On national standards, you get what you pay for

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This week, State House News broke a story on the “cozy relationship” between Health Care for All and the Patrick Administration. HCFA is an effective organization, but when an HCFA official writes to the state’s Insurance Commissioner: “If you expect to do anything ‘newsworthy’ [on insurance premium caps], can we be helpful with our blog or media at all?” well, then you have to take their positions with a brimming cup of salt.

Surrogate relationships are very much a fact of life in a state where one party is dominant, like Massachusetts. Next up to bat in this age-old game, Education Commissioner Mitch Chester and Secretary Paul Reville. In anticipation of the important debate over whether to adopt weaker K-12 national standards, they have to all appearances lined up their surrogates.

Via two trade organizations, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the Obama Administration and the Gates Foundation have decided to get all states to “voluntarily” adopt national standards. They are working closely with longtime national standards advocates, such as Achieve, Inc., and are funded with tens of millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation. As Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution notes:

It [Gates] has influence everywhere, in absolutely every branch of education, whether you’re talking about the federal, state or local levels of government, schools, the press, politicians or think tanks. Their motives could be 100 percent pure. But any time you have one big player that is influencing all of these groups, it is cause for concern.

Indeed. And important to the Gates agenda was having the Obama Administration include adoption of national standards among the criteria for the feds’ $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RttT) grants.

A product of negotiations among 48 states and DC, the proposed national standards ended up north of the average state’s standards, but not at the level of Massachusetts and other rigorous, high-standards states. Throughout the past year, my organization has done more evaluations of the national standards than anyone in the country. We commissioned academic experts with national reputations in English and mathematics (real math, not fuzzy Ed School math) to analyze the initial (January 2010) proposed national standards (Why Race to the Middle?), the March “public comment” draft of the national standards (Fair to Middling), and then did another report in May (The Emperor’s New Clothes).

Our analysis of the final (June 2010) proposed standards will be out soon and give a systematic judgment about whether the final Common Core standards provide a stronger and more challenging framework for the mathematics and English language arts curriculum than do those in California and Massachusetts. We not only engaged top academic experts in mathematics and English language arts, we protected our independence by taking no money from any government agency, the Gates Foundation, or any foundation or individual with a dog in the Race, if you will.

By contrast, Commissioner Chester and Secretary Reville have from the first RttT application made it clear that they were likely to adopt national standards to get the federal money. They included the weak initial January 2010 draft of the national standards in the RttT application. In the state’s second application for w $250 million in RttT funds, the Commish and Secretary explicitly committed to adopting national standards and assessmentsand outlined the timeline to get there. The MCAS, they noted, would go away in four years. Sec. Reville and Commissioner Chester need the $250 million RttT win badly, and politically they couldn’t satisfy the other federal priorities—e.g., the penalty for new strings on charter schools and the state’s lack of progress linking student performance with teacher evaluations.

Cue the surrogates. First, they got a memorandum from Mike Cohen actively supporting the national standards. Two problems with the source: (1) Gates gives Achieve millions of dollars, so anything Achieve says on the topic should come with a truckload of salt, and (2) Achieve’s Board now includes none other than Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

The Commish and the Secretary are also leaning on the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE). I like MBAE (and especially admire Linda Noonan, their executive director). In theory, if MBAE does a comparison of MA’s to the national standards on their own, that’s great. Welcome to the debate. But the MBAE analysis is directly funded by the Gates Foundation and the analysis is to be done by West Ed in San Francisco. Yup, Gates funds West Ed, too. An “objective,” “independent” analysis? Then the history of MBAE itself brings conflicts of interest. MBAE was co-founded by Secretary Reville; their former Board chair is Maura Banta, currently chair of the state’s Board of Ed (and someone who actively supported the inclusion of softer “how-to-skills” in our standards and assessments and now the adoption of weaker national standards). This is akin to being judge and jury in its own case.

I have no problem with Gates funding whatever they want. But the money merry-go-round gets dizzying (see here) when you think about the conflicts. No amount of salt is going to make this taste like cotton candy.