Authoritarian Spray: How the Spread of Standardization is Damaging Public Schools With Its Canopy of a Common Core, High-Stakes Testing and Market-Based Hooey

A picture is worth a thousand words. Please accept apologies because my title is nearly a picture. I just couldn’t pinch the title to a few words. That said…

The authoritarian spray of standardization has spread harm and inflicted damage to America’s public schools during the last two decades. The profits from standardized tests and teaching materials associated with the Common Core have overwhelmed the nature of learning in public school classrooms that one wonders if  this goliath, which has trampled on the very heart of education in a democratic society, can be brought down.

This post, and a forthcoming eBook will explore this conundrum, and point to ways that the mischief and misery of standardization might be overcome.   We’ll explore two fundamental paradigms of thinking, & learning, and family & politics that I think will shine a light on the dilemma of standardization.  Let’s get started.

The Root of This Dilemma

The conservative world-view is at the root of standardization, not only in the United States, but in most countries around the world.  This world-view has set in motion the reform of education based on a common set of standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability metrics that demoralize not only students and their families, but the educators who families regard as significant and positive others in the lives of their children.

The Gates Foundation has invested more than $3 billion into standards-test-based reform.  Did you know that since 1999, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (technically founded in 2000) has made over 4,000 grants in its US Program, one of the major categories of funding for the Gates Foundation?

The 4,000 grants were distributed among 16 categories such as College-Ready Education, Community Grants, Postsecondary Success, Global Policy & Advocacy, etc.  About 2,000 of these grants were made to carry out the Common Core State Standards, the use of student test scores to test teachers, and support technology that would increase the surveillance of students, parents and teachers to create sets of “big data” that can be mined by private companies to find behaviors and personal information of customers and clients that would fit profiles for their products.

Another way to understand the reform promoted by Gates and other billionaire people, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the National Governors Association (NGA), and conservative foundations, especially the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is to look at the work of educators and scholars such as Pasi Sahlberg.

Sahlberg emphatically states that the worst enemy of education and creativity is standardization. In his book, Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? (Library Copy), Sahlberg writes:

Curriculum development, student assessment, teacher evaluation, integration of information and communication technologies into teaching and learning, proficiency in basic competencies (i.e., reading and writing), and mathematical and scientific literacy have become common priorities in education reforms around the world. These changes in schools and classrooms are then ensured by employing management models from the business world, such as test-based accountability, merit-based pay and data-driven administration. I call this the Global Educational Reform Movement  (Sahlberg, Pasi (2011-11-01). Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? (Kindle Locations 2376-2380). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.)

Subversive Thinking

I think of standards-based education reform as a kind of “spray” analogous to how we used DDT as an agricultural insecticide.  We stayed it everywhere to stamp out disease carrying bugs.  For example, from 1940 – 1972, more than 1.3 billion pounds of DDT were released into U.S. communities indiscriminately.  This indiscriminate and relentless spray would eventually be shown to be harmful and a serious threat to the basics of ecosystems.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (Library Copy) explained how the release of DDT into the environment caused havoc and great harm to the affected ecosystems, as well as human health.  Even though the bio-chemical industry tried to subvert Carson’s work, she was eventually vindicated of the criticisms being leveled by this industry, and the US Congress went on to pass legislation banning DDT.   Later the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established.

Carson had started the environmental movement, and many leading ecologists and environmentalists from around the world looked to her work as an inspiration.

Rachel Carson, in the word’s of Mark Hamilton, one of Carson’s biographers,  was a “gentle subversive.”

There is a vanguard of gentile (and not-so-gentile) subversives who are leading the way to uncover and expose the damage that is being done to educational ecosystems, as well as  student  health (social, emotional, intellectual) by standardized, test-centered and market-oriented reform spreading like a virus with global implications.  This vanguard is composed of educators who offer different accounts of what teaching and learning is about.  They are leading an effort to challenge the current standardized reform movement.

Please follow this link to read about some of the people identified as part of this vanguard.  There are many more, and most of them are teaching in classrooms around the world.

So, what is this vanguard voicing opposition to?  All are questioning the lack of wisdom, profound ignorance, and inexcusable ineptness of an educational reform movement that is rooted in a very narrow purpose of schooling: teaching to the test.  According tp Sahlberg, the movement can be summarized in four words: Global Education Reform Movement GERM).

