A CEO’s Point of View: Children as Products for Corporate Consumers

Business Gets Schooled, a long piece in the January 1, 2016, issue of Fortune, perches the reader as a fly on the wall of the corporate board room during a conversation among CEOs about public education.  This blog has argued that while public schools are the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent, education policy is being made by the One Percent.  Business Gets Schooled explains how that works.

The reporter, Peter Elkind—whose point of view dovetails nicely with the thinking of the business executives he is profiling—describes the involvement of Bill Gates, Exxon Mobil’s Rex Tillerson, and IBM’s Lou Gerstner, without even wondering what these people know that qualifies them for imposing the Common Core standards on the schools. One wonders if the corporate giants who hatched the standards ever leave their offices to spend time with their own children or grandchildren. As profiled in this piece, they do not acknowledge the existence of a credentialed education profession or of a vast body of academic literature on child and adolescent psychology or learning styles or the role of family economics in educational success. Neither does Elkind seem to know about any of this.

Exxon Mobil’s Tillerson stands out. For him schools are a kind of machine:  “I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer… What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation… Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it?  Or is it defective, and we’re not interested? (American schools) have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future.  Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings.  So it’s really serious.  It’s tragic.  But that’s where we find ourselves today.”

Here is how Elkind desribes the genesis of the Common Core Standards: “In truth, Common Core might not exist without the corporate community.  The nation’s business establishment has been clamoring for more rigorous education standards—ones that would apply across the entire nation—for years.  It views them as desperately needed to prepare America’s future workforce and to bolster its global competitiveness.  One measure of the deep involvement of corporate leaders: The Common Core standards were drafted by determining the skills that businesses (and colleges) need and then working backward to decide what students should learn.”  “When it came time to draft the provisions, career readiness was a central focus.  The writers spent their first two months learning what colleges and businesses wanted high school graduates to know by the time they arrived on their doorstep.  From there, the writers ‘back mapped,’ crafting grade-by-grade benchmarks to get them there.”

We learn in this piece that Achieve, Inc. the non-profit that has faithfully promoted the corporate reform agenda, was founded in 1996 with help from Lou Gerstner, IBM’s CEO: “To CEOs, the issue has always been a no-brainer.  In an increasingly global economy, what sense does it make for America to have 50 different sets of education standards?  Gerstner helped establish a nonprofit called Achieve Inc. in 1996 to promote education reform.  With a board filled with governors and CEOs, the group served over the next two decades as a sort of lab for the national standards movement.”

Threading through Elkind’s piece is documentation of the role of Bill Gates and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation : “The Gates Foundation would help bankroll virtually every aspect of Common Core’s development, promotion and implementation.  ‘This is like having a common electrical system,’ Gates told the Wall Street Journal in 2011.  ‘It just makes sense to me.'” The Gates Foundation is described as having spent more than $220 million over the years on in the entire development and roll-out of the Common Core. We learn that the Gates Foundation invested $27.9 million on the Collaborative for Student Success, a public relations firm whose purpose was, “to spin news about Common Core and respond fiercely to opponents’ charges.”  The Gates Foundation even paid a think tank for a positive evaluation of the program being developed: “The most detailed appraisal (funded with $959,116 in Gates Foundation money) was conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute…. Its 370-page analysis found the Core standards ‘clearly superior’ to those in place in ‘the vast majority of states.'”

There are a lot of scary assumptions in this article.  But what frightens me most is realizing that the conversation in the corporate board room and the conversation in the education establishment—the public schools and the universities where educational research is conducted and published and where teachers are trained—do not overlap at all.  This report makes it pretty clear that the One Percenters using their power and their money to shape the public schools that serve 50 million of our children have very little understanding of the operation of schools or the realities that challenge educators.

Common Core Debate Is Really Just Another Chapter of Test-and-Punish

The debate about the Common Core Standards and the Common Core tests is not really about whether our public school curriculum ought to be more uniform and perhaps more challenging from place to place. That would be a debate worth having.  But really instead the Common Core is the latest chapter in a long story being circulated by our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and others who share his philosophy that teachers and students alike can best be motivated by behaviorist rewards and punishments—competition, pressure and fear.

