Families & the Community Opinion

Cui Bono? The Question Rarely Asked, Let Alone Investigated

By Anthony Cody — April 17, 2012 8 min read
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As our public schools are systematically re-engineered for dubious reasons, with questionable results, by people of uncertain motives, there is a disturbing lack of skepticism on the part of our watchdogs for the public good, journalists. One of the basic principles of reporting is to ask “cui bono” - who benefits? In the Watergate scandal, the key informant whispered to reporters Woodward and Bernstein, “Follow the money.” But very few reporters today seem to be “following the money” in the field of education.

Veteran education reporter John Merrow recently delved into cheating scandals on his blog, Taking Note:

In other words, we're cheating kids on their tests and stealing essential courses like art and music from them! Add to that, we are lying -- because when kids get phony scores telling them they are proficient when they need help, that's an out-and-out lie.
At what point does this trifecta -- lying, cheating and stealing -- become a felony? Seriously!
In the face of this disheartening news, one has to ask, "who benefits?" I'm stumped. Certainly not children, parents and teachers. Could it be the testing companies? Perhaps it's the bevy of expert 'consultants' who advise school systems on how to raise test scores, how to calculate the 'value added' that individual teachers provide, and how to make education more 'businesslike' and efficient?
A far more important question than 'who benefits?' is: What are we going to do about it?

I want to make a special plea here to John Merrow and other journalists.
Reporters hold a sacred public trust and fill a role no one else in society can. Before the rest of the public is even aware that something ought to be done, they must be informed that there is a problem. We need some real reporting here. And that means taking some risks.

We have had a very heavy push from a host of sources to convince us all that “reform” of a certain sort is required in our schools. These are the false ideas we are up against:

1. Our public schools are failing.
Establishing this is essential because it justifies their destruction - and replacement by far more profitable ventures. There is plenty of evidence that this is not true, if one cares to look.

2. Charter schools are far more efficient than public schools, and produce better results as well.
A new report contradicts the first claim, and the largest study of charters ever conducted contradicts the second. But many stories about charters do not dig for these facts.

3. The problems associated with standardized tests will be solved with technical innovations and the new Common Core standards. Narrowing of the curriculum will be fixed by having more tests in more subjects. Critical thinking will be fostered by better standards and tests scored by computers. Research on this is hard to find - these are largely the promises made by those who are selling these solutions. But the unproven assumption that these things are so underlies many stories now coming out about the Common Core.

4. Teachers are the number one reason students are doing poorly, and thus if we can eliminate ineffective ones, performance will shoot through the roof.
This has spawned a host of reforms, including the elimination of due process, and Value Added Measurement systems to evaluate teachers using their test scores. Media outlets have actively propagated these unreliable methods. The Los Angeles Times created its own VAM system and published teacher ratings two years ago, and more recently New York newspapers published teacher ratings and wrote exposes of the “worst teachers” based on them.

When we look closely at each aspect of this narrative, we can see who stands to benefit - and often they are the same people and organizations promoting their self-serving solution. For me, the “who benefits” question is key, because until it is confronted, we will have no idea what must be done. So let’s take a look, starting with those mentioned by John Merrow.

Testing companies
: yes, clearly. They are already reaping huge rewards from the expansion of testing over the past decade. And with the Common Core standards we are going to see an even greater expansion in the frequency of tests, and the courses which will be tested.

Those calculating the ‘value added’ that individual teachers provide
: William Sanders began as an academic exploring the impact individual teachers made on student performance. Today, districts can purchase from him a complex system that can be used to rate their teachers. Rupert Murdoch’s Wireless Generation will soon be managing the data used to track student performance - and calculate teacher performance ratings, with a $44 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

Curriculum designers/publishers: Those creating curriculum aligned with the new Common Core Standards, which Secretary Duncan’s chief of staff Joanne Weiss points out:

The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.

Consultants who advise schools on how to raise test scores: There has been a proliferation of organizations who guarantee results, attacking this issue from every possible angle. We have specialists in literacy, math, and school turnarounds. We have after-school test prep, elective test prep, and course-embedded test prep.

But let’s dig a bit deeper -- because the list of those who are benefiting is long, and is a big part of the reason this juggernaut has proved so hard to halt. Here are a few more to add to John Merrow’s short list:

Charter school operators, some of whom have been indicted recently.