Global Educational Reform Model (GERM)

The Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) promotes and spreads the “strategies and interests” of global agencies, billionaire donors, and private consultants as if it was a live virus (Sahlberg 2013).  According to Sahlberg, three primary sources led to the spread of the GERM virus including:

  1. The need for proficiency in literacy and numeracy,
  2. A guarantee that all students will learn the same set of standards in math and language arts and reading, and value placed on competition, and
  3. Accountability by holding schools to a set of standards, and benchmarks using aligned assessments and tests.

None of the details of proficiency, standards or benchmarks are based on scientific or educational research.  They are opinions crafted by the groups mentioned before?

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a good example to show how GERM works.  PISA has developed its own set of standards and tests (assessments) in math, science, reading, and language arts used to hold students in more than 60 countries accountable to PISA benchmarks.

The Guardian newspaper published a series of articles about the 2013 PISA international test results.   Sahlberg points out that creating league tables that showcase or shame countries based on their student’s performance on standardized tests is simply not a proper use of international test results, in this case PISA.   As I’ve reported many times on this blog, international test results fall prey to newspaper headlines that predict the collapse of economies, or prevent its students from competing in the ‘global market.’  The ‘sky is falling’ mantra was alive and well when the 2013 results were announced.  It always is.

Imagine reading the headlines in Helsinki after its students fell from second place to 12th in just three years.  Sahlberg reports that in Sweden, the test result for its students was considered a national disaster.  In the United States, the Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) said the U.S. the results are “straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation.”

But Sahlberg suggests that the PISA results are proof that the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) is working and spreading itself around.  According to Sahlberg, GERM is a virus that has infected many nation’s schools.  In his view, GERM is characterized by

  • standardization (Common Core),
  • core subjects (math, reading, science),
  • teaching to the test,
  • corporate management style, and
  • test-based accountability.

When Duncan commented  (Guardian News, 2013) on the 2013 PISA results, he said it was clear that this “must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations.”  And to correct American education’s shortcomings, “we must invest in early learning, redesign high schools, raise standards and support great teachers.”

Good examples of GERM schools can be found in the US, England, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden and Chile.  Here is how they fared in the PISA tests (Table 1).

PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)
Table 1. PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)

These nations have adopted a model of education based on competition, standardization, and test-based accountability.  In Sahlberg’s view,

GERM has acted like a virus that “infects” education systems as it travels around the world.

Non-Global Education Reform

But Sahlberg, or any of ones of the “vanguard of subversives” that I identified here, were ever asked by Duncan how to improve American schools, none would suggest the “reforms” that Duncan has funded for the past five years.  Instead they would suggest that the standards-corporate styled reforms (GERM) are based on premises that are rejected by educators and policy makers in nations that seem to be successful.

GERM advocates should listen to Dr. Mercedes Schneider, a high school English teacher who holds a Ph.D. in Applied Statistics and Research Methods.  She is relentless in her writing about corporate reform, especially the way in which the Common Core State Standards came into being, and how they have corrupted American education.  In her recent book, (A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education) I wrote this as part of a review on Amazon of her book:

In this book we have at our fingertips answers to important questions about how such a limited number of individual’s faces crop-up in various media outlets as the experts on public schools. If you want to find how to get wealthy and have a really big office, read about Joel Klein in chapter 1. Find out how Teach for America is transforming teacher education into a temp business by reading the Wendy Kopp story in chapter 3. You’ll find important episodes about characters including Eva Moskovitz, Michelle Rhee, Erik Hanushek, Arne Duncan, David Coleman, Chester Finn, and others. You’ll also find out about organizations that fund each other in the name of reform, but in the end seek to dismantle public education. Welcome to TFA, the New Teacher Project, the National Council on Teacher Quality (not), the Aspen Institute, the Gates Foundation, and cousins Walton and Broad.  And the best is yet to come as she saves the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the nation’s bill mill for the last chapter.  The content of the book is thoroughly researched and authenticated. If you read her blog, you’ll certainly enjoy this book.

According to Sahlberg, a school system is “successful” if it performs above the OECD average in mathematics, reading literacy and science, and if students’ socio-economic status has a weaker-than-average impact on students’ learning outcomes. The most successful education systems in the OECD are Korea, Japan, Finland, Canada and Estonia.

Table 2. PISA test scores for nations that are above the OECD average, and students socio-economic status has weaker-than-average impact on students' learning outcomes (Text: Sahlberg, 2013)
Table 2. PISA test scores for nations that are above the OECD average, and students socio-economic status has weaker-than-average impact on students’ learning outcomes (Text: Sahlberg, 2013)

Beyond GERM

In order to eradicate GERM, it will be crucial to think differently about teaching, learning and the purpose of school.  We must return the locus of  control of education to local educators and their boards, and establish schooling based on the well-being of each child.  The use of standardized testing must be reduced so that the only use is to provide feedback to schools and their districts about overall goals.  Standardized tests should never be used to rate, grade, or judge students, nor should these test scores be used in any way as a measure of teacher performance.  There are oodles of ways to assess student growth that will actually help students learn.  And there are many ways to assess teachers, and provide the kind of professional growth that people in other professions receive.