The driver here is testing—competition for high scores and punishments for low scores—along with the collection of data.  (It is essential to remember that data-driven school reform has arrived at just the moment we have the computer-driven capacity to collect and process data, and this school reform philosophy is being promoted in many cases by the same business entrepreneurs who developed the computers.)  We are told that if we threaten school districts and schools and teachers where students are struggling, everybody will work harder and our children will do better in a world dominated by global competitiveness.  Standards-and-accountability school reform has become so embedded into our national consciousness that it’s hard to remember there might be another way.

If you are looking for an up-to-date review of the issues about the Common Core, read this article by Carol Burris (posted over the weekend on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog).  Burris is an award winning elementary school principal who understands child development and respects the teachers in her school as they try to cope with the pressures of our educational culture dominated by punitive testing imposed from above.

But this morning I want to examine the implications of an educational philosophy based on accountability, testing, and fear.  Two weeks ago, by a lucky chance, I spent a morning visiting three classes at our local public high school.  I describe the work of the teachers whose classes I visited here.  All three teachers demonstrated not only exceptional mastery of their academic content, but also deep commitment to the formation of their students, intellectually, linguistically, socially, ethically, and personally.  These teachers enjoy working with adolescents, engage their students in thinking critically, and create a culture of mutual respect.  My blog post about that high school visit has been read widely here in our community, followed by some comments I’ve heard at the grocery store: “Those teachers are at our high school?”  “I had no idea we had classes like that at Heights!” “Were you scared when you were there?”

All three teachers shared with me their worries about all the testing they believe is undermining their work.  They want desperately to find a way to oppose the time taken by testing and preparing for testing, but they know that in a system designed around competition and punishment, it is difficult for those trapped inside the system to protest.  In our state that keeps cutting funding we have to keep our scores high just to pass our levies.  And in a district with 63 percent of students qualifying for free lunch, and significant mobility into the district from poorer districts, we have lots of catch up to accomplish just to keep scores moving upwards.  In a system dominated by fear, teachers must work doubly hard to keep their classes flexible, nurturing and enjoyable.

Ten years ago, Parker Palmer, who has written extensively about teaching as a vocation, described the same dilemma the teachers at our local high school shared with me last week.  Palmer’s forward to Stories of the Courage to Teach (p. xviii) urges us all to visit a school, watch what teachers do, and listen to what they say:

“If you are not a teacher and are skeptical about their plight or their dedication, I have a suggestion to make: visit a public school near you and shadow a couple of teachers…. Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.”

In the decade since Palmer wrote these words, our society has only intensified our blaming of school teachers. As I read about the debate around the Common Core—and the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Innovation Grant competitions, I have begun to create a discipline for myself.  I force myself to think about how each of these conversations is being shaped by an educational philosophy of behaviorist rewards and punishments and a process of measuring, and competition.  Then I try to think about what it would be like if we just trusted and supported the teachers who have chosen to help our society raise our children.  I would prefer to reinvest all the money now being spent on developing and administering tests in peer-driven staff development programs where teachers like the ones I observed could share their techniques with their colleagues.

Do We Really Care about the Education of Other People’s Children?

You may have noticed the hot debate about the Common Core Standards (and tests) being rolled out across the states.  The Common Core is the latest chapter in the test-based accountability movement.  The idea is that if we set the standards much higher and make the tests harder, our children will improve and their test scores on international tests will become competitive with the scores of the children in Shanghai and Finland.

The tests for the Common Core Standards have been developed by two statewide consortia—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  Forty-five states have bought into this effort, which  has been heavily “incentivized” through requirements of federal programs like the Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind waivers. Qualifying for a waiver  demands that states adopt “college and career-ready” standards, with participation in the Common Core the most immediate way a state can meet this requirement. Development of the Common Core has been extensively supported by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

What should children know? What should they be taught at each grade level?  Can we use standardized test scores as a motivator to push teachers to expect more at every level and students to work harder?  These are the questions underneath the standards and accountability movement that has washed across the country in the past quarter century.

There is nothing scientific about any of this.  It is, of course, possible to make academic expectations so unreasonable and the tests so hard that virtually everybody will fail.  If we were to develop a test for second grade that expected all of our children to be able to read the encyclopedia, know the periodic table of the elements, and do trigonometry, all the children would fail.  There are several significant variables here including whether the material on the test has or has not been taught, whether the students are developmentally ready and academically prepared to have learned the material, and how the test are graded.  Where the passing mark on any test is set is an arbitrary matter; cut scores on the Common Core are being set arbitrarily high for the purpose of getting everybody to work harder.

