This column was written by Kathy Zahler, who runs the blog “Dryden Daily Kaz.” Should anyone wish to write a response, we would gladly run it.          

— Jeff Stein

Dryden, N.Y. — My favorite gubernatorial candidate, Zephyr Teachout, has leapt into the deep end of the cesspool of Common Core politics with a recent op-ed calling for their immediate halt.

In her piece, which blames Bill Gates and focuses on something Teachout calls “education democracy,” Teachout goes beyond even the famous Washington Post article that tied Gates to the standards to imply that there is a vast corporate conspiracy to destroy our schools and that local control is always best.

She quotes and parses Diane Ravitch, once the darling of conservatives and now the darling of urban left-wing thought on educational policy.

But she’s wrong about Common Core.

Zephyr Teachout, right, is mounting a progressive challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Courtesy of Teachout for Governor.)

The Ravitch Factor

I like a person who can admit when she’s wrong. Diane Ravitch built a career on wrongheaded education policy, but very recently, she’s pulled a 180 and rejected most of what she supported up till now. Privatization of schools: Was good, now bad. Accountability through testing: Was good, now bad. And with the zeal of the true convert, she has spread the revised Gospel far and wide, primarily through her popular blog.

Diane Ravitch, anti-Common Core crusader. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Diane Ravitch, anti-Common Core crusader. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, Common Core has come under Ravitch’s scrutiny, and when the ink was barely dry on the policy, she declared that it was not working and must be tossed. Would the FDA, she fretted, approve the use of a drug with no trials? (I wish I could have my late father-in-law, a longtime FDA whistle blower, respond to that one.) She was suddenly fearful that such national standards, which she once freely supported as many reformers did, would cause irreparable harm to children.

I know that Ravitch, as a student of education history, understands that standards are not field tested — tests are field tested. I know she knows that we’ve been “a nation of guinea pigs” many, many times, through a thousand twists and turns of educational policy, including some where she held the scalpel for the mad scientists. I’m sure she realizes that the states’ 50 sets of disparate standards were no more field tested or voluntary or public or democratic than the Common Core has been. She may even recognize that the public comment period for Common Core was far longer and more inclusive than any such period for a set of state standards. What her motivation is, I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. I’m even willing to concede that she may be sincere. But since she published her original screed in 2013, her anti-Core comments have become a noisy series of ad hominem attacks on people who support the plan, and far too many otherwise sensible people have taken to parroting her opinions.

Here’s Ravitch in 2010 after rejecting NCLB, which she once supported: “[It has failed because] it has encouraged the states to dumb down the standards by saying that every state would have its own definition of proficiency, every state would use its own test, by setting a deadline of 2014 — which is totally unrealistic — by which all students are supposed to be proficient….”

Well, yes. When every state has its own definition of proficiency and uses its own test, as has been the case for decades now, students in a mobile society get screwed. That is exactly why those of us who work with state standards for a living and see daily how crazy they are have been fighting for national standards for years.

The Gates Factor

I don’t have big opinions about the Gates Foundation. Malaria stuff: Great. School-related stuff: Iffy. That huge study about what makes a good teacher good seems like the sort of thing I’d probably reject as a master’s thesis topic. The “science” becomes too squishy, a bit like defining what makes a good mother.

That being said, I certainly do not believe that Gates has pulled off an educational “coup” or that the Common Core Standards are “Bill Gates’s standards.” Even the WaPo makes clear that Gates money was used to promote the standards once they were created. Gates didn’t write them; it’s not entirely clear that he’s read them. This is not a case of private money “supplanting democracy.” It is more likely a case of a typically ham-fisted Obama administration reaching out to friends to help them support a cause they like. Does he have more money than he knows what to do with? Yes. Does he hope to use that money to influence policy? Probably. Is it fair to point out Teachout’s pride in being supported by inventors and entrepreneurs from WordPress and DIGG? How many millions are too many? When is money in politics okay, and when is it dangerous? (Yeah, that’s rhetorical.)

As for Gates making a pile on Common Core assessments, his market share in public schools pales beside Apple and now Chromebook, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

I’m sorry lots of people don’t feel they had input into the Common Core Standards. Do they feel that they had sufficient input into their own state standards? I wrote comments; so did thousands of parents, teachers, administrators, and ordinary citizens. Sorry you didn’t hear about it until the comment period had closed. Could it be that most people don’t really pay attention to public policy until it directly affects them? (Rhetorical, again.)

About Standards-Based Education

Before the 1980s, and specifically before A Nation at Risk, we used mostly norm-referenced methods to compare students to one another and create a bell-curved picture of our kids compared to a mythical “average” student. Standards-based education instead compares individual student progress and growth to a set of standards or goals. Zephyr Teachout started her school career in Vermont, which she remembers so fondly in her op ed, under a norm-referenced system and ended it using Vermont’s learning standards. As a student, was she aware of this? Almost certainly not. Students care whether their teachers are good and their content is interesting. Only recently have we begun to start lessons with a suggestion about what is to be learned, in the hopes that kids will be able to think about and monitor their own learning. This sounds like a good idea to me.

Who decides on those goals, of course, is a question that should be asked. Should it be democratic—should we let the people decide? How? District by district, region by region, state by state?

