Whose ‘Common’? Whose ‘Core’?:

How Money and Education Intersect in the National Campaign for Standardized Education

By Reuven Pinnata

Originally published in the December 2014 issue. 

The complaints are strident and ever-present, and the evidence is weighty and well-researched: the future for K-12 education in this country doesn’t look too bright. For instance, in Washington state itself, funding for school districts is below the lawful standards; districts have suffered annual budget cuts, while the irreplaceable need for education is increasing. There is also the problem of the general approach to education. Are we raising active, creative student who will grow up to be critical thinkers? Or are we just preparing them to enter the workforce? We are going to need all the help we can get. And actually, schools are getting some assistance. But is a help just a help like any other?

A look at the results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment reveals, a global wide test in which 15-year-olds from various countries participated, that we have not much improved compared to 12 years ago. Mathematics is still the dreaded undead dragon, ranking 26th out of the 34 participating countries. In science and reading, we fared better, scoring 17th out of 34.

The most conspicuous response to these problems seems to be the Common Core, an originally private initiative by Gene Wilhoit, a former Kentucky Department of Education commissioner, and David Coleman, president of the College Board, which has found enormous backing from the Gates Foundation and achieved nationwide attention. It defines itself as a set of standards which specifies “the learning goals for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level,” focusing exclusively on K-12 mathematics and reading. It advertises itself as a set of initiatives, meaning that adoption of these standards is voluntary and varies for each state.  And of course, it includes standardized testing. In fact, two multi-state coalitions Smarter Balanced and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness, have received funding from the federal government in the amount of $350 million to create Common Core-based math and English tests. With regards to its rate of acceptance, so far, forty three states have fully implemented these standards into classroom instruction and curriculums.

Now, if we look at the history of standardized education in the United States, we can see that this is not a novelty. It was first postulated by Eisenhower himself in 1959; Bill Clinton made a similar attempt, and George Bush Sr. signed the 2002 federal education law No Child Left Behind. However, the usual federal-versus-state headlock usually gets in the way, which is why this state-crossing flair of enthusiasm for universal standards is highly remarkable.

The pieces of the puzzle begin to fall together as we look at the organization which has basically  been backing up this program from Day One: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In an analysis on the extent of the Gates Foundation’s influence on the Common Core published on The Washington Post, Journalist Lyndsey Layton observes that this support is enormously advantageous on so many levels because Bill Gates is “a champion who could overcome the politics that had thwarted every previous attempt to institute national standards.” This turns out to be effective because Gates is not a political figure, which means that his detractors are less likely to come from the political sphere. In fact, Gates is insistent on the apolitical nature of this enterprise. “These are not political things,” he says, adding that “wanting education to be better is [not] a right-wing or left-wing thing.” Another factor is so obvious it hardly bears repetition: funding. Education in the United States has suffered from numerous funding cuts over the years, and if there’s anyone loaded enough to pay for its medical bills, it’s one of the world’s wealthiest people. To track the sheer amount of money that the Foundation has spent on promoting the Common Core proves to be quite daunting. Mercedes Schneider, a teacher and education activist, published an audit in 2013 on The Huffington Post, showing that each Gates Foundation Common Core related spending spree involves six- or seven-digit figures of money, the highest being a $47.1 million grant awarded to the Council of Chief State School Officers .

This unprecedented level of involvement has elicited an equally unprecedented reaction. By 2010, two years after Gene Wilhoit and David Coleman, the original founders of the Common Core, met with Bill and Melinda Gates, 45 states, along with the District of Columbia, had adopted these standards. By 2014, only three states—Indiana, South Carolina, and Oklahoma—have elected to step out, meaning that the Common Core is still finding a solid traction in the national education scene. Organizations from various ends of the political spectrum also came together in support. Layton again notes that even the leftist Center for American Progress and the rightist American Legislative Exchange Council concurred on this issue and accepted the grants provided by Gates.

Many questions and concerns in turn are raised. Why is the Gates Foundation heavily involved? How extensive is its control over public education? Is it really just “philanthropy”? With regards to control, there seems to be no overt coercion to adopt the Common Core but that is to be expected; what we know is that there is a lot of financial incentive in doing it. Take for example the Race to the Top grant program.  Adoption of the Common Core increases each state’s winning potential, and with 350 million dollars’ worth of incentive, it is hardly surprising that states are extremely eager to adopt these standards. This eagerness—or should I say, carelessness—for financial reward has been there ever since Kentucky became the first state to adopt the Common Core. In fact, Kentucky adopted it even before the final draft of the standards saw the light of the day. The public could not have known about that decision.

In the end, however, the problem with Common Core is the problem of ownership. Who owns education? We have seen similar cases in politics, where money greatly influences voting and policy making; what we see happening on the education scene is hardly different. David Callahan, the founder of the website Inside Philanthropy, analyzes the power and influence of so-called philanthropy in all public sectors; the Common Core, for him, is just too obvious an example. “Love it or hate it, the Common Core is a great example,” he says. “In effect, private funders are helping determine how tens of millions of kids will be educated for years to come. And to think that we once saw public education as America’s most democratic institution!” Money is power, be it disguised under the sheep’s clothing of philanthropy or not. And another matter of concern is that not only education institutions are becoming passive receivers of financial direction—the students are also treated as passive receptacles. The Common Core seems to reinforce what the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire refers to as ‘banking education,’ a system where education is a one-way transference of knowledge between teachers as subjects and students as objects. “The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite,” Freire writes in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence.” Phebe Jewell, an English faculty at our college, seems to also echo this concern: “When I hear the words ‘Common Core,’ I’m wondering—whose ‘Common’? Whose ‘Core’?”

Another undeniable aspect of the Common Core is that it is test-based. This is readily apparent from its very inception: the exclusive emphasis on mathematics and reading, the two subjects tested in the Programme for International Student Assessment, reflects the anxiety to appear “competitive” enough in the international education market. This overwhelming focus on these two subjects may result in lesser consideration of other subjects. “And I’ve looked at the history of the Common Core,” Tracy Lai, a history faculty at our college, comments. “But I still feel like they are missing something. They are not interested in things like intersectionality or gender identity; they think these things will happen somewhere else—but, really, where?”

But just in case the picture I have painted is too discouraging, fear not; news from the mathematics department is throwing in some sunlight. Andrea Levy, mathematics faculty at our college, offers her reasons why the Common Core is actually good for this particular subject: “It allows continuity to support this big and mobile society. Students can move to another state and not fall behind.” It may also end up saving high school graduates who want to go to public colleges money and time—at least here in Washington state. A math and reading test called Smarter Balanced will be given to 11th graders; if they score at the top two levels, they will be placed directly to college-level math and English classes. “If you take the COMPASS test and get placed in pre-college math, it can be demotivating,” Levy comments. “And it’s also expensive. After all, it’s good to know that what you’ve previously built up matters.”

However, it is still important to keep in mind the direction in which the Gates Foundation wants the Common Core to go. In a speech Bill Gates made to the National Council of State Legislatures in 2009, he stated that in the end, the curriculum would have to be aligned to the standards. “When the tests are aligned to the common standards,” he said, “the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching.” For now the Common Core may still advertise itself as “educational initiatives,” but looking at the rate of each state’s willingness to adopt it and the financial incentive it provides, it might as well be adopted as a curriculum.

This is not to say that education in this country is fine the way it is now. It needs help and it can use all the help it can get. But look around and ask yourselves: “Whence does our help come?” As of right now, it seems to be from the outstretched hands of the Gates Foundation. I am not suggesting that we bite them; I am suggesting we take a good look and decide if this is what we really want for our future.

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