Rise of the Zune Monopolists

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Understand, I am not for monopoly when we can help it,” Louis Brandeis said in 1912. “We intend to restore competition. We intend to do away with the conditions that make for monopoly.” (Wikipedia)

Brandeis had some inkling of what hare-brained schemes philanthropists could come up with. Remember the Simple Spelling Board Andrew Carnegie set up in 1906?

The New York Times noted that Carnegie was convinced that “English might be made the world language of the future” and an influence leading to universal peace, but that this role was obstructed by its “contradictory and difficult spelling.”

105 years later, Sam Dillon of The New York Times produced a terrific piece of journalism in a May 2011 Sunday article on the overweening ambitions of the Gates Foundation and its list of DC-based clients, vendors and trade organizations like the National Governors Association; the Chief State School Officers; the Fordham Institute; Achieve, Inc.; as well as the Gates Foundation’s strategy to leverage, really to drive, federal policy in the Obama Administration’s US Department of Education. In the May article, Dillon wrote:

For years, Bill Gates focused his education philanthropy on overhauling large schools and opening small ones. His new strategy is more ambitious: overhauling the nation’s education policies…In some cases, Mr. Gates is creating entirely new advocacy groups…[The Gates Foundation] is bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations.

Dillon continued:

The foundation spent $373 million on education in 2009, the latest year for which its tax returns are available, and devoted $78 million to advocacy — quadruple the amount spent on advocacy in 2005. Over the next five or six years, Mr. Golston said, the foundation expects to pour $3.5 billion more into education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy…Given the scale and scope of the largess, some worry that the foundation’s assertive philanthropy is squelching independent thought, while others express concerns about transparency.

Yup. The Gates Foundation and the enormous financial interests associated with the Washington education lobby have decided that the U.S., despite its 222-year history to the contrary, needs a nationalized K-12 education system. No matter that the arguments for it are flimsy:

  1. Nations with national curricula do better than ones without on international tests. Not true.
  2. The national standards raise the bar set by states. For some, for some it’s a wash, and for some it is a step backwards. Prominent researchers and subject experts (Stotsky, Wurman, Milgram, Porter and others) find the standards lacking in comparison to international benchmarks. Basically the Gates folks are setting up a community college readiness set of standards.
  3. The new national standards will give us the ability to craft better tests. No one knows. They are not complete. And we have no idea where proficiency levels will be set, whether they will build off of Massachusetts’ content frame or the frame of other state tests, which are more skills-based.
  4. The new national standards will be serious content-based standards. Uh, no. The fact that one of the Gates Foundation allies, the Council of Chief State School Officers, absorbed the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is more than a whiff of evidence to the contrary.
  5. The new national standards will save money. Implementation of the standards, through textbook purchases and professional developments, as well as technology and other actions necessary to implement the tests will cost tens of billions of dollars. States and localities will pay for 90 percent of this if history is any guide.
  6. The new national standards will improve accountability. The reset of state standards means a loss of longitudinal data on student performance and will take at least half a decade to amass. Again, without the knowledge of where proficiency will be set and what the tests look like, this is fanciful thinking.
  7. The new national standards will help improve teacher quality. Huh? Not sure how they came up with this one. Perhaps it will cure the common cold as well. The fact for Massachusetts is that the new national test and standards will undermine one of the “secret sauces” of the Bay State’s success: the teacher test (MTEL) is aligned with student tests and the standards to ensure that teachers are able to teach the materials required in the state test. We will now have to refight that battle with the unions based on the new national standards – and it will be a tough battle drawing in national lobby groups. That’s going to be hard to win.
  8. The new national standards will drive innovation. Yeesh. I hear this from virtual learning providers all the time. Of course, if you set one set of standards, then your product development is easier and less costly in the short run. But this is the Zune argument (see below) and it’s stupid. Think about this: Most of the countries with national standards (think Finland) are the size of a state in the U.S. and often relatively homogeneous. Instead we are forging standards for 53 million kids from very diverse backgrounds.

We need one set of standards as much as we need one exclusive operating software, one keyboard for the world, and one Zune. You remember the Zune, right?