Here are just a few things that should be implemented.

1. Schools should have autonomy over its curricula and how students are assessed.  Teachers should work collaboratively to design and develop curriculum, and make decisions about the nature of instruction in their own classrooms.  This is contrary to the reforms that have dominated American education for decades, especially starting with the publication, Nation at Risk, followed by the No Child Left Behind Act during the Bush Administration, and The Race to the Top during the Obama administration.  Sahlberg says:

PISA shows how success is often associated with balanced professional autonomy with a collaborative culture in schools. Evidence also shows how high performing education systems engage teachers to set their own teaching and learning targets, to craft productive learning environments, and to design multiple forms student assessments to best support student learning and school improvement.

2. Schools need to focus on equity by giving priority to early childhood (one point for Duncan), comprehensive health and special education in schools, a balanced curriculum that sees the arts, music and sports as equals to math, reading and science.

3. School choice does not improve academic performance in a nation’s schools.  In fact, the overemphasis on school choice and competition between schools leads to greater segregation of schools.

4.  Successful schools are public schools and are controlled locally, not by a state or federal governments. If we want to improve education in the US, we need to move away from the competitive, corporate-based model that is based on standardization and test accountability.  As Dr. Nel Noddings says in her book, Education and Democracy in the 21st Century (Library Copy)

Education in the 21st century must put away some 20th-century thinking. All over the world today, many educators and policymakers believe that cooperation must displace competition as a primary form of relating. Competition is not to be abandoned— some competition is healthy and necessary— but it should no longer be the defining characteristic of relationships in an era of growing globalization. If we agree with this judgment, then we must consider how to prepare students for a cooperative world, not solely for one of competition.  (Noddings, Nel (2013-01-25).

American public schools are not failing.  The premise that they are failing is based on one factor–test scores.  We need to move beyond this concept of schooling and embrace collaboration, dialogue, interdependence, and creativity (Noddings, 2013).

New eBook

As I mentioned at the head of this post, a forthcoming eBook will explore this conundrum, and point to ways that the mischief and misery of standardization might be overcome.   It’s under development, and should be published later this month, and will be available free on my blog.


Top 20 Organizations Receiving Common Core Grants from the Gates Foundation

It’s begun.  The School Board of Cobb County, Georgia, where I live, just voted (5-1-1) to purchase math books (print and digital) aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  McGraw-Hill books will be purchased for K-8, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for high school.  The cost for these CCSS math books: $7 million.  This translates into about $64 per student for the 109,760 students in the district.  The estimated cost of supplying all students in Georgia with new math books would be about $102 million.

American education is poised to embody a one-size fits all model of curriculum.  We know that Arne Duncan claims that the Common Core Standards is not a curriculum.  The curriculum is what is taught in classrooms, and because most states have agreed to a single set of math and English/Language Arts standards, the curriculum in classrooms will be immensely affected by the CCSS.  Coupled with standardized tests that are being rolled out this year by two U.S. Department of Education funded groups, teachers will have little say in what the real curriculum will be because the same standardized test scores will be used to check their teaching effectiveness, and decide their employment.

In this post, I am going to report on those organizations that were funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to make the Common Core State Standards a reality.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made at least 164 grants to at least 125 organizations to support CCSS development and implementation.  I should also point out that the U.S. Department of Education is just as responsible for these standards, as Gates and the groups mentioned in this post.  You see when the Duncan department of education rolled out the Race to the Top, it insisted that states would stand a better chance of being funded is they signed on to the Common Core State Standards, and mandated the use of student test scores as a measure of teacher performance.

Figure 1. Top 20 Winners of Common Core Grants from the Gates Foundation. Data Source: The Gates Foundation
Figure 1. Top 20 Winners of Common Core Grants from the Gates Foundation. Data Source: The Gates Foundation

Then, to put the last nail on the coffin, the Gates Foundation provided consulting and writing help to states submitting proposals to the Race to the Top fund, especially during the second round of funding.  Georgia was a winner.  It got about $400 million, and it received help from the Gates Foundation.

These events made it possible for Achieve Inc., the developer of the CCSS to manage the development of the standards, and to work with many organizations, especially with the financial support of the Gates Foundation, to get the ball rolling.

