350K in FY 2015; 250K in FY 2013.

It is not known whether the money given in 2015 was intended to fund the lawsuit filed by the MBAE on January 22, 2016 to declare Initiative Petition 15-12 unconstitutional even though the petition was certified by the Attorney General’s office on Sept. 2, 2015, after a review of the MBAE’s Memorandum in Opposition to certification, filed on Aug. 18, 2015. Why does the MBAE want to quash a petition allowing voters, if they choose, to restore the superior standards and tests used in the Bay State’s public schools?

The most recent attempt to influence educational policy in Massachusetts, supported in large part by the Gates Foundation, is a report just released in February 2016 by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Evaluating the Content and Quality of Next Generation Assessments, claiming to be an evaluative comparison of four testing programs, the Common Core-based SBAC and PARCC, ACT’s Aspire, and recent versions of MCAS.  As testing expert Richard Phelps comments with details: “This latest Fordham Institute Common Core apologia is not so much research as a caricature of it.”

Why Massachusetts citizens should be concerned, if not outraged

As an Associate Commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from 1999-2003, in charge of the state’s K-12 standards, teacher licensing regulations, and teacher licensure tests, I was in charge of much of what led to the “Massachusetts education miracle.” Average scores in both reading and mathematics, for Grade 4 and Grade 8, on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015 were the highest or among the highest of all 50 states. On the only international test of the curriculum—Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) — Massachusetts entered as a separate country in 2007 and 2013, tied with Singapore for first place in Grade 8 science, and was among the top six countries in mathematics in grades 4 and 8 in both years.

Puzzlingly, the federal government did not fund independent experts to evaluate the rigor of Common Core’s standards, developed in 2009-2010, even though it expected the states to adopt them. Instead, the private organizations in charge of the project, funded chiefly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, created their own Validation Committee in 2009. There was only one mathematician on the committee — R. James Milgram of Stanford University. I was the only nationally recognized expert on ELA standards by virtue of my work in Massachusetts and, earlier, for Achieve, Inc.’s American Diploma Project.

Neither Milgram nor I signed off on Common Core’s standards on the grounds that they were not internationally competitive, rigorous, or research-based. Nor did the standards writers themselves explain why they omitted the high school mathematics standards needed for STEM careers, imposed an unproven approach to teaching Euclidean geometry, delayed the completion of Algebra I to Grade 9 or 10, emphasized writing over reading, and insisted that students need to read as many “informational” texts as literary texts in the English or reading class, if not more, to be prepared for college, despite the total lack of evidence to support such a drastic change in the K-12 curriculum.

In written testimony for H.3929, An Act Relative to Ending Common Core Education Standards (Initiative Petition 15-12), I pointed out the major flaws in Common Core’s standards for English language arts adopted by the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in July 2010. These standards will be used as the basis for MCAS 2.0 unless the Initiative Petition is on the November 2016 election ballot and voters can choose whether they want to restore the state’s superior standards. The major flaws in the state’s current ELA standards are as follows:

A. Most standards are simply skills, not “content” standards. (No literary/historical knowledge is expected.)

B. The standards expect English teachers to spend over half of their reading instructional time at every grade level teaching informational texts. (All students are given a reading curriculum suitable only for prospective ditch-diggers.)

C. The standards reduce opportunities for students to develop analytical thinking by reducing the number of complex literary and non-literary texts they read. (Students are given only short snippets or excerpts, not whole, original texts about anything complex.)

D. The standards discourage “critical” thinking. (Students are always given the sources to use for “arguments.”)

An education worthy of its name for low-income as well as middle- and high-income children is at stake in the attempt by one small and small-minded organization to prevent parents and teachers from voting on what they want in their public schools. Why is the MBAE doing this? And why is one wealthy person with an inordinate opinion of his views on education trying to impose them on other people’s kids?

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky

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