Corporations are the Real Common Core Culprits

It’s easy to forget that before the Common Core became the one thing everyone can agree to hate, it was the one thing everyone could agree on. Created in 2008 by a partnership of idealistic education reformers and the National Governors’ Association, the Common Core State Standards initiative originally gained the support of 48 states. It was viewed as an uncontroversial way of reforming and improving the education system.

Yet since then, the standards have become a political football, with elected officials of all stripes distancing themselves from what has come to be seen as a federal takeover of education. It’s true that Common Core’s implementation has been deeply flawed, but the reason for those flaws is precisely the fragmented, decentralized nature of the program, which allowed it to be dominated by corporate influence and made its implementation astronomically more difficult.

Common Core’s origins were as a reaction to the failure of previous, poorly-thought out education reform efforts, most particularly the infamous No Child Left Behind program passed under President George W. Bush. Under the program, schools were threatened with funding cuts if they didn’t meet performance targets — a counterproductive system, since it meant that the schools who most needed additional funding would have their budgets slashed.

In addition, previous standards such as No Child Left Behind did almost nothing to centralize standards across multiple states — in effect, they made districts and schools beholden to high-stakes national testing, without developing any standards or curriculum to help prepare students.
Instead, according to the magazine “Mother Jones”, states filled in the gap by adding to an already convoluted mess of standards that had almost nothing in common. The standards, in addition to usually being far more than could be taught in a year, generally focused more on lists of facts to be memorized, rather than teaching fundamental thinking and reasoning skills.

In this context, Common Core was a significant improvement. Although it wasn’t a national initiative, it was adopted by the vast majority of states, meaning it provided a degree of consistency. The new standards were broader, focusing on skills that students should know rather than specific details they would be forced to memorize.

However, the problem with the Common Core standards wasn’t that they were too central; it was that they weren’t centralized enough. Because there was no nationally coordinated implementation effort, the program’s success relied on haphazard local plans, which often failed to adequately provide the skills students needed.

The federal government provided little support, beyond a one-time grant incentive in 2009 called the Race to the Top Program. As a result, the costs of implementing the program were borne entirely by the states. Many allocated significantly less money than was needed, forcing school districts to shortchange implementation or foot the bill for extra costs without any help from the state.

Thus, it should be no surprise that so many students did so poorly on the Common Core assessment results that have begun to be released. Without any support or centralization, there was no way that teachers, flying blind without curricula or guidance, could effectively teach the new material.The shortage of funding also meant that education conglomerates and wealthy philanthropists took the lead. Bill and Melinda Gates, who provided over $200 million in funding to implement the standards, were often able to effectively dictate education policy through their power of the purse. Huge corporations like Pearson lobbied for the standards due to the gains they foresaw from producing new textbooks — a fact that the standards’ opponents never fail to point out.

One example of this disastrous confluence of private and public interest was InBloom, a program created by private companies to help states manage the data produced by Common Core. Amid concerns over the sale of individualized student records to private companies, InBloom came under significant fire and was forced to shut down.

It also doesn’t help that a revolving door has developed for many of Common Core’s strongest advocates to quit the movement and be employed by testing companies. Tony Bennett, who oversaw the program in Indiana, lost his job and was hired by ACT to help plan the program. David Coleman, one of its original architects, left the movement to become the president of the College Board (where he pioneered the new SAT that everyone hears so much about).

Graphic by Vanessa Mark
Graphic by Vanessa Mark

Combined, these incidents make it easy to paint Common Core as co-opted and controlled by the interests of huge education companies trying to make money. However, all these problems are the inevitable consequence of trying to reform education without federal help.
Make no mistake, America needs a new education model. But trying to develop such a model without national planning was a disastrous mistake that made Common Core’s failure inevitable. Hopefully it’s not one we’ll repeat.