The Top 20

The top 20 recipients give a window into the way the Gates Foundation is influencing K-12 education in American schools.  The movement to set up one set of learning objectives for all students is the essence of the Common Core.  These organizations are a Who’s Who of the corporate reform effort in which “big money” is being used to change the public landscape of education, into a market-place.

In America’s “race to common standards,” Figure 1 shows the top 20 organizations that have collaborated with the Gates Foundation to make sure that every child in the U.S. learns the same stuff in math, reading, and language arts.  The Common Core State Standards provide a common set of performances from which tests, texts, and online programming will be developed by private firms to be sold to public schools.

Top 20 Winners of Gates Common Core Grants

Here is the listing of the top 20 award winners in the Gates Foundation common core competition.  The links take you inside the Gates Foundation directly to one of the funded grants of these organizations.  You will find a link to the organization at that webpage.  As you read through and explore the top 20, note the emphasis on charter schools and teacher assessment in the context of the common core.

  • Council of Chief State School Officers  $83,556,782. Co-developers of the Common Core at a meeting in Chicago in 2009.  They and the NGS charged Achieve with the task of writing common standards in math and English/language arts.
  • New Visions for Public Schools, Inc  $70,454,721  New Visions received funds to support the Common Core/Career and College initiative effort designed to improve student achievement and teacher effectiveness through key strategies. New Visions is a major charter school developer in New York, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Seattle.
  • New Venture Fund  $67,579,460.  Their recent grant (more than $10 million) was to support successful implementation of the common core
  • Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Inc. $52,686,431. One of their grants from the Gates Foundation was to partner with other foundations to support a project fund supporting state-led efforts aligning higher education placement requirements with college readiness assessments developed through the Common Core assessment consortia.
  • Achieve Inc $36,708,822.  An organization founded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Officers in 1996.  In 2008 it begins work on “college- and career ready standards in partnership with NGA, and CCSS, and with funding from the Gates Foundation.
  • Charter Fund Inc dba Charter School Growth Fund $33,012,000. Gates’ funding is used to support high-performing charter school management organizations that are implementing effecting teaching systems and the Common Core State Standards in collaboration with districts.
  • Colorado Legacy Foundation $22,803,487.  Much of the funding to this group is used to carry out and sustain teacher evaluation systems.
  • Kentucky Department of Education  $12,954,380  Grants offer support to the Kentucky Department of Education related to implementation of the Common Core State Standards & teacher development and evaluation systems.
  • Council Of The Great City Schools $11,962,004. This urban school organization has received Gates Foundation grants to help member school districts to align implementation of the Common Core State Standards with their reform efforts in teacher effectiveness and prepare for new PARCC and SBAC online assessments
  • James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy Foundation, Inc. $11,450,814. The grants are used to support states in their continued implementation of the Common Core State Standards.  At the Hunt Website, is this phrase: “The Hunt Institute is a strategic catalyst for transforming public education and securing our country’s future.” The question is, whose future?
  • American Federation Of Teachers Educational Foundation $11,343,925. To support teacher development and Common Core State Standards
  • Khan Academy Inc. $10,544,028. The Gates Foundation grew the company into a massive supplier of videos to develop the remaining K-12 math exercises to make sure full coverage of the Common Core math standards and form a small team to carry out a blended learning model.
  • Louisiana Department of Education $9,562,308. Grant funds are used to give organizational support to the Louisiana Department of Education related to implementation of the Common Core State Standards & teacher development and evaluation systems.
  • Scholastic Inc. 6,738,498. Funds are used to support teachers’ implementation of the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics.
  • Thomas Fordham Foundation. $6,711,462.  Grants are used for general operating support, to track state progress towards implementation of standards.
  • Student Achievement Partners Inc $6,533,350. Grants are used to support teachers nationwide in understanding and implementing the Common Core State Standards.
  • The Aspen Institute Inc $5,189,948.  The Aspen Institute has received more than $50 million from the Gates Foundation with about 10% being devoted to k-12 education.
  • The NEA Foundation for the Improvement of Education $4,584,177. Grants support the attendance of Master Teachers at the NEA’s Empowered Educators conference and give an opportunity for these educators to share their learnings and leadership experiences related to the Common Core.
  • BetterLesson, Inc. $3,527,240.  Funding to support the development of courses, aligned to the Common Core State Standards, for the purposes of helping teacher’s transition to common core and increasing their students’ ability to master the content.
  • MetaMetrics, Inc. 3,468,005. Grants fund the further development an interactive, online tools that focus on literacy in the Common Core State Standards
Figure 2. Pie Chart of Gates Funding of the Common Core, 2009 - 2014
Figure 2. Pie Chart of Gates Funding of the Common Core, 2009 – 2014

In this report, 126 organizations received funding from the Gates Foundation to support various aspects of the common core.  However, a good deal of the funding went directly to charter management companies, and organizations that support the development of charter schools.  There is also funding to use student assessments (of the common core) to evaluate teacher performance.  Organizations received on average more than $4.4 million.

