THE BLOG
01/29/2014 04:24 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2014

Public Education Going the Way of Netscape Navigator? Common Core, Bill Gates and BATs

The following post was published originally on MyMediaDiary.com along with a podcast interview with BAT's leaders, Marla Kilfoyle and Melissa Tomlinson.

"If you could have three wishes, what would you wish for?"

It was a typical 10th grade essay question. I can still see the red ink circling my first wish on my returned paper; I had written "health."

"Good health or bad health?"

"Well, duh?" I remember my brilliant 16-year-old sarcasm so clearly. "Who would wish for bad health?"

And as my revenge on this injustice, I used the same technique grading papers for 25 years. I lectured that it was a lesson in being specific. Students need to pay attention to those details where the devil hangs out. The kids loved me for that one, you can imagine.

I've had some of those same students, neighbors and a few friends ask me my opinion about the Common Core Standards. Do I like them? Do I agree with their mission?

Well, let's go to the source and examine the mission statement from the website (link). There's not much to dislike. Mission statements are always so beautifully vague and silly that when I pass them, even by the coffee stand at a 7-11, I can't help but want to pull out my red pen. For example...

  • The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. (If you're clear aren't you probably already consistent? Can you document an understanding; for example, how many objectives are in an understanding?)
  • The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. (They may be designed to be robust, but are they actually robust? What does robust mean? Lots of alliteration with all of those "r" words. Also, on the flipside, is it instead possible to provide robust and relevant standards to a non-real world?)
  • With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy. (By "American" do you mean legal citizens of the United States or anyone living in our boundaries? Also, Mexicans and Chileans are also "Americans." Can a community compete in a global economy? "Next week, be sure to join us as Akron takes on Beijing at Soldier Field!" )

State of the Union Vagaries

It's what only gets me four minutes into watching a State of the Union speech before I look for a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show -- I need something more real -- and Deputy Barney Fife of Mayberry seems like Walter Cronkite, in comparison. Those speeches are buzzwords-on-parade. (And if you are in the audience, forget your American flag lapel pin and don't stand up and applaud for two minutes for each of the following vagaries you deserve to be trounced at the next PTA election.)

  • Affordable health care (conception-to-casket)
  • A world-class education (K through Ph.D.)
  • Care for the elderly (Defined as 50 or 85, yet to be determined)
  • Improved public safety (in the home, abroad, at Wal-Mart on Black Friday)
  • A sound infrastructure (for planes, trains, automobiles, bike trails, hang-gliding routes)
  • Lower taxes (or better yet, no taxes)

In May 2013, the American Federation of Teachers revealed that 75 percent of its members supported Common Core Standards (link). That's good -- right? In fact, given the altruistic and foggy mission statement above, I wonder who those grouchy 25 percent are? They probably hate dogs and babies, too. The same survey also revealed that only "27 percent said their school district has provided them with all or most of the resources and tools they need to successfully teach the standards."

Oh... Well, that kind of goes against that "lower taxes" item, I suppose.

Anyway, let's take a look at the authors of the robust, globally-competitive, chicken-in-every-pot plan -- probably some teachers, right? John McCain got a lot of traction with Joe the Plumber as an everyman. I hope they asked a few classroom instructors and a parent or two their opinions.

No Room at the "In" -- The Common Core Think-Tank

A recent Washington Post reprint of an article from Stan Karp, a 30-year New Jersey educator and editor of Rethinking Schools magazine offers an outstanding history of Common Core and its formation.

"Because federal law prohibits the federal government from creating national standards and tests, the Common Core project was ostensibly designed as a state effort led by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, a private consulting firm. The Gates Foundation provided more than $160 million in funding, without which Common Core would not exist...

"In all, there were 135 people on the review panels for the Common Core. Not a single one of them was a K-3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional." Parents were entirely missing. K-12 educators were mostly brought in after the fact to tweak and endorse the standards--and lend legitimacy to the results."

