You have already read Lyndsey Layton’s Washington Post report on the role of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in advancing the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards. You have also likely read plenty of commentary about the piece, especially from Common Core foes such as Stanley Kurtz of National Review, who somehow manages to engage in a rather bit of not-conservative-at-all thinking by declaring that Congress should hold hearings on the civil society role Gates Foundation has paid in advancing the standards because, in his mind it has worked hand-in-hand with the Obama Administration on implementation. The fact that Layton’s own piece doesn’t offer evidence of this other than the fact that some of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s key staffers had previously worked for the foundation doesn’t factor into any of Kurtz’ thinking.
[Your editor won’t even bother detailing Kurtz’ wrongful statement that the Obama Administration is overstepping its bounds in supporting the efforts of states to implement Common Core. Or his deliberate unwillingness to concede the high quality of the reading and math standards. Or even his failure to remember the conservative principle, exemplified best by Ronald Reagan’s time as president, that if government must exist, it should at least work, and all governments, especially traditional districts receiving federal funding, should be held accountable for how they spend any dollars given to them.]
But Layton’s piece, good reporting as it may be (along with the shoddy commentary of Common Core foes who latched upon it), fails to highlight how at least a decade of efforts pre-dating the involvement of Gates Foundation led to the development of the standards in the first place. More importantly, Common Core foes such as Kurtz fail to realize the critical — and constitutionally-protected — role that Gates Foundation and other reform-oriented play in education policy, especially in challenging teachers’ union affiliates and other traditionalists whose dominance in this arena helped foster the nation’s education crisis.
First things first: Layton’s piece, interesting as it may be, is rather incomplete. One aspect she failed to note was that the path to developing and implementing Common Core began long before the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association announced the effort five years ago. As I have pointed out ad nauseam, the work on developing common curricula standards across all states began in 2004, when Achieve Inc. began working with states such as Indiana on the American Diploma Project. By 2008, a year before the formal development of Common Core, Achieve released Benchmarking for Success, a report which laid out much of the framework for how Common Core’s standards would be crafted as well as offered guidance to states in revamping standards on their own. At that point, much of the work that would lead to Common Core was already underway.
While Achieve was working on standards, groups of current and former governors also came together to move away from individual state standards. In 2006, then-North Carolina Gov. James Hunt and his former counterpart in West Virginia, Bob Wise (who became head of the Alliance for Excellent Education) convened meetings on how to bring together states to develop common curricula standards. Why did they move in this direction? Because two decades of efforts showed that while some states could successfully develop high-quality standards (and that those efforts, along with other reforms, helped spur improvements in student achievement), such work was often complicated by opposition from traditionalists — especially suburban districts, along with affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers — who opposed any efforts that would expose how poorly traditional public education was serving kids. There was also the fact that even high-quality standards such as that of Indiana were compromised by state boards of education through their decisions to set test proficiency cut scores so low as to be meaningless, which resulted in both standards being weakened as well as families being lied to by districts and states about how well kids were really doing.
Even before Achieve and these governors engaged in their efforts, standards-and-accountability activists within the school reform movement were pushing for common curricula standards. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, for example, began evaluating state standards — and advocating for the adoption of a common standard — starting in the 1990s with its reviews and critiques of state curricula standards. [The work, by the way, was aided by former Massachusetts state education official Sandra Stotsky, who would become a foe of Common Core after the Bay State replaced the standards.] Meanwhile the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, and its emphasis on measuring how districts and schools were improving student achievement in reading, math, and science (along with the revelations that states were developing low-quality standards and, often, even lower test score proficiency cut scores) helped push states toward developing common standards.
By focusing so much on the role of Gates Foundation in advancing Common Core, Layton failed to look at the historical context which shaped how the standards came to be. In the process, her piece ended up losing much in the way of thoughtfulness. But this isn’t surprising. Like many education researchers and reporters, Layton made what I call the Year Zero Error, or chose a period of time to focus on in their work without consideration of the impact of earlier decades, and thus shaping the conclusions being reached in ways that may not square with all the facts. As a result, Layton ended up feeding into the conspiracy-theorizing of Common Core foes such as Kurtz, Stotsky, and once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch, further muddying the discussion over the standards.