Figure 2 is a Pie Chart summary of the funding noting emphasizing the top five Common Core organizations.

What do you think about the Common Core?

Will the Atlanta Schools Be Run by an Authoritarian Regime?

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) hired a new superintendent, Dr. Meria Carstarphen, who formerly was superintendent of the Austin Independent School District (AISD).

Dr. Carstarphen is bringing five administrators who worked for her in Austin.  These people will form the nucleus of her cabinet or central staff.  With outside private funding, she and her staff have set up shop and begun the transition to take over the APS in July.

What kind of administration will emerge from the Austin group?  There are many who are very optimistic about the new superintendent.  Over the past few days, Dr. Carstarphen has made a number of public appearances talking to various constituencies in Atlanta about her vision for the APS.

Dr. Carstarphen inherits a district which was mired in one of the worst cheating scandals in memory.  According the state’s investigation into the scandal, a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation spread through the APS, and this culture was directly connected to financial incentives for Atlanta’s schools to score at high levels (based on student scores on the state CRCT).  The financial incentives (~$500k) were paid from the top, down to the school administrative level, sometimes reached teachers. Pressure from above was put on administrators and teachers to do what ever it would take to improve standardized test scores.  The cheating scandal was collateral damage (Berliner & Noddings, 2007), of state and federal policies mandating high-stakes testing.  It got out of hand in Atlanta.

Dr. Beverly Hall and her administration worked in Atlanta from 1999 – 2010.   How did test scores for the city during her administration vary compared to the test scores before and after her tenure?  Well, surprise, surprise.   There was very little variation.

Atlanta Math Scores

Figure 1 shows National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 8th Grade math scores for Atlanta from 2003 – 2013.  The Atlanta cheating scandal happened from 2008 – 2010, and as you can see there is a slight gain for math achievement during these years.  But notice that the NAEP scores actually were higher after the scandal.  But here’s the thing.  These variations, at any point along this time line, are meager and insignificant.  They fall within limits that we would expect.

Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 - 2013.
Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 – 2013.


Math Scores in Atlanta, Austin and other Urban Cities

Figure 2 is an even more informative graph, and one that the new APS administration should take seriously.  This is a control chart that shows statistical upper and lower limits of achievement scores that would be within statistical control.  The graph was produced from NAEP data from its Trial Urban District Assessments (TUDA) study.  The graph was created by Mr. Ed Johnson, a Deming scholar and advocate for quality education in Atlanta.  These are the same math scores that are shown in Figure 1, but the TUDA study included 20 other urban districts, including the Austin Independent School District.  APS is highlighted in green; AISD in red.  You can see that over time Atlanta’s scores were converging with Austin math scores.  Follow this link to see more graphs and charts produced by Ed Johnson.

Any Variation?

What kind of variation in math test scores do we see here?  Is this variation exceptional?  Is the variation do to innovations, or new curricula, or putting pressure on teachers to teach better?  Is it due to a new superintendent?  Or is it due to pressure on students and their parents?

Well, the variation is not due to any of these things.  The variation is normal.  The variation is within statistical limits.  The variation is what we expect from math instruction in these urban schools. There is no specific cause related to any variation along graph  The performance is steady.  The performance is predictable.  The performance is the result of the teaching and learning in these urban districts.

Ed Johnson explains that each of these 21 districts is sailing on the same boat, with movement from one side to another, but still on the same boat.

Now here’s the thing.  This historical period is the age of Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama & Duncan’s Race to the Top.  Neither of these programs has had any effect on math scores in some of the nation’s largest school districts!  Reformers seem to think that this continuous testing will in some way “cause” student achievement to improve.

In fact, in Georgia, state officials announced that instead of using the state CRCTs, a new slew of standardized tests will be developed and used starting next year.  A headline in the AJC read, Students face harder high-stakes testing, and when you read the details, the bar (passing score) will pushed higher.  Somehow, these state officials think that by making more difficult for students to pass a standardized test it will make them smarter.  What a dumb idea.

If they would look at the chart in Figure 2 and others like it, none of these testing reforms have had any effect.  If they want to improve student performance, they need to look some place else.  And it’s not by focusing on the darn test scores, or the graduation-rates.


