The Real Meaning of Standards: Rigor, Shock, Stacking Up, Raising the Bar!

There was an article in today’s Atlanta Journal/Constitution newspaper by Maureen Downey, a columnist who writes on education issues entitled “Georgia’s Core Values.”  The article had nothing to say about “core values”, but had a lot to say about the new national math and English/language arts “core” standards.

Surprisingly Downey writes without any criticism or questioning of the standards movement; she simply describes what the State of Georgia has decided to do (adopt the new standards in math and language), tells us that finally parents in Georgia will be able to find out how their school “stacks up” with schools in New York or California, that finally, because of the core national standards, there will be a battery of national tests that we can rely on to to really compare schools, that states that embrace the new standards are in a better position to garner some of the Race to the Top Funds, and that indeed, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank thinks the whole shebang of standards is a great idea!

Downey’s article is in stark contrast to my post yesterday in which I call into question the way in which standards are being developed, and by whom.  Here, in part, is one issue to consider:

As you explore the nature of the standards movement as it is happening in the United States, it appears as if non-profits, and professional organizations are at the heart of the development of these standards.  The Federal government’s role in all of this is rather interesting.  Rather than funding universities, which must be accountable, the organizations that are developing the standards receive funding from non-governmental businesses, organizations, and private philanthropic groups.  The groups doing the development, and the funding sources are accountable in this process to no one.

If Downey were to follow the money, she would discover that there is actually a core group of foundations and businesses that are providing the money for institutes (like the Thomas B. Fordham Institute) and non-profits (like Achieve, Inc.—a group largely responsible for writing the new standards.  If you go to any of these organizations, and click on the link that lists the organization’s financial contributors, you will probably not be surprised to learn that many of same contributors form the financial foundation for the entire standards movement.

For example, the Fordham Institute is funded by these groups:  The Achelis and Bodman Foundations, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, The Broad Foundation, The Brookhill Foundation, The Louis Calder Foundation, The Challenge Foundation, Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, The Joyce Foundation, The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, The Koret Foundation, The Kovner Foundation, Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, The Robertson Foundation, Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust, The William E. Simon Foundation, The Spencer Foundation, The John Templeton Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation.

Achieve, Inc., is funded by these groups:  The Battelle Foundation • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation • The Boeing Company • Brookhill Foundation • Carnegie Corp. of New York • The GE Foundation • IBM Corp. • Intel Foundation • JP Morgan Chase Foundation • Lumina • Nationwide • Noyce Foundation • The Prudential Foundation • State Farm Insurance Companies • Washington Mutual Foundation • The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Note the overlap.

Diane Ravitch (in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System) refers to some of these organizations as the Billionaire Boys’ Club (she especially recognizes the Walton Family Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Eli and Edy the Broad Foundation, each founded by billionaire men).  Since the late 1980s (Sam Walton created his foundation in 1987), these three organizations have been behind a host of reform initiatives including school choice, charter schools, for profit schools, funding of advocacy groups (such as Achieve), performance-based teacher pay programs (Gates is investing millions), competition, deregulation, “tight” management, and “investments” in education.  As Ravitch points out, there is very little challenge to the ideas promoted by these men and their foundations.

Downey’s article, and much of the literature on standards is punctuated with language that is based on metaphors implicit in competition and sports.  For example, Downey says: “now comes the hard part, getting students up to speed on the greater rigor embedded in the standards so they can pass the national tests…”  Webster defines rigor as meaning “harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgement; the quality of being unyielding or inflexible; and act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty.  Closely connected with that fact that the new standards will be more rigorous than those in the past, is the notion that the new standards are “raising the bar” that students will have to achieve through the new national tests.  Downey puts it this way:  “It’s not a sure bet that the Core Standards will improve American academic performance because the hard part is ensuring that the curriculum, teachers and tests embrace the raised bar.”

We are on roll right now with respect to the adoption of The Common Core Standards.  Everyone is being asked to “get involved and become a Common Core supporter.”  Nearly all of the states are on board (only Texas and Alaska are holdouts).  The research that is being done on the standards is being conducted by the advocacy groups that have a huge stake in the development and implementation of the Common Standards.  For example, both the Fordham Institute and Achieve have written reports (that rate the Core Standards A+) that state boards of education use to argue the case to adopt the standards.

And here is an amazing aspect of all of this.  None of these groups are accountable to anyone (other than their own board of directors).  Yet, these advocacy groups insist that schools, administrators and teachers should be held accountable.  And indeed, many of these groups is advocating that teacher pay be based on the achievement of students on the tests that these advocacy groups develop.  It is truly amazing.

And finally, when you examine these organizations, or the teams that write the frameworks and standards, you rarely find the name of a teacher as a member.

We have a serious problem here, and to use the language of sports, we need to step up!

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University