Teacher Leaders and organizations like the American Society for Curriculum Development who are now promoting themselves as experts capable of doing the professional development needed to allow teachers to succeed with the Common Core.

Alternative Credentialing/Leadership programs such as Teach For America and the New Teacher Project, who get large grants from the government and philanthropies based on their willingness to replace experienced teachers with short term novices, in spite of their high turnover rates. Huge recent grants in excess of $100 million have made expansion the number one priority for TFA, so as a result, the organization is moving into areas that do not have any teacher shortage at all. TFA got on board the standardized testing bandwagon years ago, and The New Teacher Project authored the report, The Widget Effect, that prompted the current drive to revamp teacher evaluations incorporating test scores, in order to get rid of “ineffective teachers.”

Astroturf groups, such as Teach Plus and Stand For Children, who, with generous grant funding, develop what appear to be grassroots advocates for “reform” proposals such as Senate Bill 1 in Indiana, which tied teacher pay and evaluations to test scores. A new school “reform” supergroup, StudentsFirstNY and its Michelle Rhee/Joel Klein led predecessor Education Reform Now has poured more than $10 million into lobbying to influence lawmakers in New York.

Technology and software companies:
Many of the assessments and curriculum systems associated with the Common Core rely on computers to deliver instruction and to test student learning. This means a huge expansion both in hardware and software, and an enormous shift of scarce education dollars into technology and away from human beings working with students. Just watch as this is being spun as “efficiency,” as in the Rocketship schools, which have greatly expanded class size and cut the number of teachers, as they have students learning online several hours a day.

Virtual Schools: Along the same lines, these “schools” are being granted licenses, and are even succeeding (with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council) in getting laws passed that mandate that students take some courses online.

And there is a big overlap - some of the same businesses profiting from tests will also sell services to save your schools when they are failing. There is big money being made -- One big test publisher, Pearson, reported $9 billion in revenues for the year 2010.

Corporate/philanthropic synergy at work was showcased last year when the Gates and Pearson Foundations announced “a partnership aimed at crafting complete, online curricula for those standards in mathematics and English/language arts that span nearly every year of a child’s precollegiate education.”

There is a further overlap with the realm of journalism itself, which might be part of the reason the question of “who benefits” is so rarely investigated. The Washington Post owns test prep pioneer Kaplan, Inc, whose 2010 revenues were nearly $3 billion, dwarfing those of the newspaper itself. Media titan Rupert Murdoch owns the education technology company Wireless Generation, and has made no bones about his aims: “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.”

And those of us, myself included, that work in journalism supported by education industry advertising and foundation grants, also are affected. Education Week and Learning Matters, the non-profit headed by John Merrow, both are in this category.

To their credit, Education Week has never attempted to stifle my perspective. I hope John Merrow enjoys a similar sense of independence, and look forward to following his investigations in this rich journalistic vein. If he really starts looking, he should not remain stumped for long. He would be a rare element, the mainstream journalist with the guts to buck the dominant narrative and reveal the uncomfortable truth about the path we have taken, and the decidedly mixed motives of those leading us there. He would join some other brave reporters, Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, Michael Winerip at the New York Times, Greg Toppo at USA Today, who have shown us it is possible.

I am not saying that everyone listed above is some sort of craven creature controlled by avarice. Many have good intentions, and may be sincere in their ambitions to help students. However, as that great investigative reporter Upton Sinclair famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something , when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Those of us in the tenuous world of 21st century journalism are not immune from this phenomenon.

When I have raised this concern in the past, it has been dismissed as a “conspiracy theory.” A conspiracy is defined as a secret, usually illegal plan concocted by several people. This is no conspiracy. It is not secret -- just largely ignored. And thanks to the machinations of ALEC and the cooperation of politicians from both parties, it is usually legal as well.

The fact that someone benefits does not mean their ideas should automatically be condemned, but we should exercise a far greater degree of skepticism than we now see, and objective evidence should be sought before we accept as truth the latest self-serving demands for “courageous action,” or proclamations of success. Real reporting means not just asking “cui bono,” but finding out, and warning the public when their interests and institutions are threatened.

What do you think? Are there others with a vested interest in promoting phony education reform? Has the mainstream media done an adequate job uncovering these motives?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.