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The Pence Strategy: A Model for Public Deception on Education

The Pence Strategy: A Model for Public Deception on Education

Two years ago I crafted an updated set of English language arts standards based on the set I helped develop in Massachusetts in 1997. This set of standards, copyright-free and cost-free, has been available for districts and states to use in place of the Common Core standards since May 2013. 

Far from being so obscure that few know about this document, it was listed in the recently released Indiana standards document as one of the resources the standards-drafting committee referred to. Nothing in my document was used, of course, because a warmed-over version of Common Core was the goal set for the committees established by Governor Mike Pence’s education policy director, Claire Fiddian-Green, and the Indiana Department of Education staffer co-directing the project with her, Molly Chamberlin.

What makes it clear that an imitation of Common Core was the goal of this project is the content of the drafts, starting with the public comment draft (Draft #1) released in February. It was so like Common Core that it evoked a storm of public criticism for its resemblance. I declined Governor Pence’s request to review that document, making it clear that there was no point in my reviewing Common Core yet another time. Fiddian-Green promised the next draft would be significantly different, and, in response to another request from Governor Pence, I agreed to review Draft #2 if it was not warmed-over Common Core. 

On March 14, I was sent Draft #2. It was almost identical to Draft #1 in grades 6-12. I wrote back immediately asking Fiddian-Green and Chamberlin if I had been sent the wrong file. No, I hadn’t. On March 17, Fiddian-Green sent me the fruits of their week-end analysis: 93% of the standards in ELA in grades 6-12 were Common Core’s, most verbatim. I wrote to Gov. Pence that day saying I wouldn’t review that cut-and-paste job, either, but would send him a report from two workshops on Draft #2 that I would hold at a conference of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, serendipitously to take place in Bloomington, Indiana, on April 4 and 5.

My purpose was to give the governor, Fiddian-Green, and Chamberlin whatever suggestions came out of workshops attended by literary scholars and local high school English teachers. I invited Fiddian-Green, Chamberlin, and indeed the entire staff of the Indiana Department of Education to participate in the workshops. None came. But four local English teachers did, as did over 20 literary scholars at the conference.

I sent the report containing their many suggestions for revising grades 6-12 in Draft #2 (readers must remember this draft was mainly Common Core, which they all thought was pretty awful) to Gov. Pence, Fiddian-Green, and others on April 8. Not one of the literary scholars’ or English teachers’ suggestions made its way into the final draft released on April 14 (Draft #3). 

In retrospect, it is clear that Draft #3 had to look like Common Core to satisfy a number of third parties: possibly Jeb Bush, the Gates Foundation, and the USDE. But it also had to look somewhat different to justify all the thousands of hours Fiddian-Green claimed the committees had spent on this job. How much this game of pretense cost Indiana taxpayers we may never know. 

Remember that Governor Pence had publicly asked for “uncommonly high standards, written by Hoosiers for Hoosiers.” The major problem in getting even a decent imitation of Common Core to come out of such an ill-conceived plan was that the committees selected by Fiddian-Green and Chamberlin weren’t capable of doing anything other than making the standards even weaker and more incoherent than Common Core’s. “Not making mathematical sense (NMMS),” was the way most of the mathematics standards were described by Hung-Hsi Wu, a reviewing mathematician from the University of California, Berkeley. His review is available on the Indiana Department of Education website.

I had already asked for expanded committees to include qualified high school English teachers and recognized literary scholars from Indiana after I had looked at the original list of committee members. But Fiddian-Green had replied that she and Chamberlin had complete confidence in the committees they had selected. 

I am sure there are many qualified high school English and mathematics teachers in the state and many recognized literary scholars and mathematicians at Indiana universities; they just weren’t on these committees. On April 28, the Indiana Board of Education voted to approve the Pence/Fiddian-Green/Chamberlin standards for ELA and mathematics. Bottom line: Indiana citizens now have uncommonly incoherent ELA standards, written less incoherently four years ago in Washington, but botched up by Hoosiers for Hoosiers.

Governor Pence, however, wants to be known as the political leader who got rid of Common Core from Indiana and as the governor who established a “model” process for developing stronger state standards. The Pence strategy, to pretend to reject Common Core in order to pacify angry parents but to work for Common Core-compatible standards developed by incompetent but obedient local educators, is being carefully studied by other governors, state superintendents of education, and local school administrators elsewhere. Unfortunately, it is a model for damaging, not strengthening, the schools.

Sandra Stotsky, Ed.D. is Professor Emerita at the University of Arkansas.

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