Public schools: for sale by owners

All except four of the U.S. states and the major districts (District of Columbia, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Puerto Rico) have waivers from federal education standards or are under review (Wyoming, Iowa and Bureau of Indian Affairs). The exceptions are Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Vermont. Vermont’s waiver expired July 1 this year, North Dakota’s in 2012. Montana and Nebraska never applied. As with much federal information, the Education Department’s summary page is wrong about California: its waiver was granted this year.

Heavy weapons: Federal intrusion into education systems run by state and local jurisdictions has generated more friction during Obama years than before. However, current law–now called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act–dates from endorsements made by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, during the first year of the Walker Bush administration.

Former Sen. Kennedy made himself a champion of heavy weapons used against public schools. There are three main elements to the federal command and control regimes that Sen. Kennedy endorsed:
• Regimented curriculum
• Regimented teaching
• Regimented testing

Legalized graft: Artfully hidden within a maze of controversy is a longstanding network of legalized graft: companies that publish “educational” materials, effectively taking control of U.S. education and extracting tributes from it for using products that were often developed at taxpayer expense. So far, the Obama administration has ladled over $360 million into its pet project, so-called “common core.”

The “common core” effort is only the latest of many marketing campaigns to promote private interests feeding on taxpayer money. Sponsors of previous campaigns often hid behind prestige colleges and universities. Publishers involved with this one–notably Pearson, McGraw Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–found it convenient to hide behind supposedly nonprofit foundations and political figures, including state governors and Pres. Obama.

This year Pearson, with headquarters in London, won a big stake in the game as sole bidder on a potential $200 million a year for tests from PARCC–the Mercedes of common-core testing, based in Washington, DC. Plain-Jane competitor SBAC–the other name-brand test in the common-core arena, based in Olympia, WA–placed its bet for test development with CTB/McGraw Hill of Monterey, CA, at a first-year price of only about $19 million.

Regimented schools: Regimented testing is the main lever manipulating regimented curriculum and regimented teaching. At risk of exposure to low scores, jurisdictions buy into curriculum that matches the tests. At risk of cutting their pay or losing their jobs, teachers train students to perform on the tests. The federal law has been on life-support since 2007, when it expired under a “sunset” clause. The waiver system was the Obama administration’s latest gesture toward keeping it alive through regulations, starting in 2010. The waivers legitimize basing teacher pay and retention on regimented test scores.

The dirty secret of regimented testing has actually been known for decades: high incomes–high test scores, low incomes–low test scores. Starting in the 1940s, the College Board documented an extremely close relation with family incomes for its SAT scores. More recent work has shown that high-income communities are also closely associated with high scores on regimented state tests.

Hereditary advantage, passed along: Like Pres. Obama and the publisher of the Boston Globe, the promoters of regimented testing are usually high-income people–trying, in effect, to reserve rewards for their families and their friends by forcing regimented schools on everyone else. High on the income scale–like Pres. Obama, former Sens. Kennedy and Kerry, Gov. Deval Patrick and Gov.-elect Charlie Baker–the elite can afford private schools, exempt from the regimentation of public schools.

Children from elite families can get access to literature, languages, history, science, math and arts without the pressures of regimented testing and without the tedium of a regimented curriculum. Computers are at their sides, not in cubbies. Children from elite families routinely outperform those from lower-income families on college-entrance exams, helping an elite family pass along its advantage to another generation.

Signs of revolt: One might think, somewhere along the way, people would wake up and smell the coffee–realizing they’re being had. That is starting. A sign that it may be the real thing is watching much more tumult occur in poorer and generally conservative–even reactionary–states: Arizona, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Florida, where teachers are sometimes required to have an Associate’s degree.

Richer and usually more liberal states–New York, California and Massachusetts–are germinating seeds of protest, but they do not lead this movement. In the vanguard states, the Obama administration’s key effort to increase educational achievement is being called “Race to the Slop.” Folks who do not have children in public schools are looking over the materials, and many do not approve.

One irate commenter from a poor state writes, “I taught math and computer science at university level for several years. What I have seen in common-core math is not going to prepare children for college. If anything, these children will be in non-credit math courses when they enter the college.”

Another writes, “Common core is the takeover by the federal government of our entire education system–just like Obamacare was with health care. It doesn’t work. It is corrupt and dysfunctional. I don’t have kids in school, and my grandkids go to private school. Every state needs to get rid of every aspect of it. I’m so thankful to see parents protesting this takeover.”

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, November 14, 2014


Adam Armstrong, ed., No Country Left Behind (NCLB) and The Race to the Slop, The Daily Censored (Sonoma, CA), June 10, 2014

ESEA flexibility: education waiver status by states, U.S. Department of Education, November, 2014

Michele McNeil, California wins NCLB testing waiver, Education Week, March 7, 2014

Catherine Rampell, SAT scores and family income, New York Times, August 27, 2009

Craig Bolon, Significance of test-based ratings for metropolitan Boston schools, Education Policy Analysis Archives 9(42), 2001

Valerie Strauss, Pearson, of course, wins huge common-core testing contract, Washington Post, May 5, 2014

Sean Cavanagh, American Institutes for Research fights Pearson common-core testing award, Education Week, May 6, 2014

Sean Cavanagh, Amplify Insight wins contract from SBAC for common-core testing, Education Week, March 14, 2013

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium selects CTB/McGraw-Hill to develop next-generation of assessments to help schools meet new common-core state standards, McGraw-Hill, April 16, 2012

Who is behind common core?, Arizonans against Common Core, 2013

Valerie Strauss, Two more states pull out of common core, Washington Post, June 5, 2014

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