Federal Opinion

Is ASCD Embracing Market-Driven Education Reform?

By Anthony Cody — December 05, 2013 6 min read
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Another day, another headline on ASCD’s Smartbrief extolling some new Common Core strategy. ASCD has signed on as an endorser of Common Core, and in 2011, the Gates Foundation awarded ASCD a grant of $3 millionto provide teachers and school leaders with supports to implement the Common Core State Standards at the district, school, and classroom levels.” In July of this year, ASCD won an additional $244,000, “to support implementation of the Common Core State Standards.”

I have generally positive feelings towards ASCD. I recall in 2010, when ASCD’s Gene Carter wrote a public letter in response to Oprah’s show on Waiting for Superman. He wrote:

As a career educator and the executive director of ASCD, an education association of 160,000 educators worldwide, I was dismayed that your show on education reform excluded a key demographic from the dialogue: teachers. Yet the research---and your high-profile guests---say a child's teacher is the most important factor to determining his or her success. Moreover, simplistically dividing a profession of 5 million people into "good teachers" and "bad teachers" misses an important opportunity to show how all educators must continue to learn, develop, and grow throughout their careers.

In the more distant past, Educational Leadership, ASCD’s journal, carried articles like this one, detailing the problems with the high stakes testing paradigm. And Educational Leadership continues to feature strong explorations of issues like teacher evaluation and professional development, including this article I contributed recently on the subject of teacher leadership.

Their coverage of the controversies regarding Common Core have been a bit less balanced. Their “Common Core State Standards Myths and Facts” perpetuates the idea that state adoption of the standards was “voluntary” when we all know adoption has been the result of a combination of RttT carrots and NCLB waiver sticks. The article presents a host of other glowing promises about Common Core that neither ASCD nor anyone else can deliver upon.

Educational Leadership has treated the controversy over Common Core literacy instruction in a one-sided fashion, by presenting this article by Timothy Shanahan, derisively titled The Common Core Ate My Baby and Other Urban Legends. There are respected literacy experts who would disagree with his stance, but their views were not shared, except to be dismissed by him as nonsense. The journal has also published articles expressing skepticism such as this one by Tom Loveless, The Common Core Initiative: What are the Chances of Success. But the thrust of the journal and work of ASCD has become dominated by the push to implement Common Core.

I was also a bit stunned last week when I saw the program for ASCD’s Leadership Institute for Legislative Action, and their choice for this year’s keynote speaker; Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

This raises some questions for me as to the direction the ASCD is taking in its legislative advocacy. This is not to slight Rick Hess. He writes a thought-provoking blog here at Education Week, and often has interesting things to say. But he represents the American Enterprise Institute, and is a strong advocate of market-based reform. Earlier this year, Hess wrote about the conservative school board in Douglas County, Colorado, describing the place as “the most interesting school district in America.” He wrote:

The district's distinctive aim of going from good to great, rather than from poor to passable, is remarkable in the annals of contemporary school reform. For Douglas County, school choice is not seen not as a "ticket out" of failing schools, but a way to encourage customization and to offer more paths for students to choose.

It came out (and Hess subsequently acknowledged in his blog) that Hess had been paid a substantial fee for consulting with the district he was praising. This article from Our Castle Rock News reveals how much the District got for their money:

AEI's Rick Hess and Max Eden wrote a paper, "The Most Interesting School District in America," that the district emailed to parents Sept. 18 as a "just-released white paper" and did not identify as a district-paid product. The Feb. 6, 2013, contract between DCSD and AEI outlines a $30,000 payment and scope of services, asking the organization to "research, create, publish and publicize" a 25-30 page white paper with three to five sidebars. DCSD's requirements for the paper included a description of the district, the problems its reforms are meant to address, how the reforms are "new and different," district challenges in the face of its reforms and lessons learned. The district's lead spokeswoman and its foundation director, Cinamon Watson, signed as DCSD's representative. Hess and Watson also exchanged emails about the paper in which the writer asked for further guidance. "Ideally, we would love for you all to help us help you," Hess wrote in a March 22 email to Watson. "Rather, we would prefer it if you would tell us what you want us to focus on, what is most worthy of attention, what you'd like to see written about, and what your general angle on it and the paper is."