Figure 2.  Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin.  This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.
Figure 2. Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin. This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.

So, for a new administration to come into Atlanta and start claiming that they raise graduation rates and student achievement score, raises many questions.

Is Carstarphen claiming that her legacy will be that Atlanta’s schools were turned around by raising rates and scores?

How does she plan to this? Will she import the strategies she used in Austin? Will she use an authoritarian style of leadership (which some teachers and professor claim she used in Austin), or will she engage the key players in the system, principals and teachers? Will teachers in collaboration with principals engage their communities without interference from orders from the top? Will the administration create a culture of learning and collaboration or one based on competition, test scores, fear?

It won’t be long to find out how the Austin administrators work with educators in Atlanta.

What do you think will happen?  With this be an authoritarian or receptive administration?

Are Georgia School Superintendent Candidates Willing to Oppose the Common Core & High-Stakes Tests?

Creative Commons School of Neon Fusiller School" by Malcoml Browne is licensed  under CC BY-ND 2.0.
Creative Commons School of Neon Fusiller” by Malcolm Browne is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Dear Candidates for Georgia School Superintendent,

Today, I want to challenge you to not only oppose Georgia’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), but also the use of high-stakes tests such as the CRCT. In this post, I’ll offer some facts you can use to discuss why to oppose the CCSS.  In the next post, we’ll give reasons why high-stakes tests need to abolished.

For nearly two decades, Standards and high-stakes testing have dominated teaching and learning in every Georgia public school.  I’ve shown in earlier posts, that standards are barriers to student learning, and if teachers are not given autonomy over the use of standards, then they tend to impede innovation, creativity, and teaching that focuses on the needs of children and youth.  Communication skills, problem solving, team work, and innovation are the kinds of experiences that are important to students now, and will be in the future.  The standards in the context of high-stakes tests impedes these goals.

Common Core State Standards

It’s time, however, to break these connections, at least for standards and high-stakes, and look for different ways to help students learn.

Making a one-size fits all curriculum for every student in Georgia makes little sense. We know that the “real” curriculum for our students is what happens in their classrooms with their peers and teachers. The curriculum should not be determined by non-educators from a highly financed organization (as was the Common Core State Standards), but should be an effort carried out by teachers and educators–Georgia has a top-notch teaching force, and some of the countries major universities.

Figure 1 shows the mathematics achievement level of Georgia students compared to students across the nation using National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests. Note that we have an upward trend in mathematics achievement in Georgia as well as the nation.   Figure 2 is a table showing the percentage of 8th grade students meeting or exceeding state standards on CRCT tests in math.  From the data presented in Figures 1 and 2, the trend in 8th grade mathematics achievement, as measured by the NAEP tests, and the state of Georgia CRCT, is positive, showing steady improvement.  If we look at results in math at other grade levels, as well as reading and science scores, the trends are similar.

Figure 1. NAEP 8th Grade Math Achievement At or Above Basic for Georgia compared to the United States 2000 - 2013. Source: Kids Count data center, Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Figure 1. NAEP 8th Grade Math Achievement At or Above Basic for Georgia compared to the United States 2000 – 2013. Source: Kids Count data center, Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Figure 2. Georgia 8th Grade Students Meeting or Exceeding State Standards on CRCT Tests in Math, 2006 - 2012
Figure 2. Georgia 8th Grade Students Meeting or Exceeding State Standards on CRCT Tests in Math, 2006 – 2012.  Source: Kids Count Data Center, Annie E. Casey Foundation

Georgia’s state standards did not result in a tailspin of student achievement.  The Common Core State Standards, which were implemented a year ago, have not resulted in any major variation in testing.  In fact, the variation in test scores that we see not only in Georgia, but nearly all states (Massachusetts is an exception) is within the limits of what we would expect.  Figure 3 compares the average scores in 8th grade math achievement based on NAEP tests between seven states, including Georgia.

Using the control chart approach of W. Edwards Deming and Donald Wheeler and David Chambers (which I learned from Ed Johnson), we see in Figure 3 that for over a decade the achievement scores in most of these states and District of Columbia fall within expected limits.  In fact for most of these Any variation for these states, except for Massachusetts, is NOT due to any special cause (new curriculum, new standards, using high-stakes tests), but are simply what we expect in a system that is operating as it should.  In general we can conclude that education in these states is not a failure, but schools are doing what we expect them to do.  The continuous improvement that we see in the scores is not due to any innovation or special cause, but is simply the result of the way the education system works.  And it doesn’t matter whether we look at scores from suburban communities, and compare them to urban environments.

