A Common Core of Corporate Profit

Microsoft co-founder and Berkshire Hathaway board member Bill Gates pauses during an interview with Liz Claman on the Fox Bus
Microsoft co-founder and Berkshire Hathaway board member Bill Gates pauses during an interview with Liz Claman on the Fox Business Network in Omaha, Neb., Monday, May 5, 2014. The annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting concluded over the weekend. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

June is always a jubilant time for school leaders as they preside over promotion ceremonies and high school graduations. We swell with pride over the accomplishments of our students as they leave for summer vacations, first jobs or college.

When the last student crosses the stage, planning begins for the next year and today that means deciding how the school will implement Common Core standards. The idea of Common Core standards is not a bad one. If the intent of the Common Core standards is to define specific age-appropriate skills that students should know and be able to demonstrate in math and language arts, then school leaders are all for it.

But that lofty idea was shattered as I read a recent Washington Post article titled, "How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution." The article makes clear that, with lightning speed, the power and influence of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation bankrolled and built political support across the country for the standards.

Within two years, Common Core standards found their way into most states, even before the full plan was written. Tom Loveless, policy expert at the Brookings Institute, stated that the Common Core standards were "built on a shaky theory." He found no correlation between quality standards and higher student achievement. Nonetheless, the Gates Foundation used the common denominator of money to buy support from the left, the right, some unions and even the president.

"Really rich guys can come up with ideas that they think are great," explains J.T. Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. "But there is a danger that everyone will tell them they're great, even if they're not." Most policymakers weren't even aware of what the Common Core standards were supposed to accomplish before they had signed on.

Another issue with the implementation was sheer lack of time. Many schools and teachers were unable to update their curriculum and materials before they were rushed to test students according to the new standards.

According to a report on early implementation published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute: "Two-thirds of Common Core math teachers are using textbooks that were in place prior to the adoption of the standards and are not sufficiently rigorous."

Why the rush? Because both the states and the federal government, having disinvested in education, were desperate for money, a desperation that allowed anyone with enough money to be able to promote any plan they desired.

Gates required that implementing the new standards meant accommodating his "next best thing" -- the next best thing (textbooks, tests, and computer-assisted learning aids) all having been researched, developed and manufactured by the very foundation or its friends that had promoted the standards.

The corporate appetite for profit and the willingness of policymakers to accommodate it trumped any involvement in the development of Common Core, by the school leaders and teachers who will be responsible for implementing it. Yet it is these standards that would be used to evaluate our professions and that we, absent any training in these new standards, would have to blindly prepare our students to be tested and judged by.

The Post article was clear in its indictment that money creates the culture in education. And it will be these corporate types, whose reputation as innovators masks their underlying profit motives, that will continue to advance "profit education," a system that puts money ahead of what is best or educationally sound for creating quality education for all.

Ironically, when advocates of this system of "profit education" talk about the growing poverty that exists in schools and the need to be able to provide for the well being of the total child, poverty is obfuscated by an insistent claim that it is an excuse, not a cause of poor performance.

The facts say otherwise. Overall 20 percent of students in the U.S. live in poverty. Based on the 2009 PISA results, U.S. students in schools with a poverty level of less than 10 percent performed best in the world in math, reading and science. However, as the poverty rate increased, the results showed, student achievement decreased, and students in schools with poverty rates greater that 50 percent ranked in the bottom of all students internationally.

The fact that Gates can manipulate such a vast group of policymakers, politicians, education groups, researchers and the federal government into changing policies and laws in order to gain acceptance of unproven common core standards leads you to wonder if this influence isn't being used to ensure that public education fails.

The more urgent question that needs to be asked is, can every child have access to a quality education regardless of zip code? Or will we continue to develop schemes that profit self-interested corporations by promoting policies designed to sell products in the absence of empirical evidence that they will really help all children to learn?

I don't know if we will really know the answer, but I'm reminded of a friend who used to say, "There's money in poor people." When I first heard it, I didn't quite understand what she meant. But as the number of the profit-driven schemes proliferate - always promoted in the name of helping guarantee that every child receive a quality education - her meaning is getting clearer all the time.