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Common Core and Corporate Interests

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Jack and Julian continue their conversation about the Common Core State Standards initiative, looking particularly at the controversy that has surrounded its adoption.

Schneider: You ended our last conversation by suggesting that testing companies like Pearson are behind the Common Core State Standards. I'd like to kick off this conversation by asking you how much you actually believe that?

Heilig: The Common Core is actually an extension of a 100-year education reform disagreement. On one side are administrative reformers that have consistently argued that the primary goal of schooling is a uniform structure in the mold of Taylor-style industrialism. On the other side are the pedagogical reformers who proffer that schools should recognize and adapt to the individual capacities and interests of students rather than systemic standardization—a position that aligns more closely with John Dewey's socio-constructivist conception of teaching and learning.

How has this disagreement translated to the Common Core? Despite input from educators during some phases of its development, most of the Common Core was created by those outside of schools. Testing companies and their affiliates clearly had an outsized role in their development.

Dewey advocated for bottom-up school design grounded in the classroom and what was known about the development and interests of children. However, based on the affiliations and interests of the primary developers of Common Core, its development was a top-down approach that clearly reflects the priorities of people in power—testing companies, governors, policy makers, corporations, and private foundations—but is being sold as Deweyan critical thinking. Yet the development process has been the opposite of what Dewey envisioned. Consider this passage from Dewey's The Classroom Teacher:

"Finally, I saw how inconsistent it was to expect this greater amount of creative, independent work from the student when the teachers were still unemancipated; when the teachers were still shackled by too many rules and prescriptions and too much of a desire for uniformity of method and subject matter."

Furthermore, Wayne Au has argued that the Common Core process looks "like just another in the long history of small committees gathering together to develop recommendations about the shape, structure, and content of curriculum in the United States. And, like those committees that came before [in history], it seems that communities of color specifically, along with teachers, parents, and students generally, still don't really matter when it comes to official decisions about what our children should know and be able to do in this world." So it appears that the Common Core standard development process was not reform, just business as usual.

Schneider: I think several of these criticisms are totally valid. Communities of color have never been adequately included in the crafting of standards documents, and the Common Core is no exception. Claims about an emphasis on critical thinking tend to be both overblown and under-executed. And the crafting of curriculum by committee is a sausage-making process that I've had the opportunity to watch first-hand; it isn't pretty.

Yet here's what concerns me: when we say that the Common Core was funded by private interests, developed by testing companies, and pushed as a top-down mandate, it not only misleads the public (click here for an example of this kind of misleading rhetoric), but also distracts us from those other concerns.

Do I want the Gates Foundation, over which the public has no power, making policy decisions? No. Yet the federal government has rightly stayed clear of this process as much as possible—just look how much heat Arne Duncan has taken for encouraging adoption through Race to the Top—leaving a major funding gap that the states on their own couldn't fill. And the foundation played no role in the actual development of the standards. So, I suppose my question is: where would the funding and support have come from, if not through federal and philanthropic grants? I'm not especially sanguine about the way it happened; but I don't see many obvious alternatives.

Is the involvement of for-profit providers in the process ideal? No. But let's remember that the framework itself was developed by non-profit organizations; Pearson's involvement has been through the development of aligned tests. Now, don't get me wrong; I don't trust Pearson any further than I can throw them. Yet their involvement is hardly evidence that the entire program puts corporate interests ahead of educational interests. Companies like that get work because they have capacity that states and districts don't possess—they are the only entities big enough to handle a project of such massive scope. That troubles me; but I also think that there's a difference between states turning to Pearson for help and Pearson insidiously pulling strings behind the scenes.

In short, I'd like to see progressives stop talking about corporate conspiracies and instead start talking about the following:

  • First, the fundamental question of whether or not we believe in the concept of standards documents;
  • Next, the equally fundamental question of "who decides?" (with particular emphasis on how underrepresented communities can gain a voice in the crafting of education policy);
  • And third, the question of how to best bring together various forms of expertise—scholarly expertise and practitioner expertise perhaps chief among them.

Heilig: I wouldn't characterize the Common Core process as a corporate conspiracy, but instead a clear and documented case of corporate interest and influence. However, I do think its insulting to teachers and school administrators to argue that testing companies, state school officers and governors have more capacity than educators and their organizations to lead the design of standards. Standards document are not inherently problematic, teachers in the classroom that I trust have relayed to me that they can inspire Deweyan critical thinking if designed and implemented properly. However, students, teachers and school leaders should be "emancipated" from the yolk of standards primarily designed by employees and affiliates of testing companies for a new gauntlet of profitable high-stakes exams. Divorce the standards from the exams and let's move forward.

Schneider: It depends on how you define capacity. Do educators have the intelligence, background knowledge, and professional expertise? Yes. Teachers and scholars should be the ones crafting standards, without question.

But do they have the time and resources? No.

As you point out in your final comment, the real problem isn't with the Common Core, which is in most cases better than existing standards frameworks, and which teachers will be able to interpret as they see fit. The real issue to keep an eye on is the tests aligned with the Common Core. Because if those tests have stakes tied to them, the tests will become the curriculum.

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