Conflicts of interest in Mass’s adoption of national education standards

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“No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.”

James Madison, Federalist #10

In this season of US Supreme Court decisions we’re reminded that independent and objective judgment on key legal and public policy matters has been an aspiration in Anglo-America law and justice (not to mention scientific inquiry) for centuries. In America, it was John Adams in Massachusetts and James Madison of Virginia who were best at articulating the importance of independent judgment.

The push for national education standards has brought to light a variety of troubling questions about the legality, cost, and academic quality that has been discussed here and here.

Perhaps none are more disturbing than the conflict-ridden and ethically challenged circumstances by which the Patrick administration, its handpicked board of education, and national standards proponents and lobbyists in DC and MA encouraged the BOE to dump Massachusetts’ nation-leading and proven academic standards and MCAS.

Back in 2010, when adoption of the then-proposed national standards was on the table, Matt Murphy of the Lowell Sun provided a lay of the land on the money, DC-based players, and special interests pushing national standards in Massachusetts. Nearly two years after Pioneer submitted a wider ranging FOIA on MA and national standards, there’s still no public transparency regarding this major shift in state law and public policy that impacts nearly 1 million Bay State schoolchildren.

A reader recently was very helpful in shining an even brighter light on the machinations at work to get Massachusetts to adopt the proposed national standards.  Let me provide a quick definitions of terms and then tell the story.

Let’s start by defining “Conflict of Interest.”  Wikipedia defines conflicts of interest as follows:

Conflict of interestA conflict of interest (COI) occurs when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act in the other. The presence of a conflict of interest is independent from the execution of impropriety.Conflicts of interest related to the practice of law Judicial disqualification, also referred to as recusal, refers to the act of abstaining from participation in an official action such as a legal proceeding due to a conflict of interest of the presiding court official or administrative officer. Applicable statutes or canons of ethics may provide standards for recusal in a given proceeding or matter.


Second, let’s define the “vetting process” employed by the Massachusetts Department of Education to make a decision on whether to adopt national standards.  It’s laid out in a 2010 departmental press release:

The standards were also fully vetted, reviewed and approved by national organizations including Achieve, Inc., which called them “a significant advance over current state standards,” and the Fordham Foundation. The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), in a side-by-side analysis comparing the state’s current standards to the Common Core, deemed that Common Core “meets the business community’s objective of enhancing the college and career readiness of our students.

Fordham is a research and advocacy outfit in Washington that has backed the idea of national standards for some time and received significant funding from the Gates Foundation, which has largely bankrolled the entire national standards effort (Fordham took $1 million from Gates to study and evaluate national standards).  Hardly what one might call an “independent” evaluator.”   Yet, that is who Commissioner Chester relied upon for part of his decision to have Massachusetts adopt national standards.

Then there is the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a Massachusetts backer of national standards, touted their “independent” comparison of Massachusetts standards and the Gates Foundation backed national ones:

A key factor in gaining business support was the independent comparison of Massachusetts’ standards to the Common Core commissioned by MBAE and conducted by WestEd.

In fact, MBAE, via the North Carolina-based Hunt Institute  and Gates Foundation, received a $151,431 grant to “evaluate” national standards that themselves were paid for by the Gates Foundation.

The evaluation company MBAE relied on – WestEd – is a client of both the Gates Foundation and the Massachusetts ed department. In fact, WestEd’s research director’s bio has now this to say about their linkages to national standards and the one of the national testing consortia.

WestEd is the Project Management Partner for the multi-state SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SMARTER Balanced) — the first collaboration of its kind to develop a common assessment system among a majority of states. WestEd’s four-year, $16.3 million contract includes project planning, documentation, governance support, budget monitoring, and communications. Rabinowitz leads the project, bringing his expertise as a member of the Common Core State Standards Validation Committee.

But as it turns out, an intrepid reader points to Guide Star, an information service specializing in reporting on U.S. nonprofit companies, to give us even more light on the collaboration among the Massachusetts ed department’s  “independent” reviewers.  According to Guidestar, in 2010 MBAE also accepted a $20,000 (link to PDF of Fordham 990) grant from the Fordham Institute. Apparently, MBAE’s advocacy cost more than the Gates/Hunt folks had paid them.  This is how desperately national standards advocates wanted Massachusetts, high standards/high performing Massachusetts, to be part of the national effort.And, after all, what’s another $20,000 among friends?

Massachusetts Ed Secretary Paul Reville praised MBAE’s willingness to help him and Governor Patrick on Massachusetts’ national standards adoption:

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education has been a crucial policy advocate, in particular issuing an influential report that helped Massachusetts policymakers embrace the Common Core standards.” The fact that the report emerged from MBAE, which is seen as the guardian of education and a mainstream business group, [made it]…more effective,” said Massachusetts secretary of education Paul Reville. A number of sidebars in the paper further addressed such topics such as “generating research that has an impact,” “working with legislators,” and the importance of savvy leadership.

As Lindsey Burke and Neal McCluskey have noted, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan is touchy about suggestions that there are conflicts of interest involved in the advance of national standards across the country.  He calls these “conspiracy theories.”

Many backers of national standards parry criticisms on the same basis.  No, no, Gates-funding and cross-funding among us is nothing to worry about.  I don’t think you have to be an wide-eyed idealist to say that this stuff is pretty sickening.

Oh, yeah, more on this tomorrow…

Also seen in Boston Globe Blogs and Education News