I do not oppose high expectations; in fact I believe all children should have the opportunity to be challenged by and excited about what they are learning.  I have not really taken sides about the Common Core, because in some ways I agree that we need to be more systematic across our fifty states about challenging children everywhere.  However, it is clear that there are problems in the way the Common Core was developed including the dearth of educators among the writers, the unrealistic setting of cut scores that make it look as though a majority of children are failing, and the use of these scores—with passage made very difficult for students—to condemn school teachers.  There are also worries about which companies are going to make huge profits from the tax dollars that will be used to purchase the related curriculum, the tests, and the computers and tablets that are going to be required for on-line testing.  In an excellent and well-documented article last week, Anthony Cody summarizes these issues.

Over this past weekend the debate took on racial overtones when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opined that many of the critics are white, suburban moms who want to believe their schools are excellent and their children brilliant but who are being disillusioned as the low scores roll out from Common Core testing.  Duncan’s comment has spawned an outcry from those who feel that Duncan insulted them.

In response to the outcry by those who feel insulted by Arne Dunan’s comment Paul Thomas of Furman University has published a thoughtful and important response.  While Thomas acknowledges that the Secretary of Education ought not to be insulting any group of parents, Thomas wonders why there has been less concern about how Arne Duncan’s policies are hurting black, brown, and poor children than how Duncan’s comment is hurting the feelings of white, suburban moms.

“Duncan has personified and voiced an education agenda that disproportionately impacts black, brown, and poor children in powerfully negative ways.  And the entire agenda has been consistently cloaked in the discourse characterizing these policies as the Civil Rights issue of the day…  Public commentary that highlights that education reform under Obama and Duncan fails the pursuit of equity in the context of race and class in the U.S. tends to fall on deaf ears.  The same urgency witnessed in the responses to Duncan’s ‘white suburban moms’ contrasts significantly from the silence surrounding challenges to Duncan’s discourse and policies that are classist and racist, policy designed for ‘other people’s children.'”

I share Thomas’s concern.  There is an urgent need to build political will for investing in and supporting the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities, places where poverty is concentrated and opportunity stunted.  Like Thomas, I would challenge President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan to begin talking about what we can do to support the educators in our struggling schools.  I worry far more about this project than development of the Common Core.

What the Public Thinks vs. What the Media Says about Public School Reform

In a short, readable reflection,  Going the Wrong Way?  What the Public Says about Education ReformBill Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center, former Vermont school superintendent, and educational researcher, explores the disconnect between the state of public education reform and the concerns of the public.  His reflection was written to mark the beginning of the school year and the recent release of the 45th Phi Delta Kappa-Gallup poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools.

Mathis declares, “A couple of findings jump out: Most people have not heard of many of the nation’s biggest reform efforts and when they have, they are increasingly dissatisfied with the top-down, test-driven market-model orientation of these initiatives.”  He surmises that perhaps one reason most people have never heard of the Common Core Standards much discussed among policy experts is “because they were developed outside of the normal governmental oversight.”

He reports that the public has soured on mandated standardized tests, that most parents are pleased with their own child’s school, and that “the public sees the greatest problem is the lack of financial support—the number one concern for the last 45 years.”  According to Mathis, “This view is supported by the fact that the United States is the only developed nation where educational spending on needy children is lower than for other children.”

As a companion piece to Mathis’ article, you may also want to read Anthony Cody’s concerns: Education Nation, 2013: Will NBC News Use the Gates Foundation’s Facts Again? Or Can We Get a Real Dialogue Going?  He wonders whether this year, in the fourth edition of NBC’s Education Nation series (set to air between October 6 and October 8) we can expect objective news coverage or whether the sponsor’s biases will again provide the framework for the programming.

Anthony Cody is a former public school science teacher in Oakland, California and now a blogger at Teacher Magazine and advocate for supporting public school teachers and improving public schools.

The Education Nation series on NBC has been sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and has in the past portrayed Gates Foundation’s priorities as if they are the news.  Cody reminds us that, “Two years ago, Brian Williams opened Education Nation‘s Teacher Town Hall event with an interview with Melinda Gates, saying: ‘Gates Foundation, one of the sponsors of this event, and the largest single funder of education anywhere in the world.  It’s their facts that we’re going to be referring to often to help along our conversation.'”

Reading Mathis’ and Cody’s reflections together exposes the role of money these days in developing and promoting public education policy and at least part of the disconnect Mathis describes between the priorities of the public and the reality of the politics.