Common Core, the Fordham Institute, and the D.C. Edu-Blob

Common Core, the Fordham Institute, and the D.C. Edu-Blob

If Congress… may establish teachers in every State, county, and parish, and pay them out of the public Treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union… I would venture to declare it as my opinion… it would subvert the very foundation and transmute the very nature of the limited Government established by the people of America…

James Madison, 1792

Nearly two centuries later, elected officials of all political stripes still agreed with Madison, the father of the Constitution and author of the Bill of Rights. Three federal laws – including two signed by Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter – prohibit the federal government from funding, directing, validating, or having any involvement with national education standards, testing, or curricula. None of this seems to have dimmed the Washington, D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s fervor for nationalized K-12 standards and tests.

Efforts to model national standards date back at least a quarter century. But previous attempts, one by the first Bush administration that convened governors (mostly from low-performing states) to lead the charge and another by the Clinton administration, took the route usually used to pass laws in our democracy: filing legislation and holding public hearings. Both failed miserably. This time Beltway advocates took another approach – one you probably didn’t learn about in civics class.

The 2009 federal stimulus package included the “Race to the Top” (RttT) fund, a grant competition that doled out $4.35 billion to states and acted as a lever to get them to adopt national English and math standards known as Common Core. These grants were essentially conditioned on states adopting, but that wasn’t all. 

The federal government funded two national consortia assembled to develop Common Core-based tests. In their federal funding applications, the consortia pledged to use part of the money to develop curricular materials in direct contravention of federal law. Just in case anyone still didn’t get the message, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, without congressional approval, made adoption of Common Core a condition for states seeking waivers from the dreaded accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind law.

While Fordham has never wavered in its support for Common Core, the institute was clearly uncomfortable with the perception – though not the reality – of a heavy-handed federal government role in getting states to adopt nationalized standards and assessments. Before President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address, the institute’s executive vice president, Michael Petrilli, sent out multiple tweets begging the President not to mention “Common Core” or “Curriculum.”

But the President did, just as he had in his previous State of the Union Address. And why not? The President was only taking credit for what he made happen. Common Core and national testing are clearly Obama initiatives.

Show me the money

The U.S. Department of Education (U.S. DOE) violating three federal laws may have given Fordham pause, but they didn’t seem to lose sleep over it. The institute continued to take money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested over $200 million in drafting the Common Core standards, evaluating the same standards Gates paid to develop, and building public support for them. Thus far, Fordham’s Gates haul is at least $3,461,116.

In 2010, Fordham used some of that Gates money to compare each state’s standards to Common Core. As you might expect, they found Common Core’s English standards superior to their counterparts in 37 states and the math standards better than those in 39 states. Fordham described the comparison as “too close to call” in most of the remaining states.

A closer look reveals the tortured path Fordham took to arrive at its conclusions. In previous Fordham reviews, English standards had to be presented either for every grade or for a two-year span to receive full credit for “organization.” This time, that definition conveniently disappeared. Massachusetts was marked down for a few two-year spans, but Common Core was not.

Fordham gave the Common Core mathematics standards an “A-” despite the failure to organize the high school standards by grade level, grade span, or course. Instead, they are listed in five unordered categories of “mathematical constructs,” leaving it unclear which standards belong to algebra and which to geometry.

When comparing Common Core to Massachusetts’ standards, generally considered the country’s best, Fordham found them to be too close to call. But four crosswalks conducted by Pioneer Institute, the only comparisons not funded by Gates, found that although the Common Core standards improved along the way, the final versions remained clearly inferior to the Bay State’s previous English and math standards.

Two years later, Fordham’s Gates-funded estimate of the national cost of transitioning to Common Core excluded multi-year-technology costs, the single largest cost driver. A Pioneer Institute study pegged the national Common Core implementation price tag at just under $16 billion.

Fordham’s evaluations may have done the most damage in high-performing states with proven high-quality standards. In Massachusetts, they gave Governor Deval Patrick cover to adopt Common Core and continue dismantling the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act that triggered the Bay State’s historic rise. He had already eliminated an independent school district accountability office; brought the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, whose independence was critical to implementing the 1993 reforms, under his political control; and politicized the Bay State’s highly regarded charter school authorization process.

Today Massachusetts’ SAT scores are down 20 points from their 2006 highs. Third-grade reading scores are the best predictor of future academic success. Last year, after several years of stagnation, the percentage of Massachusetts third-graders who scored proficient or advanced on MCAS reading tests fell to its lowest level since 2009. At 57 percent, the portion of third-graders reading at or above the proficient level is 10 points lower than it was in 2002.