Chicago and Mayor Emanuel: If it is Broke Don't Fix It

Diane Ravitch, author of The Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools points out in her January 21 blog that Chicago's charter schools are under-enrolled, yet the mayor and former Obama chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel, plans to open more of them.

"...that 47 percent of CPS charter and contract schools had student populations below the CPS threshold for ideal enrollment. This equates to 50 schools with nearly 11,000 seats sitting empty...Despite this drop, the Chicago Board of Education could approve as many as 31 new charters over the next two years." (link)

Throughout my 25 years teaching, many of them spent in initiatives with companies, grants and vocationally based education, I have heard from business leaders that schools are working in a vacuum, that the same rules don't apply because you "can't fire teachers" and you've got "public funding."

Yet in Chicago, as the charter experiment shows direct evidence of failure in a business report, the solution from Mr. Emanuel is to grow the status quo. I can't see Microsoft living too long with that business plan for its own company.

Greasing the Rails: Pay off everyone and nobody who can afford to object will object

In The Lockport Union Sun and Journal, Bob Confer reported on January 20 that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has covered its bases:

  • Eight National Education Associations - $23.2 million
  • Parent Teacher Association -$2.7 million
  • National Governors Association (NGA) -$25.7 million
  • The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) -$79 million
  • Achieve, Inc. (authors of the Common Core Standards) --$46 million

The Badass Teachers Association Is Born

In a break from the dubiously funded unions, Priscilla Sanstead and Mark Naison created the Badass Teachers Association (or BAT) in June of 2013 -- a grassroots movement of educators, parents, college students in education , retirees who dare to question not only the corporate interests but also the educational unions. In just over six months, the group now has close to 36,000 members. While some have questioned this "not-for-school" name and seen it as too aggressive for teachers, it begs the question, "Wouldn't you rather have a bad-ass attorney for your lawsuit, a bad-ass reporter investigating your corrupt mayor or bad-ass linebacker for your football team?"

So why wouldn't you want a bad-ass advocate for your student's education?

The group has systematically refuted the tenets of the Common Core standards but soberly looked at the "real world" even without Mr. Gates:

"That being said, BATs and other warriors who fight the corporate takeover of our public schools need to think what will happen when we do defeat corporate "reform." What will schools that educate our most vulnerable children - those in poverty - look like? Child poverty will not magically end with the defeat of Common Core, charters, vouchers or TFA, so BATs will commit their voices to making sure the government be held accountable for not addressing this main reason for children's not succeeding in school..."

The Pittsburgh Stealers: "Put national interests and politics aside and work for kids.""

Nothing can knock a teacher off the picket line faster, get them to skip their lunch or stay after-hours longer than playing the guilt-card. It's the same card they themselves played to get into teaching -- altruism. "But if you really cared about the kids you'd do this."

No teacher went into the profession for the money. So if they object to cuts in their pay or funding for their classes they are particularly vulnerable. Nobody brow-beats doctors, lawyers or plumbers for wanting payment that is in line with their skills. But for some reason, teachers don't think that what they do is really that special -- that "anybody can do it."

Forty million dollars are on the line right now in Pittsburgh. The Gates Foundation, which promised grant money to the city's school is dissatisfied with the progress of the administration and teachers' definition of what a "quality teacher" is (link):

But the disagreement has taken on national implications.

The National American Federation of Teachers has put people and resources in Pittsburgh and has called striking down these new standards a "crucial fight."

Harris says this issue should be settled locally.

"They need to get back to the table and work for kids and focus on the kids," Harris said. "Put national interests and politics aside and work for kids."

So Pittsburgh's got a $40 million "toe-the-line" order from Bill Gates. And if all goes well for Mr. Gates, public schools will go the way of Netscape Navigator, when Microsoft bullied it off your PCs, was found guilty of antitrust violation but the patient was already dead.

Common Core may become the next Internet Explorer -- and don't even try removing that program from your computer.

I suppose that Bill Gates is one of those folks who doesn't have to wonder about wishing for three wishes. But I do wonder if he's chosen the bad health over the good.