Thankfully, because consumers have the freedom to choose the products they buy, it got killed by the iPod. Curtis Cartier of The Seattle Weekly blog noted even this past March that

The Zune, Microsoft’s signature paperweight, hasn’t seen a significant upgrade, or really anything in the way of marketing or promotion, in almost two years . . . No, really, they still make the Zune. I know, right?
Microsoft bloodhound Mary Jo Foley writes at ZDNet about “Project Ventura,” a music- and video-based service that seems to be exactly what Zune and the Zune Store is, but thankfully, not the Zune.

Ventura, from what my tipsters tell me, is the name of a set of services being developed by Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices (E&D) unit. These services are focused on music and video discovery and consumption.

Wikipedia notes:

On October 3, 2011, Microsoft announced that it has discontinued all Zune hardware, encouraging users to transition to Windows Phone.

Aw, shucks. And I was waiting for the new and improved Zune. Just holding my breath. And I know we all have such high expectations for Ventura.

Then there is # 9. Experts creating the standards have built off state successes. That’s hardly the case with the Massachusetts standards or the California standards, which were among the best in the country. So, maybe they built off Bob Wise’s West Virginia standards, Gene Wilhoit’s Kentucky standards, Jeb Bush’s Florida, and Checker Finn’s Ohio state standards. These are all people who promote national standards. And their state standards were mediocre and worse. No wonder they look at the community college readiness standards as a step forward.

Make no mistake about it, this is an effort built from the mainframe developed in 1992 by Marc Tucker, then president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, who in his famous 18-page “Dear Hillary” letter called for

a seamless web that literally extends from cradle to grave and is the same system for everyone,” coordinated by “a system of labor market boards at the local, state and federal levels” where curriculum and “job matching” will be handled by counselors “accessing the integrated computer-based program.

Such words may please Bill Gates, given his less than warm view of the liberal arts. The drive to nationalize education is so important to the DC lobbying crowd and the Gates Foundation that they are willing to overlook some “niceties,” such as the fact that it violates provisions in three federal laws (including the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the US Department of Education’s 1979 enabling legislation, and No Child Left Behind). Perhaps understanding the rule of law is a 20th-century skill.

Only this time, the DC advocates for this sort of educational lobotomy (which places workforce development above the formation of free citizens) have learned lessons from the past, when national standards efforts died off because they were done in the light of day. As Pioneer’s Jamie Gass noted a year ago in The Providence Journal:

When it comes to the national standards, the line dividing public officials and trade organizations has become so murky that Pioneer Institute recently submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for correspondence between state education officials and organizations like NGA, CCSSO, the Gates Foundation and the Common Core State Standards Initiative. It’s particularly unfortunate that public education is the setting for this circumvention of democracy and the public trust. Even as we teach our children about the sanctity of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers, they watch adults develop ever-more-clever ways to brush aside the principles those documents exemplify.

Those comments are based on experience. A year after Pioneer submitted a basic Freedom of Information Act search of the national standards in Massachusetts we’ve received more delays and stonewalling than any concrete FOIA results.

What I want is a debate on the merits of this effort before we call the game over. And when we have that argument, the national standards folks lose. Consider the fact that in August the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an association of conservative legislators, debated the merits of model legislation to pull out of the national standards at their quarterly meeting in New Orleans. Given the fact that most state legislatures and legislators are Republican, this is an influential group.

At the last minute, as Kris Amundson of Education Sector noted, Jeb Bush wrote “to the ALEC delegates urging them to table the resolution.”

They did and instead set up a series of sessions debating the issue at the end of November in Scottsdale, Arizona. The debate was open and frank. And as Catherine Gewertz of EdWeek reported, and Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation notes in her blog, the ALEC Education Task Force debated model legislation that would aid states seeking to “exit the national standards project and regain control over what is taught in local schools.”

The day after the ALEC conference in Arizona ended, Diane Ravitch tweeted that the Gates Foundation, for the first time in ALEC’s history, gave the Council a grant for $377,000.

Philanthropy is a wonderful American tradition. I wonder when the Gates Foundation is able to flood the education ideas market with dollars whether we have the institutional fortitude to withstand the stupid ideas GF is generating. The national standards effort is slightly more plausible than the Simple Spelling Board, but not by much. And worse, it is illegal.

A century ago, the “People’s Lawyer” Louis Brandeis took on monopolistic industries in order to ennoble democratic principles articulated in the Constitution. Today, no one in DC has the courage to stand up to our era’s education Robber Baron. That’s hardly a surprise. But do the states?

Crossposted at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.