As a candidate, you will hear the oft mentioned phrase, that “America’s schools are failing and they need to be reformed.”  In fact, this phrase has been repeated so often, that in a recent survey over 70% of parents agree that schools were failing.  But over 80% said that the school their children attended was doing very well.

You need to use facts to show that our schools are not failing, and help your potential constituents realize that they’ve been sold down the river that America’s schools are failing.  They are not.


Figure 2. 8th Grade Math as a System. All states, except for Massachusetts fall within the framework of Upper and Lower Control Limits.  Any variation within this zone is due to system causes, and not special causes.  Source: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center,
Figure 3. 8th Grade Math as a System. All states, except for Massachusetts fall within the framework of Upper and Lower Control Limits. Any variation within this zone is due to system causes, and not special causes. Source: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center,

Schools, They Aren’t Failing

You might ask, what about urban schools.  Are our urban schools failing?  The fact is, there are lots of people who will tell you that schools in urban environments are failing, and what they need is help from charter management companies, and temp teacher preparation organizations such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project.

They need none of this.

Take a look at Figure 4.  It’s an analysis done by Ed Johnson using data over the past decade comparing 21 city school districts, with the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and the Austin Independent School District (AISD) highlighted in green and red, respectively.   As you can see in the graph, there is variation in math NAEP test scores over the ten-year period.  The variation we see is consistent.  There are not wide swings in the data.  Indeed, all the points of measurement fall within statistical control limits.


Figure 2.  Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin.  This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.
Figure 4. Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin. This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.


If there is any truth to this kind of data, there is no need to radically change the system.  But, as Deming and others have found, there is always the need for continuous improvement of the system.  If we want to improve schooling, say in Atlanta, we need to improve the system, not “turn it around.”

But the mantra you will hear is that we need to close schools, or turn the school around by firing the school principal and most of the staff, and then replace them with a new principal, and new teachers who are inexperienced, uncertified, and will only stay there for 2 years.  If you are elected State School Superintendent, you will find that there are questionable relationships among the Georgia Department of Education, Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and charter management companies.

Don’t fall into the “our schools are failing” trap.

Improving Schools

As a candidate for the top job in education, you surely want to figure ways to help Georgia school districts improve their schools.  Adopting the Common Core State Standards will not improve our schools.

We want, what Ed Johnson explains, continuation improvement.

How do we do this?  First, we need to act on the idea that education is a human system.  It’s about people.  It’s about parents sending their students to schools enjoy learning, and not to be there to serve the state by simply being a number, and someone who is required to take tests throughout their school days.  If you ask parents what they like about their children’s school, they always talk about how their children are treated and accepted, and helped to learn.  They talk about the kind of communication among their children’s peers and teachers.

Improving schools means we need to think differently and bring to the front what we know about successful organizations.  In a recent post, I discussed some steps that we should take that have a greater likelihood of establishing an environment that will result in continuous improvement.

  1. Put high confidence in teachers and principals and learning.  The focus on meaningful learning must be at the school level.  Superintendents need to get out-of-the-way, stop micro-managing, and entrust education to well prepared teaching staff.
  2. Create a systemic environment which encourages teachers and students to try new ideas and approaches.  Encourage principals to work with teachers to push for curiosity, imagination and creativity in the classroom, and make that the focus of learning.
  3. Fill classrooms with well experienced and well-educated teachers who are not only knowledgeable in the content, but more importantly understand how to teach and how to experiment with different pedagogies.
  4. Empower principals to be the leaders of change, not superintendents.  Superintendents are too far away from the day-to-day life of students to encourage the kind of creative teaching that can be supported by principals.
  5. Teachers should have masters degrees in education and be knowledgeable in their field of teaching.  Reliance on uncertified and inexperienced teachers will in the long run lead to failure.

In the next post, I will provide evidence to support the second thing that I would like you to oppose, and that is the use of high-stakes tests.  High-stakes tests are the biggest impediment to real improvement of schooling for students.  I hope you’ll check out the next post.

Extreme Earth: Coming to An Environment Near You

The Earth’s climate has changed rapidly over the past fifty years, but when people talk about climate change, they frame it as a future threat.

David Popeik, in Scientific American guest blog, says that “climate report nails risk communication.”  He suggests that the National Climate Assessment that was released by the White House presented a powerful report that he hopes will play a role in the U.S. acting on climate change.  He writes:

Most climate change communication has framed the issue as a future threat. Future risks don’t worry us as much as threats that are imminent or current. The basic message of the National Climate Assessment, offered repeatedly through the entire report, is that climate change is not something we need to worry about tomorrow. It’s something to worry about now. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” it reads.