This isn’t to say that Layton’s story is terrible. It is well-reported. Nor is it to say that it is Layton’s responsibility to do the work of explaining the value of Common Core. That’s what its supporters are supposed to do, and have often done badly. But Layton’s job is to shed light on how an important effort in education policy came to being (and, offer conclusions if she has any). But this piece didn’t do the job. It’s not useful for anyone looking to reach their own conclusions about the efficacy of the standards.
But your editor doesn’t want to beat up on Layton (too much). After all, she’s a fine reporter, and no journalist is perfect. The nature of objective reporting as practiced in American journalism also contributes to what can often end up being faulty reporting and analysis.
On the other hand, your editor has to certainly look askance at Kurtz, who as a social anthropologist and longtime political commentator, ought to know better about the importance of competing interests in shaping policy (and in the process, keeping any one interest from thoroughly dominating legislation and rulemaking to the detriment of citizens). After all, this idea was one thoroughly embraced by the Founding Fathers and as a result, at the heart of the U.S. Constitution as well as American politics. And by advocating for the implementation of Common Core as well as through other initiatives, the Gates Foundation (along with other reform-oriented philanthropists) is providing much-needed counter to the long dominance of traditionalists in education policy.
Let’s start with this: Kurtz fails to keep in mind is that for most of the past century, education policy at national, state, and local levels has been dominated by traditional districts, school board associations, and NEA and AFT affiliates, who have been largely allowed to shape legislation and rules with little interference from outsiders. Even today, traditionalists are still big players in education politics. The NEA and AFT together are the biggest players in American politics both inside and outside of education, pouring $82 million (not including spending by their super-PACS) into campaigns, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
When one keeps in mind that traditionalists control of school districts and university schools of education, the institutions through which most of the $593 billion in taxpayer funds devoted to education flow, the reality becomes clear that traditionalists are influential interests in policymaking. The NEA and the AFT, in particular, have, until recently, had particularly strong influence on the flow of education funding. Thanks to state laws and collective bargaining agreements that structure how dollars (in the form of teachers and their compensation packages) are directed to classrooms, and through laws that guarantee teachers near-lifetime employment regardless of performance, the two unions have been, until lately, the strongest forces governing education decision-making within districts, state governments, and Congress.
Thanks to the influence of teachers’ unions and other traditionalists, American public education perpetuates educational neglect on all children. Through their longstanding influence on policy, they have perpetuate practices and ideologies — including the Poverty Myth in Education — that have essentially allowed far too many educators to write off poor and minority children as being unworthy of a good education. They have consistently opposed any form of real school choice that allows kids, no matter their station in life or their condition of birth, to escape dropout factories, failure mills, and warehouses of mediocrity. They have defended a system in which a child’s zip code determines the quality of their education — and can wreck their futures (and even land parents unwilling to accept this in the criminal justice system). And they have been unwilling to address issues such as the impact of low-quality education on young men of all backgrounds.
You cannot counter either such outsized influence or its harmful consequences by simply doing nothing. You must spend money, both on political campaigning and lobbying in order to shape legislation and rule-making. You have to build up and support like-minded organizations who can advance policies and practices both in statehouses and in the grassroots. You must publicly advocate for your positions regardless of what others may say. You take on traditionalists, both quietly and publicly, calling them on the carpet for their abetting of academic malpractice upon kids. And you articulate a positive vision of what high-quality education should be for our children and how it will help all of them succeed in life.
In short, you do what the Gates Foundation has done for the past two decades. This is the right thing to do. As James Madison would surely tell Kurtz if he were still alive, democratic republics cannot remain representative of its citizens — or keep from engaging in harm against them — without competing interests preventing one group from dominating policymaking. This is especially true in American public education, whose funding comes from taxpayer dollars. All of us, under the Constitution and, more importantly, as endowed by our Creator, are allowed to use our dollars and influence to engage in efforts to improve the world in which they live. It is not only in the interest of our children for Gates Foundation to engage in advancing systemic reform, it is in our self-interest as adults, both as parents of the children we love and as defenders of liberty that we must be as American citizens.
Simply put, Kurtz’s call for congressional hearings against Gates Foundation is intellectually indefensible, counterproductive to advancing systemic reform, and a call for government intrusion into the exercise of liberty that cannot be defended by anyone. Especially anyone claiming to be a conservative. But then, it isn’t surprising that Kurtz would write such a piece. Like so many Common Core foes, he cannot offer strong arguments for opposing the standards. So he must engage in Pioneer Institute-style conspiracy-theorizing. Kurtz didn’t need Layton’s piece to lead him to such shoddy arguing. But it did help.