Results from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the nation’s report card, tell a similarly disturbing story. Massachusetts’ five-point decline in fourth-grade reading was the largest in the country. Weaker national standards are unlikely to staunch the bleeding.

Meet the new boss…

Fordham President Chester Finn’s current views in some ways seem far removed from those he espoused back when he was marketing himself as conservative and when he was an assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Reagan. In his 1991 book We Must Take Charge, Finn decried the outsized influence of D.C.-based education establishment insiders like the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). His former boss, Reagan Education Secretary Bill Bennett, called it “the blob,” and for 25 years its orthodoxy has included national standards.

Less than a quarter-century later, Fordham is working closely with both groups to shift policymaking power from state and local taxpayers, who pick up 90 percent of the tab for American K-12 public education, to the federal government and the D.C. blob. Maybe the educational establishment is only a bad thing if you’re not part of the club. 

Or maybe Fordham really hasn’t changed that much after all. 

Finn recently wrote that, “LBJ’s declaration of war on poverty shaped the next 50 years of my life… Between LBJ and Pat Moynihan [for whom Finn worked], I now had a sense of mission.” In March 2011, Fordham joined noted liberals like AFT president Randi Weingarten, Marc Tucker, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, and Donna Shalala in signing on to a manifesto from the AFT’s Shanker Institute advocating for a nationalized K-12 curriculum.

Evidently, Fordham prefers illegal federal government monopolies to states, localities, and parents controlling their own educational destinies. As Founding Father Alexander Hamilton declared in 1788, “While the Constitution continues to be read and its principles known, the states must, by every rational man, be considered as essential, component parts of the Union; and therefore the idea of sacrificing the former to the latter is wholly inadmissible.”

In We Must Take Charge, Finn called for “a new constitution for American education.” What is now becoming clear is that the changes required to create it would not be approved by Congress, they wouldn’t be ratified via the constitutional amendment process, and his “constitution” would eliminate the controls on federal power included in the U.S. Constitution.

20 years of failure

While Fordham markets itself as “the nation’s leader in advancing educational excellence for every child,” one thing it has in common with its inside-the-Beltway Common Core partners such as the U.S. DOE, CCSSO, the National Governors Association, and Achieve, Inc. is that no one can name anything it has accomplished to improve student achievement in the last two decades. 

Fordham has maintained an office in Ohio for more than 20 years and is a key player in state education policy there. But during that time, the performance of Ohio’s students on NAEP has consistently hovered around the national average. Fordham’s own reviews found Ohio’s state standards to be mediocre. 

Fordham is also a state charter school authorizer in the Buckeye State. According to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), Ohio’s charters are among the worst in the country. CREDO’s 2013 report found that Ohio charter students are three weeks behind their district school peers in reading and 43 days behind in math. In 2011, former Fordham Vice President for Ohio Programs & Policy Terry Ryan wrote, “Not everything we have done in the Buckeye State has worked and we have in fact had plenty of failures as both a sponsor and as a charter advocate…”

Finn’s and Fordham’s long-stated goal with nationalized standards, curriculum, and testing has been to help low-performing states. But if after more than 20 years they’ve been unable to move the needle in Ohio, they’re unlikely to be the ones who will save Mississippi. 

*** 

The Fordham Institute has every right to continue its longstanding advocacy for national K-12 educational standards. What is less defensible is the tactics it has employed. Taking money from the Gates Foundation to both evaluate and promote standards that Gates financed is a conflict of interest; one that at the very least causes an objective observer to apply a higher level of scrutiny – even deep skepticism – to anything Fordham has to say about Common Core and the limits on federal authority.

Perhaps it’s naïve to think that years of hobnobbing with Washington, D.C. education insiders wouldn’t distort Finn’s and Fordham’s judgment. Perhaps, after decades of being a big fish in the education policy pond, Finn, who is close to retirement, yearns for some tangible accomplishment to cap his career. Whatever Fordham’s motivations, it is clear that the organization cut corners to achieve its desired outcome, while rationalizing that the ends justify the means.

What is harder to grasp is how Fordham and other Common Core backers seem so dismissive of federal laws. Or, how they could overlook the constitutional warnings of Founding Fathers like James Madison, and forget that what they seek: “would subvert the very foundation and transmute the very nature of the limited Government established by the people of America.”

Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank where Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow.

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