In this post, I was to focus on the latest report about climate change, and how the report should be used to have people take seriously climate change.  I am convinced the earth is heating up (see Figure 1).  In one sense, we might say were living in a period of “extreme earth.”  This is not to say that there haven’t been other extreme (hot or cold) periods in the paleoclimate record.  But this extreme earth period was caused by the activities of humans.

Extreme Earth raises questions about the nature of science, especially as it relates to climate change. Global warming has been in the public eye for years now, as scientific panels and independent scientific research studies have suggested that the changes in earth’s weather and climate might, to some degree, be due to human activity, especially fossil fuel extraction and the burning of fuels resulting in a 25 – 30% increase in CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately the science of climate change has become politicized , and resulted in the what some say is a “head in the sand” approach to doing something about the changes going on all around us.  (see Hassard, Jack (2012). Extreme Earth: The Importance of the Geosciences in Science Teaching  Kindle Edition.)

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Figure 1. Temperature fluctuations from various sources over the past 1000 years. From Mann, et al 2008

Many of you are familiar with the environmental phrase, Think Globally, Act Locally.  We used it with middle and high school students as an important concept in the Global Thinking Project, which was headquartered at Georgia State University.

But, there is good reason to rephrase this statement, and put it this way: Think Locally, Act Locally.  In the Global Thinking Project, which was a hands-across-the-globe environmental science program, we engaged students in local problems (acid rain, ozone, soil erosion, water quality), but connected them with peers using the GTP telecommunications network and web resources.

The project helped students realize that studying their own environment was as important (maybe even more so), than connecting with problems in other parts of the world.  Don’t get me wrong, one of the attractive features of the GTP was bringing middle and high school students from different parts of the world together to share ideas, and solve problems.

But there is something missing about the issue of tackling the problem of global warming and the induced climate changing of which we are participants.

As Dr. Popeik says, climate change is now and it is affecting each of us at the local level.  If those of us that live in the Atlanta area think about extreme earth events that occurred in the recent past, we can list a few: the flooding of rivers and streams, a drought that cost many people their livelihoods, high temperature periods that were hazardous to many people’s lives, snow events that created chaos in Atlanta, Augusta and other communities, increased number of fire threats across the state, more tornadoes than have been reported in the recent past, and increased concern about hurricanes.

But perhaps one of the most serious problems that we face in the context of climate change, are those few deniers that distort climatology to support their political and economic views.  For example, some researchers have commented that the science of climate change has been distorted, and at the same time science is evoked as a defense. They describe how a handful of scientists obscured the truth, not only about climate change, but issues related to tobacco and to the government’s “star wars” strategic defense system. As they point out, the climate change deniers use the same “play book” that big tobacco firms used to try to convince the public that smoking tobacco was not associated with cancer. (see Oreskes and Conway, 2010).

In the field of science education, professional science teachers have had to deal with a subset of deniers who inhabit or hope to get elected to state legislative houses.  The Next Generation Science Standards, the latest published set of science standards in the U.S. have come under fire for the position and specific content related to climate change and global warming.  There is also the usual protest about teaching evolution, but for this article, we’ll limit it to climate change.

Several states have moved to block the use of the NGSS in their schools.  In Kentucky, a coal-producing state, the legislature blocked the NGSS, but the governor overruled them.  But it is the case in Wyoming where the issue of teaching climate change became a hot political issue.  Apparently some legislators objected to teaching “theories” and not ideas in science that had been proven.  But if we go deeper into the issue, we find that they oppose those theories that don’t fit with their world view.  In this case, supporters of the fossil fuel industry object to teaching any science that might put them in bad light.  In Wyoming, the NGSS was blocked by a footnote added to the state budget that prohibits the spending of any money on the review or revision of student content and performance standards for science.  Even their own!


Will data from the National Climate Assessment change people’s views of climate change.  Maybe, maybe not.  But those that oppose climate change science will probably not be swayed by this report.  After all, it is a government report.

But perhaps if people begin to realize that the extreme weather events that have come to them are do to an increasing risk for several weather events by the warming of the earth.  Most climatologists would agree that we can “blame” a single event (such as Hurricane Sandy) on global warming, but how can we not consider the possibility that the extreme weather events that have been documented over the past twenty years might be due to human activity?

Pictures tell a story more powerful than words, in many instances.  Here are few that might bring back events that affected you.

Figure 2. Extreme earth events in the U.S. Source: Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.
Figure 2. Extreme earth events in the U.S. Source: Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States:
The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.

Do you think the events of the past few years will impact people’s views of climate change?