Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Brave New Common Core Curricula

Classroom of the future? (Image by Brooks Elliot)
Support for Common Core Standards (CCS), or the idea that all students across the country should be taught the same rigorous material, is growing. 40 states have already adopted the national CCS for math and English, while the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and business leaders are currently collaborating to extend these standards to all disciplines. For states like California, which already had some of the most rigorous standards in the U.S., adoption of the CCS may actually dumb down many of their courses. Nevertheless, many politicians (and unions) have jumped on board, afraid of looking soft on rigor. The real winners are not the children, but the textbook publishers, who will win billions of dollars in contracts to replace the old books based on the old standards, and the test publishers, who will win contracts to assess students on their mastery of the new standards.

Not all are on board with this trend. Tom Vander Ark, the first business executive to serve as a school superintendent and the first Executive Director for Education at the Gates Foundation, is suspicious, particularly of the AFT’s involvement. Of course we should be suspicious of his involvement, with his past ties to Gates and his current roles as partners in Vander Ark/Ratcliff and in a private equity fund (Learn Capital) that invests in digital learning companies. (Vender Ark’s partner, Ratcliff, was named in a Wikileaks document as one of the PR hit men hired by the Honduran coup government to guide them through their manipulation of ousted president Manuel Zelaya).

Vander Ark takes issue with the AFT’s call for content guidelines for the core academic disciplines and fears that this will lead to rigid, curricula for all students, rather than common content standards that could be taught in a variety of ways. Why the AFT is even involved in this discussion is another question. After all, they are a union, and should be focused on teachers’ working conditions and compensation, not curricular matters. Yet when a bunch of corporate profiteers jump in and try to mandate curricular decisions, it becomes a working conditions matter by stifling academic freedom and teacher creativity. So in this sense it makes sense for unions to get involved. The problem is that the unions are not protecting teacher creativity or academic freedom. They are collaborating with the corporate profiteers to impose systems that help the publishers gain a stronger foothold, resulting in an increase in their influence over curricula (and an increase in profits) by way of their textbooks, worksheets, DVDs, exams and other content support materials, none of which helps Vander Ark’s bottom line.

Vander Ark’s biggest fear seems to be that common standards will become common curricula which will turn into something akin to every student being required to be on the same page of the same book at the same time, something that is already being forced on many schools that have failed repeatedly to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) on their NCLB exams. Like most corporate edu-profiteers, he frames his argument to seem like he has the best interests of kids at heart (CCS is one size fits all, whereas he wants personalized learning for each student.) However, what he calls for, “School of One” customized digital learning environments for all students, would result in those billions of dollars currently slated for textbook publishers being transferred instead to the digital learning companies that his equity firm finances (e.g., Edmodo, Gazilion, City Prep Academies).

Vander Ark’s spooky vision goes beyond mere money grabbing. He envisions a future where “learning platforms” will support multiple pathways and “customized playlists” and, like iPhone and Android, “will unleash investment and innovation,” which is to say, profits for him. They will also spy on students (and teachers), “capturing keystroke data” and storing everything, either on a Google-like cloud or in a corporate warehouse, where it ostensibly will be used to innocently help tailor learning experiences to each student’s individual needs and interests. However, this same data could also be used by administrators, cops, or intelligence agencies to profile students (and teachers), and could potentially be used for targeted marketing, military recruiting or even espionage.

This vision takes away the role of the teacher as someone who creates creative and personalized lessons. It diminishes the significance of interpersonal relations between teacher and students and between students. For the nerdy (and sometimes aloof) kids who already spend way too much time on their computers and digital toys, this type of school might seem like paradise (e.g., less chance to interact with bullies or strict teachers, and more time playing with their favorite toys), but it could also retard their social development and ability to collaborate with peers. For those kids who become motivated and engaged in school precisely because of the strong bonds they form with an adult on campus, this digital future could be disastrous. And for teachers and their unions, this future spells their demise. The more we go digital, the less need there is for teachers (aside from the handful needed to write the digital curricula and facilitate the online discussions). Organizing a small group of edu-geeks who work from home (or in some “dream” job environment like Google, with live concerts and video games in the lunch room) will be a nightmare for the AFT and NEA.


  1. As usual, it's a good idea to follow the money. Thanks for connecting some of the dots.

  2. You are welcome and thanks for following my blog.

  3. Incidentally, the AFT has advocated for national standards for decades. For better or worse, it is in their DNA, not any short term motivation.

  4. AFT has been screwing over teachers for decades, too. However, as a scientist, I tend not to attribute it to a sociobiological cause.