How Education Reform Has Turned into a Privatization Movement

When the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) was announced in 2009, it seemed relatively uncontroversial. Supported by the National Governors Association, CCSSI was promoted to establish uniform standards in reading and math for grades K-12 across the nation. It was signed on to by numerous academics, politicians, and philanthropists, and faced little opposition beyond the predictable far-right anti-government crowd.

As it has moved toward implementation, however, the initiative has become immersed in controversy. The growing discord has come about for two main reasons. Most notably, the idea of standards was combined with the idea of intensive testing to measure student progress and determine the future of schools and teachers. In the words of David Kirp, who writes on education policy, “a conversation about pedagogy” devolved into “an ideological and partisan debate over high-stakes testing.” In addition, along with the emphasis on measurement came a focus on the marketplace for solutions, a development with weighty implications for America’s public education. As educational historian Diane Ravitch puts it in her recent book Reign of Error, “what began as a movement for testing and accountability has turned into a privatization movement.”

The Obama administration, apparently eager for corporate support, bought into this testing and market-oriented agenda from the outset. Following in the footsteps of George W. Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy but with more zeal for national uniformity, it made its Race to the Top program the solution to lagging schools. Under the terms of Race to the Top, states were required to commit to a rigorous standards-and-testing formula in order to compete for special government grants. In line with the pro-market outlook, they were required to increase the number of charter schools and commit to closing and replacing low-performing public schools rather than working to improve them.

Common Core Advocates

The strong lean toward testing is seen in the approaches of Common Core’s main implementers. Arnie Duncan, current Secretary of Education and promoter of Race to the Top, is an outspoken fan of accountability tied to high-stakes testing. Duncan has been successful at getting Congress to follow his lead by emphasizing the need for numerical measurement and quick results. David Coleman, who oversees the formulation of the Common Core standards and is often referred to as the “architect of Common Core,” shares Duncan’s data-driven outlook. Closely tied to educational consulting firms and the testing industry, Coleman brings a technocratic viewpoint to the program.

The Common Core initiative also has major support in the private sector. It receives funding from captains of industry like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomburg, and backing from pro-business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) founded by Jeb Bush. Desiring to streamline education, these promoters favor an educational system that focuses on teaching measurable workforce skills, as opposed to teaching creative thinking within a broad curriculum.

Not surprisingly, they also disapprove of public schools, which they view as inefficient from a market standpoint because they are answerable to local communities and staffed by professionals who are not easily controlled. Jeb Bush, an avid privatizer, refers disdainfully to public schools as “government-run monopolies” and “government schools” that need to be challenged or replaced by other alternatives. He views Common Core testing as a means of discrediting public schools, a “truth serum” that will open parents’ eyes to their inadequacies. The goal for him and other privatizers is a competitive landscape that would include a much larger role for vouchers, for-profit schools, and mass-marketed technologies such as data gathering/testing systems and online education to replace classroom learning.

Common Core Critics

While the top-down approach promoted by Duncan, Coleman, Gates, and Bush goes down well in the Beltway and the boardrooms, it has yet to find wide acceptance among the nation’s teachers and parents: teachers who are forced to teach a stripped-down curriculum and parents who once saw high-stakes testing as an abstract issue affecting only poor folks but must now deal with it on their own doorstep. Common Core has thus ignited a robust counter-movement that defies political labels, mobilizes local activists on both the left and right, and places people as incongruent as Phyllis Schlafly of Eagle Forum and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers under the same banner.

Well informed opponents of Common Core like Diane Ravitch present a persuasive case against its rationale and effectiveness. First of all, they challenge the assumption that American education is “broken,” a mantra of the reformers. She maintains that it may be broken in certain distressed urban and rural areas, which need to be addressed, but it is internationally competitive in most places. Ravitch relates, for example, that four states agreeing to international testing (Massachusetts, Minnesota, Indiana, and North Carolina) recently ranked alongside the top nations in the world. Massachusetts’ black students scored as well as students in Finland and Israel! In her eyes, the exaggeration of America’s “brokenness” has created a crisis mentality leading to the current testing frenzy.

Second, the regimented testing of the sort now promoted does not necessarily measure what is important. The testing is typical of an industrial model where efficiency and measurable results are valued above all else. Such a model is problematical in a context where personalized, creative learning is meant to take place. Neither Duncan nor Coleman, it turns out, has had any  experience teaching in a classroom or shown interest in incorporating the advice of teachers and parents in their formulations. Amazingly, the one-size-fits-all standards have been launched on a nation-wide basis without first being field-tested in trials where their ramifications for overall learning could be observed.

There is, in fact, little evidence that the scores in ballyhooed, high-stakes tests are a reliable measure of teachers’ skills or real learning in the classroom. Testers who rely on them to shut down lagging schools, almost always in areas of economic distress, typically minimize how poverty, family dysfunction, and lack of pre-school preparation influence student performance and behavior. Focusing primary blame on teachers who take the challenging jobs at such schools would seem perverse and self-defeating. While charter schools are often portrayed as the magic solution, it turns out that when they face the same problems of poverty, they perform, on average, at the same low level on tests as the schools they replace.

The Case of Michelle Rhee

The case of Michelle Rhee, who reigned as Washington D.C.’s School Commissioner from 2007 to 2010, is instructive. Duncan and Coleman adulate Rhee for her apparent willingness to stand up to the forces of inertia. Under her hard-nose tenure, schools lived or died by the test, teachers were fired by the hundred, and new charter schools popped up like mushrooms, with accolades from Time Magazine and the national media. But observers like Diane Ravitch have shown that test scores and outcomes in D.C. have not appreciably changed after years of having Rhee and her like-minded successor, Kaya Henderson, in charge. Moreover, the darkest aspect of Rhee’s tenure is generally ignored or forgotten, that is, the ugly testing scandal under her watch that put her most lauded examples of school success in question. High-stakes testing provided the seeds of its own undoing: when reputations and careers are at stake, people cheat. Rhee has portrayed herself as the champion of accountability, but she has never publicly accepted responsibility for her own failures. Her story, in a nutshell, is the story of over-hyped school reform.

The Key Issue

It is difficult to predict the future of Common Core. The interests fighting for it seem irresistible, fortified by both establishment consensus and tons of money. The Obama administration is still full-speed ahead with the idea, and the Democratic Party, historically the friend of teachers and public schools, seems perversely attracted to technocratic solutions. Aligned against Common Core are activists right and left but most significantly those most affected by the changes, teachers and parents. Now that testing, with all of the stress, hijacked curriculum, and punctured feelings it brings, has found its way into their local schools, their anger is palpable, and legislators are feeling the heat.

The key issue, however, will not be what happens to the Common Core standards and the testing regime that goes with them. These almost certainly will be modified or softened by legislators to accommodate the popular will. Far more consequential will be the fate of the privatization agenda that so many Common Core proponents have a stake in. If this agenda is implemented, it augurs a bleak future for our public schools, which have historically been a key ingredient of American democracy. It is time for progressives to get involved in their support and make a difference.

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