National Education Standards – A Confidence Game?

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Published on April 1, 1857, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade was Herman Melville’s last novel and one in which he coined a new term for American hucksters. Melville’s satirical tale has some relevance for better understanding the drive for national education standards, testing, and curricula, as well as the major players behind this movement.

Here’s the Wikipedia plot summary of Melville’s book:

The novel’s title refers to its central character, an ambiguous figure who sneaks aboard a Mississippi steamboat on April Fool’s Day. This stranger attempts to test the confidence of the passengers, whose varied reactions constitute the bulk of the text. 

In this work Melville is at his best illustrating the human masquerade. Each person including the reader is forced to confront that in which he places his trust. The Confidence-Man uses the Mississippi River as a metaphor for those broader aspects of American and human identity that unify the otherwise disparate characters. Melville also employs the river’s fluidity as a reflection and backdrop of the shifting identities of his “confidence man.”


As many know, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) came onto the scene between 2006 and 2009, but got greater momentum when adopting the still-under-development standards became a criterion for states seeking grant funding under the US DOE’s Race to the Top contest in 2009-10.

Similar pushes for national standards, driven by various DC-based trade organizations, including Marc Tucker’s National Center on Education and the Economy, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association, and Clinton administration education officials who later migrated to Achieve, Inc., had been attempted in the 1990s and failed.

This recent drive for national standards reinvigorated a collection of unsuccessful DC-based players; and was fueled by more than $100 million from the Gates Foundation.  A few years ago, I blogged on the Common Core convergence.  Since then, it’s become increasingly clear that the push for national standards is an illegal, costly, and academically weak effort by D.C. trade groups, the Gates Foundation, and the U.S.  Department of Education to impose a one-size-fits-all set of standards and tests on the country.  And the effort goes beyond that: With the tests come curricular materials and instructional practice guides.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the CCSSI advocates keep trotting out that these national standards are “state-led” and “voluntary.” My organization has done research on the key elements of national standards—academic quality, cost, and legality.

In our report, The Road to a National Curriculum, Kent Talbert and Bob Eitel summarize how Arne Duncan’s US DOE used Gates money and DC trade groups to circumvent federal laws that prohibit national standards:

The Department has simply paid others to do that which it is forbidden to do. This tactic should not inoculate the Department against the curriculum prohibitions imposed by Congress.

Since the 1990s, Massachusetts, California, Texas, Indiana, and Minnesota, to name a few, developed high-quality standards, state assessments, and reforms, which led to education improvements. The most noted of which was Massachusetts with its historic 1993 education reform law, nation-leading state academic standards and assessments, and the unprecedented gains on national and international testing.

Sadly, even though literature was 80-90 percent of the basis for MA’s historic success on National Assessment of Educational Progress testing in 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011 (the test is administered bi-annually), CCSSIers too often disparage literature’s central use in ELA standards. What’s interesting is that the reading portion of NAEP tests “informational texts,” as CCSSI will, while MA’s former ELA standards/MCAS were based on literature. Yet, the Bay State students still tore the cover off the NAEP.

So, it being April Fools Day and Melville’s Confidence Man being a nice point of departure for appreciating literature and flim-flam artists, let’s compare the average and combined NAEP scores of the states from which the major CCSSI players hail.  To make it simpler and because performance in the early grades, especially in reading, is a strong predictor of future academic achievement, we’ll take a look at combined 4th grade reading and math scores.

First up, Kentucky, which was the first state to adopt the national standards after the thoroughly mediocre first drafts were released. Kentucky is the former home of Gene Wilhoit, who served as the Bluegrass State’s education commissioner before heading up the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The CCSSO is one of the lead DC trade organizations behind national standards. Kentucky has moved from a below average state to a slightly above average state on the NAEP.  Glad to see it, but is that justification for entrusting our nation’s education future to the Kentucky model?  Seems to me that it is a recipe for seeing the country plug along at the nation’s woefully inadequate performance level.