Remember, this paper was commissioned and released in the context of a contentious election in which conservative “reformers” were challenged by candidates less supportive of vouchers and other market-based reforms. Apparently this is the way the free market works in education policy writing.

When I tweeted a question, asking if the choice of Hess as keynote reflected an embrace of free market education reform, ASCD responded: “Hosting speakers isn’t endorsement of their positions. ASCD strives to provide members with diverse viewpoints & opinions.” This response is supported by the fact that the speaker at last year’s event was Diane Ravitch, who no doubt delivered a very different message to the group.

I spoke with David Griffith, ASCD’s Director of Public Policy, and he said:

We are supporters of public education. Just because we have someone speak does not mean we agree with them. Hess is a compelling speaker, and has provocative things to say. There is a privatization movement, so it behooves us to hear from them. Conference participants will be visiting Capital Hill, and the House is controlled by Republicans. It is not that we're supporting one view or another, we want them be prepared and understand what the arguments are around this.

ASCD is free to invite whomever they wish to speak to their organization, but at this moment in history, when the future of public education hangs in the balance, the choice of an outspoken advocate of privatization is a bit disturbing.

Taking a look at the actual 2013 policy agenda of the ASCD, there is likewise reason for concern. The document says that the organization will be advocating:

Support meaningful accountability systems - Any comprehensive determination of student proficiency, school quality, or educator effectiveness must take into account student growth, use multiple measures of evaluation beyond standardized test scores, and differentiate among levels of performance.

We are seeing how this “multiple measures” language translates into practice. As much as 50% of a teacher’s evaluation may be based on highly unstable “value added” scores drawn from standardized tests. Evaluations go “beyond” this, by including administrator observations. And did we mention - the administrator’s evaluations are likewise required to include test scores.

Everyone - even Michelle Rhee - will use this “multiple measures” language, to distance themselves from a straw man they are implicitly creating - an evaluation system based ONLY on test scores. Such systems have never existed, so far as I know. But you do not have to make test scores 100% of an evaluation scheme to make them hugely consequential.

Common Core is illuminating the way our democratic processes have been systematically bypassed by the combined efforts of big philanthropies and the federal gevernment. Race to the Top was used to get state officials to sign on to Common Core with little discussion, and apparently professional organizations such as ASCD have simply accepted this as a fait accompli, forgoing any responsibility for real debate.

Organizations like ASCD are being directly paid to “support implementation” of Common Core, which in effect converts them into advocates for the controversial standards. These organizations are also directly benefitting from the bonanza associated with professional development and curriculum made necessary by the shift to the Common Core standards. Is the organization capable of taking an independent stance, once it has accepted grants such as these?

The ASCD’s Legislative agenda is silent on the issue of privatization of public education, or on the expansion of vouchers. It is silent on the spread of low-quality virtual charter schools. It is silent about the expansion of testing that is coming with the new Common Core tests, or the diversion of billions of education dollars into technology these tests will require.

I have perhaps a fanciful vision of what professional organizations like ASCD should be. In the absence of genuine public debate about the adoption of the Common Core, I wish that our professional organizations would create space for that debate to occur. Of course that is hard to do once you have accepted millions of dollars to promote the project!

As the very institution of public education is threatened by the push to privatize, I wish that ASCD would provide some real debate over this trend, and the effects of market-driven systems on public schools. I would like to see organizations like ASCD step forward as advocates for policies that serve all children, and against the transformation of schools into profit centers. But choosing a keynote speaker from the American Enterprise Institute will not deliver this debate.

As we step forward into implementation of Common Core tests, I think it is the absolute responsibility of leaders of organizations like ASCD, who have the expertise to understand the terrible effects that high stakes tests have on children, to take a clear and public stand against the consequences attached to them. That includes their use as one of “multiple measures” of teacher performance, and as justification for the closing of low-scoring schools. Otherwise the transition to Common Core will have accomplished one of its tacit goals - the conversion of critics of NCLB into backhanded promoters of the next generation of high stakes tests.

I realize this is opening a tough conversation, but I think it is an important one for our profession at this juncture. I extend an invitation to anyone from ASCD to respond, and will be happy to post it.

What do you think? Was ASCD wise to endorse Common Core and engage in promoting the project? Is there reason to be concerned about their choice of keynote speaker this year?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

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.