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Questioning the Convergence on National Standards

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The Southern writer Flannery O’Connor’s Everything that Rises Must Converge is a collection of tragicomic pulp fiction stories about dangerous human flaws and the “blind wills and low dodges of the heart” found in everyday life.

People have failings. That’s the way we’re built and that’s the way of the world. But there are “game days” when a lot is riding on decisions and you have to muster the courage of your convictions for the benefit of all. This summer, that game day came on a scorcher in late July and concerned whether Massachusetts should or should not adopt national standards. In exchange for $250 million in federal support over four years (about 1/144 of overall school spending over that period), the Patrick Administration’s handpicked Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) voted to replace the Commonwealth’s best-in-the-nation academic standards with inferior quality national standards and assessments.

Since 2001, the Commonwealth’s English Language standards and MCAS testing have been heavily weighted toward classic literature, like Flannery O’Connor’s novels and short stories. Our emphasis significantly contributed to the Bay State’s students being number one in the country on NAEP English testing in 2005, 2007, and 2009, and also for our strong performance on writing tests.

The federal grant we won amounts to 44 cents a day per student for the next four years. And for that rather miserly investment, what did Massachusetts get? Depends on who you ask. According to a number of Beltway observers, we got national standards that, in terms of quality, were “within the margin of error” of our state standards. DC-based organizations like Achieve, Inc., the Fordham Institute, and the National Center on Education and the Economy, as well as two trade organizations (the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association) all told us that the changes were nothing to be concerned about.

State observers like Pioneer Institute and The Lowell Sun begged to differ, calling out many of these organizations for being bankrolled by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Gates Foundation has for years been the money force behind the drive for a single national set of education standards.) The Sun unpacked a troubling nexus between the Gates Foundation, these DC trade organizations and other proponents of the national standards in its July story, Bias seen in push to new ed standards:

The Gates Foundation since January 2008 has awarded more than $35 million to the Council of Chief School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, the two main organizations charged with drafting and promoting common standards.

Achieve, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based education-reform organization, received $12.6 million from the Gates Foundation in February 2008, according to data provided to The Washington Post by the foundation.

The Fordham Institute has accepted more than $1.4 million from the Gates Foundation, including nearly $960,000 to conduct Common Core reviews.

Edu-historian Diane Ravitch’s new book has a whole chapter dedicated to the uniquely unsuccessful results of the hundreds of millions the Gates Foundation has spent advancing K-12 “reforms” in America. Perhaps if ever there was a “worst-dressed for success” grouping of reformers, these guys would take the prize. And, again, as the Lowell Sun noted, these were precisely the folks that the Massachusetts Education Commissioner, Mitchell Chester, was going to for answers:

In the run-up to his recommendation, Chester told the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that he would base his decision on analysis being done by his staff, as well as independent reports prepared by three state and national education research firms — Achieve, Inc., The Fordham Institute, and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

Like Achieve, Inc. and the Fordham Institute, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education was also funded for its standards work by the Gates Foundation. (Achieve, Inc. had the added conflict of the position of one of its Board Directors, Deval Patrick.)

Does the fact that the Gates Foundation has spread tens of millions of dollars across the country to develop, self-evaluate, and lobby states to adopt the national standards mean that recipient organizations are corrupt? Hardly. Fact is, we cannot know the motivation of individuals in non-profits any more than we can know if a politician receiving contributions is affected by them.

Should their analyses be considered suspect and subjected to a higher level of scrutiny? Yes. And as has been amply demonstrated, without attempt at rebuttal, the Fordham Institute analysis includes a number of glaring errors. The Achieve, Inc. “report” was little more than cheerleading and cannot be considered seriously. And the MBAE report, though it stated that the national standards were about as good as the Massachusetts standards, skated around the fact that on the English Language side of the standards, the national standards only measured up 74 percent of the time. Hmm.

Another problem with the major DC players pushing for the more skills-based national standards is that they don’t have an empirical record of success. A greater emphasis on skills has not boosted student achievement anywhere that I know of. Achieve, Inc., has to my knowledge no success story to speak of. The NGA, well, look at the state of education in states other than MA, NJ, MN, TX, and FL, and tell me about their record of success. Arne Duncan’s progress in Chicago pales in comparison to what we’ve achieved in Massachusetts. Even Fordham has little to boast about in Ohio, which has too many mediocre charter schools and pretty average district school performance.

So, though Gates and a number of key allies have at best a mixed record of success, the majority of America’s 50 to 60- million schoolchildren are to fall in line with their policy prescriptions? That’s why, as several national reporters noted to me, the feds were so intent on getting Massachusetts into the national standards fold. If they could secure Massachusetts—the crown jewel of standards and the undisputed K-12 leader—lined up in their trophy case of states adopting national standards, well, what other state could quarrel with the move?

Flannery O’Connor wrote that you have to push back “as hard as the age that pushes against you.” That’s why for a year now Pioneer has highlighted with independent research (January, April, May and July) and numerous op-eds how the national standards are of lower academic quality than Massachusetts’ and other high standards states. We’ve also illustrated how the Gates-funded crowd and the Patrick Administration have bypassed public transparency and basic accountability, while engaging in questionable conflict-of-interest relationships.

The actions—again, actions—of a number of individuals close to the decision-making process here in Massachusetts raise many questions that only closer investigation can clarify. It’s noteworthy that within the last half year key Patrick Administration staffers have accepted jobs working for the Gates Foundation, or their clients. Here is a short list:

  • April 2010—Kit Viator, MA Department of Education: “Kit Viator, who has led Student Assessment Services for the Commonwealth with great distinction, is leaving the Department after 15 years to work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”
  • November 2010—Juan Martinez, Governor Deval Patrick’s press office: “Two top media aides to Gov. Deval Patrick are leaving the administration just weeks after his re-election win…Press secretary Juan Martinez announced on Friday that he’s departing after four years with the administration to accept a post with the Washington-based Gates Foundation.”
  • November 2010—Heidi Guarino, chief of staff in the MA Department of Education.PDF: “After more than nine years at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, I have decided to take on a new challenge. I’ve been hired to be a communications consultant at Education First Consulting (www.educationfirstconsulting.com), a national education consulting firm that helps foundations, non-profits, state governments, and other agencies with strategic communications, analysis, and policy research on education reform issues. The firm’s current list of clients range from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the state of Hawaii, and they worked with four of the winning Race to the Top states on their federal applications.”

These high-profile departures from the Patrick administration for the Gates Foundation and for Gates Foundation-funded entities just adds another layer of fog around the motivations behind a very questionable decision to adopt national standards.

“To the hard of hearing you shout and for the almost blind you draw large startling figures,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. Well, folks, if you care about state law, the public trust, the Bay State’s schoolchildren, and state officials not subordinating them to private interests, I think asking more questions about the decision-making process is warranted.

Pioneer has filed a wide-ranging, $6,500 FOIA request with Massachusetts state officials to understand if, and if then to what extent, the Gates Foundation and its surrogates have wielded policymaking influence with the Patrick Administration and Bay State education officials. The results of the FOIA should be available by early next year.

Crossposted at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse.


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