Even that level of standing and improvement is not to be found among other fellow leaders of the national standards effort.  Take West Virginia. WVA is ground zero of the agenda of “softy” 21st century skills and the home of Dane Linn, head of education policy for the National Governors Association (NGA), another leader of the push for national standards. Other noted national standards boosters hailing from WVA include former Governor Bob Wise, now of the Alliance for “Excellent” Education,  and Steven Paine, former state superintendent of schools for West Virginia, and CCSSO’s former Board President. Twelve years into the 21st century, WVA’s NAEP scores make you wonder what Linn, Wise and Paine were doing in WVA.  They started below the national average and 21st century skills later they perched right where they started.

W Virginia.jpg
Then there’s North Carolina, home to former Governor Jim Hunt, a national standards backer since the late 1980s.  Hunt is especially close to the Massachusetts education community given that the Hunt Institute (via the Gates Foundation) commissioned the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education to evaluate the Massachusetts standards vs. CCSSI’s. Not surprisingly, the report said that CCSS were superior.  Again, North Carolina’s NAEP scores are slightly above the national average, with improvements only in line with the country.


Next up, Ohio, original home to the two Chesters—Chester “Checker” Finn and Mitchell Chester (once Ohio’s deputy commissioner).  Finn’s Fordham Institute has been in the Buckeye state for 20 years; today Mitch Chester is Massachusetts Education Commissioner and heads up the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of the national testing consortia.  Ohio, like North Carolina, is slightly above the national average, with virtually no improvement over the 2005 to 2011 period.  Even the nation as a whole improved over that time.  Yikes.

But then let’s look at Achieve, Inc., which has served as weigh station for national standards advocates for the greater part of its existence.  Its America Diploma Project (ADP), launched with Fordham at the start of the last decade and working in 35 states, was the stalking horse, err… model, for Common Core.  How do the average NAEP scores of the 35 states in the ADP fare in comparison from 2005 to 2011?  Below are the US scores, the scores of the full slate of states in the ADP, and then the ADP states minus Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut (three states that were performing already at a high level in 2001, and no one I’ve ever talked to has suggested that ADP led to raising their NAEP scores).

US v Achieve ADP.jpg

Of course the mother ship of national standards is the Gates Foundation. Chapter 10 “The Billionaire Boy’s Club” in Diane Ravitch’s recent book maps out in careful detail how the Gates folks have spent billions on ed reform in the last decade and with little, or no results, to offer. So, I’d encourage you to read Diane’s chapter on Gates to learn who they fund and why little that they ever support works.

So, here’s the summary graph: Massachusetts vs. the states where national standards advocates have worked in. Given the historic success of Massachusetts on NAEP and TIMSS testing and the very average performance of the states that have worked with national standards players, unless national standards weren’t a “a race to the middle” why didn’t other states just adopt the Massachusetts standards, as 2010 Pioneer and Diane Ravitch recommended:

Ravitch goes so far as to say that the Obama administration is wasting its time trying to establish national standards in English and math. “I wish they had just adopted the Massachusetts standards,’’ she said. “They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble.’’

MA v others.jpg

Melville’s The Confidence-Man never commanded much popular acclaim during his lifetime, but, then again, neither did Moby-Dick. And the literature-lite Common Core ELA standards don’t include Moby-Dick, which some regard as America’s greatest novel.

Given the very average and in some cases below average performance of these players and their inability to move the needle on NAEP over decades, one can understand why in desperation they would try national standards. What you would not expect is that people and organizations with zero record over 20 years of improving either academic standards, or student achievement, would be entrusted to set standards for 40-50 million schoolchildren.  Nor would you expect that they would create the Leviathan of testing systems, curricular materials and instructional practices to guide the nation’s teachers.

In addition to Common Core’s academic weaknesses, questions about illegality, and prohibitive costs, the reform records of Common Core’s players certainly do not instill much confidence.

Also seen in Boston Globe Blogs.