This year, Brattleboro’s schoolchildren and their teachers will be working within the new national curriculum, known by most as Common Core. The Common Core Curriculum, or CCSS, has been adopted by 46 states, Vermont among them. It will replace the regional and state curriculums now in place, and usher in a new era of standards-driven education aimed at creating graduates who are ready for “the global economy.”
What is this thing called Common Core, who created it, what are its goals, and why are so many people, including and especially teachers and parents, against it?
The goal of the new curriculum, according the the Common Core Standards Initiative web site (sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and National Governor’s Association) declares as its mission:
“The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”
It would appear that public education is now a job training program. Leaving aside the obvious question, “What jobs?,” we turn instead to the architects of Common Core — the group of wealthy businessmen who made it their mission to create the educational foundation which all American public schoolchildren will now be taught.
Who Created Common Core?
Funding for the development of the Common Core Curriculum was supplied in large part by private donors such as the Gates Foundation (Microsoft) and the Walton Foundation (Walmart). These wealthy donors and their peers operate under the auspices of the National Center for Education and the Economy, or NCEE, a non-profit organization they founded. Funding for the NCEE comes through its News Schools Venture group which supports charter school corporations Kipp and Edison. The NCEE is itself a program under America’s Choice, which was also funded by Gates and Walton. And to complete this circle of private education architects , America’s Choice has been acquired by Pearson, the country’s leading and dominant publisher of textbooks, curriculum materials, and tests.
In addition to this consortium, the testing company ACT has played a leading role in developing the Common Core standards, in conjunction with a second testing company, ACHIEVE. Both ACT AND ACHIEVE receive funding from insurance company State Farm; ACHIEVE also receives funding from the Gates Foundation.
The Gates Foundation hasn’t confined it’s giving to private organizations. They also supported the CCSSO (noted above as the organization of educators tasked with coming up with Common Core) to the tune of $70 million, and have reputedly spent over $300 million on Common Core through 2012.
But there’s more. The Gates Foundation has also funded the development of a database to collect student data supplied by schools , calling it the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC). The SLC in turn developed a non-profit called InBloom to implement personalized learning programs in schools. The data created by students is then provided to third party advertisers using the InBloom personalized learning product. InBloom is being tested in single school districts of Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York City, and North Carolina, but faces hurdles in the larger market due to privacy concerns.
Finally, the Gates Foundation has shown strong support for charter schools, which are replacing public schools across the country, in part because of federal directives that “failed” schools be privatized. Gates gave $3 million to an effort to convert public schools to charter schools in the state of Washington. Gates was joined in the pro-charter school effort by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Paul Allen, and Walmart heiress Alice Walton as well as a Koch Brother-sponsored group, according to local accounts. Gates has also provided funding to charter school companies, and been an outspoken supporter in intereviews.
Corporate involvement in public education has been on the rise for the last several decades, but certain names come up often and they seem to have their fingers in every pie. With Common Core and related ventures, Gates and his partners have amassed a great deal of power to determine what and how our children will be taught.
What Is The Common Core Curriculum?
Common Core Curriculum is a set of standards for Math and English (with Social Studies, Science, and Technical Studies added for grades 6 and up) by grade level designed to specify the things that American public schoolchildren will be required to know. Parents and students are expected to help students meet the standard level of education for their grade. Tests provided by testing companies will determine how much each student has learned. Students who fail aspects of the tests will receive extra help in areas of low performance. Teachers whose students do not rise in sufficient numbers will be identified and held accountable, perhaps by firing them, perhaps by personal attention and remedial activities, as specified under the two federal education programs, No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top.
As for the specifics of what is contained in the new curriculum, there are few who are familiar enough with the whole program to be able to provide an overall assessment. Supporters say that it is, if nothing else, standard. And it is concrete, which is to say, its focus is on quantifiable facts and skills, and less on more subjective areas such as interpretation or appreciation.
A more nuanced argument for the Common Core starts with the assumptions that American students lag in academic achievement and that too many emerge from high school with insufficient skills to succeed in work or college. Common Core, say proponents such as Florida Governor Jeb Bush, will solve that problem by raising education standards nationwide and holding teachers and administrators accountable if students don’t succeed.
Critics argue that the ultra-pragmatic, even industrial nature of the new curriculum, is itself a weakness, leaving those whose talents lie in the more subjective realm nowhere to go. Moreover, they believe that the precise dovetailing of curriculum with tests as well as the number of new standardized tests students will be required to take will stifle creativity and reduce teachers to mere implementers of this latest government program. Other concerns include the high cost of implementing the program and loss of local control.
As supporters are quick to point out, Common Core is not a creation of the government but was funded and engineered by the aforementioned group of private businessmen. However, the Obama White House makes adoption of the Common Core a requirement for receiving Race To The Top funding. Hence almost all states have signed on, turning American public education another public-private partnership.
Samples of the Common Core Curriculum and information about the program as adopted in Vermont (with the 15% permitted regionalized content specific to our state) can be found on the State Department of Education website:
Common Core In Action
All but five U.S. states have adopted the Common Core Curriculum. The holdouts are Minnesota, Nebraska, Virginia, Alaska, and notably, Texas, who will continue to use their current curriculums and forego competition for Race To The Top funding.
Vermont adopted Common Core in 2010, although the state had already opted out of Race To The Top, making the carrot of RTTT funding less of a motivator. Vermont did not compete for RTTT funding because it requires school districts to tie student test scores to assessments of teacher performance, and to fire teachers whose students do not measure up to the federal standards. A spokesperson for the Vermont Department of Education said in 2012 of RTTT: “the U.S. Education Department is interested in simply replacing one punitive, prescriptive model of accountability with another.”
That said, Vermont Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca has been a strong supporter of the Common Core curriculum program, for reasons of standardization, interstate comparability, and rigor.
Here in Brattleboro, Paul Smth, local curriculum specialist for Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) says Brattleboro has already begun to implement Common Core. Last year, says Smith, area schools got their feet wet with the new curriculum, enabling students and teachers to become acquainted with it before becoming officially bound. This year, all teachers and students will be working with the new curriculum. Testing on the Common Core will not take place until 2015 when the new, interactive, adaptive, computer-administered SBAC test is ready.
The new tests have proven controversial because the first two states to take Common Core-based tests failed resoundingly. New York state saw the student pass rate drop by as much as 34% in their first year with the Common Core test, administered by the PARCC testing company. Kentucky did about the same with the number of students achieving proficiency dropping by a third statewide, according to Education Week. Supporters of the new curriculum and its specialized tests say that students and teachers are just going through “a necessary adjustment period“ but parents and teachers in both states complained heartily when results were released.
Paul Smith said that he thought that Vermont scores might actually “get a bump” with the new Common Core test, although he admitted that his views “might be optimistic.” Meanwhile, students and teachers across the state are entering new territory, as their educators launch yet another drive toward the elusive goal of 100% academic profiency with a new set of standards.