The Whimsy of Local Control

If the people of my child’s district set the standards for the district, we’d have Bible study all morning and lacrosse all afternoon. We’d teach no foreign languages, for, as one memorable chap remarked at the very first board of ed meeting I ever attended, “In my house, we speak English.” There would be no course on the Holocaust, a course that is provided by an interested teacher and garners much student interest, because after all, there are just two Jewish kids in the whole district, and one, mine, is merely a half-breed.

If you want to see local control in action, move to Texas. Texas, of course, is one of the few states that from the first refused to sign on to the Common Core. God forbid that the Texas School Board lose its power to gut separation of church and state, highlight conservative ideology, and remove the word “democratic” from any description of the nation.

Texas is an egregious example of what happens when you unleash local control and throw a lot of money around. I remember being a young editor at MH in the 1980s and hearing a sales manager remark, “Well, we made the list in Texas, and I didn’t even get pregnant!” Making the list in Texas meant millions for textbook companies (why yes, market forces have controlled education since long before the Common Core), and the amount of booze, money, and yes, sex, that flowed down south during so-called “adoption” cycles was terrifying to behold. Texas Board of Ed members and their connected TEA associates expected to be wooed. Most publishers spent the extra dollars to create “Texas editions” of textbooks, often with separate chapters showing how the state figured prominently in American history or science. Where separate editions were cost-prohibitive, publishers followed Texas’s lead. Don’t like evolution? We’ll minimize that. Love those Founding Fathers? In they go. Because Texas money was especially green, Texas local control trumped other states’ local control, and the results may be seen in textbooks from the 1980s through to the present day.

Local control, in other words, is a major contributor to the culture wars. If majority rules in curricula, minorities get screwed.

A Word About Assessments

The countries where students outperform ours, which is to say a bunch, have national standards. What they do not have are annual tests. Many test kids at intervals; say, 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. This seems to be enough frequency with which to draw conclusions about efficacy of the standards.

We test kids constantly. It may come as a shock to note that we don’t test them any more now than we did seven years ago, but it’s still way too often. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the power of the major test publishers, Pearson and CTB/McGraw. Another is the accountability movement, which is not limited to the U.S. but is particularly active here. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have encouraged testing not only as a means of measuring student achievement but also as a means of measuring teacher and school achievement.

[A quick sidebar about accountability in NYS. The unions are miserable with APPR, NYS’s accountability plan for teachers, and they’ve succeeded in gaining a postponement of testing as a means of measuring teacher success. That makes sense to me—the tests are new, the standards are new, students taking tests this year haven’t been using the standards long enough to measure progress. But it’s worth pointing out that those same unions negotiated APPR contracts with every individual school district in the state. They worked out the percentages; they signed on the dotted lines. I’m not allowed to back out of a contract just because I decide it’s hard to meet the terms. My guess is that the leadership did the negotiating, and the membership balked after the fact, but I don’t really know. Still, the media has covered this as though it was something imposed on the teachers from above, and that is absolutely not true. Again, these were negotiated contracts.]

Those of us in the ed publishing racket raised a stink years ago about the movement toward increased testing. The projects we were offered made it clear to us early on that we were teaching less and testing more. Testing is nearly always an unfunded mandate for school districts. The state may pay for the tests themselves, but the schools must cough up dollars for substitutes while teachers spend valuable time grading, and the constant paperwork is a drag on the whole system. Now that testing is moving to computer-based platforms, the costs are even greater.

So why are we limited to two enormous test publishers? For the answer to that, you have to go back to the 1980s, when mergers and acquisitions erased most of the small houses and a lot of the big ones. Yes, market factors have damaged American education, but perhaps not in the way Diane Ravitch supposes. The fact that we allowed and even enabled monopolistic publishing was a disaster in many ways, but the effects on educational publishing were especially dire.

[A note about Pearson: I’ll work for nearly anyone, but I won’t work for them. Their quality control has been embarrassing, and I hate their recent entrance into the private school market. I won’t work on science for anyone, because I’m not willing to kowtow to Texas et. al, and I rarely work on social studies for the same reason.]

Stuck in the Mire

I’m sorry that Zephyr Teachout has jumped willingly into this pit, because it’s hard to wipe this Common Core stuff off your shoe once you’re in it. I know that many administrators and pro-Core educators may withdraw support when they read her op ed, but I won’t. I’ve been around the block enough to know that there are no perfect candidates, and that any candidate worth her salt is open to diverse opinions. Teachout is right on the finances of NYS education, as far as she’s gone. I trust that she will emerge from the downstate bubble as the campaign progresses and will visit upstate educators to hear about their own experiences with the standards and their ideas about school equity. It’s a shame the primary is in September, so she won’t get the real picture of life in upstate schools.

No, I don’t want Bill Gates to decide what kids in my district learn, and you know what? I don’t want my governor to decide that, either. The NYS standards were something like the blind men’s impression of an elephant—patched and repatched over the years by committee after committee until there was no clarity, no logic, no consistency—if there ever had been any. The Common Core is simpler, it is coherent, it is relevant and rigorous, and educators actually were involved in its creation, like it or not.

Will it work? Not if we don’t back off and let it. Will it work for everyone? Almost certainly not. Will someone come up with something else in five years? You bet. And when they do, I hope we talk a lot more about children and a lot less about politics, but I kind of doubt that we will.

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.