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Process Matters in a Democracy: Common Core Fails the Test

Our nation is nominally a democracy, though this concept is greatly frayed and largely impaired. One of the core concepts that holds a democratic nation together, and allows it to move forward in a reasonably united fashion is the processes by which decisions are made. Decisions that violate democratic process are not legitimate.

Process matters.

 In Poughkeepsie, New York, last week we saw the effects of a process gone awry. What was billed as a two-hour long community forum to hear concerns over the Common Core was dominated for the first ninety minutes by presentations from State Education Commissioner John King. Parents were given less than thirty minutes to speak, and were repeatedly interrupted by officials from the stage who wanted to dispute what they had to say. The result was tumult and frustration. And even this facsimile of democracy has been cut short, with future such forums being cancelled. 

But the real failure in process had occurred years before. Let's take a look at what went wrong here. The federal Department of Education was created over the opposition of many people who feared that such a department would undermine the autonomy of state and local schools. In order to bridge that divide, Congress included in the law that created the Department of Education a clause that forbade the DoEd from EVER enacting national education standards.

Louisiana teacher and scholar Mercedes Schneider has done an amazing job tracking the details of the process by which the Common Core was developed, and some clear violations of democratic process are apparent. 

Process issue #1: As everyone (except Arne Duncan) now acknowledges, the Dept of Ed made an end run around the rule that forbade it from promoting national standards.

Process Issue #2: The Common Core was written by a small group of people which did not include any experts in early childhood, or any classroom educators.

 The Gates Foundation paid a couple of non-profit organizations, the National Governor's Association, and the Chief Council of State School Officers, to preside over and lend their names to the Common Core Process. These organizations in turn hired a small group of individuals to actually write the standards. Schneider's report quotes testimony from Sandra Stotsky, who served on one of the Common Core validation committees:

After the Common Core Initiative was launched in early 2009, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers never explained to the public what the qualifications were for membership on the standards-writing committees or how it would justify the specific standards they created. Most important, it never explained why Common Core's high school exit standards were equal to college admission requirements without qualification, even though this country's wide ranging post-secondary institutions use a variety of criteria for admission.

Eventually responding to the many charges of a lack of transparency, the names of the 24 members of the "Standards Development Work Group" were revealed in a July 1, 2009 news release. The vast majority, it appeared, work for testing companies. Not only did CCSSI give no rationale for the composition of this Work Group, it gave no rationale for the people it put on the two three-member teams in charge of writing the grade-level standards. [Emphasis added.]

Schneider further explains that:

As the CCSS MOU notes, this "Standards Development Work Group" is overwhelmingly comprised of Achieve, ACT and College Board members.

But there are others whose affiliations remain unacknowledged in the CCSS MOU- including David Coleman and his national standards writing company, Student Achievement Partners.

David Coleman, "a lead architect" of CCSS. David Coleman, "the architect of the Common Core State Standards Initiative."

Process Issue #3: States were coerced and bribed into signing on to the standards, and could do so with the signature of the governor and the state superintendent of education. In some ways this is the most egregious abuse of process of all. A decision to completely overhaul the way millions of students would be taught and tested was made by TWO people in each state, with no public hearings, no debate. It is no wonder that to this day, most members of the public have no idea what the Common Core really is. The public was never a part of the process. Schneider gives chapter and verse of how this took place. It is a fascinating look at the way the sausage has been made in this case, and we are clearly being fed some unsavory products.

 Democratic process is important not just so that people feel better about what happens. It yields much better decisions. If we had standards that were developed with the direct participation of early childhood educators, they might be appropriate for young children. If we had a real discussion at the state level, we might have had a chance to debate the effects of high stakes tests. But it appears that those with power saw an opportunity they could not resist, to transform the entire education system along the lines of their vision for the future.

So there is a new process underway, which is also fundamental to democracy. Democratic input was not sought for this project, but it will come nonetheless.  Parents in Poughkeepsie last week gave us a taste of that process.

Decisions that were made without democratic input are not legitimate. Officials implementing these policies should be challenged in public at every opportunity. Elected representatives should speak up and raise the concerns of their constituents, and we should make sure to hold them accountable. Students should protest when Common Core tests label them as failures. Teachers should reject bogus evaluations based on these tests. Parents should send the tests back. Parents should opt their children out of future tests. Our unions should re-appraise their willingness to defend these standards, given the facts that are emerging. We need our unions to stand for democracy, above all. The democratic process is a dynamic one, and depends on each of us to keep it alive, through individual and collective actions. The process to put the Common Core where it is was not democratic, but the process to challenge and reverse the project could be. 

What do you think? Is it too late for us to have our say about the Common Core? Or is it time to challenge the project?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter. 

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