Common Core Is Target of New ‘Sting’ Video by Conservative Activist O’Keefe

By Liana Loewus — January 13, 2016 3 min read
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James O’Keefe, the conservative activist best known for doing undercover video recordings in ACORN offices, released a new sting video yesterday in which a Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt sales executive is heard admitting that common-core textbooks are “all about the money.”

“You don’t think the educational publishing companies are in it for education, do you?” says Dianne Barrow, an accounts manager for the publishing company. “No, they’re in it for the money.”

In the heavily edited video, which was filmed undercover by O’Keefe’s group Project Veritas, Barrow is also heard saying, “I hate kids.” The CEO of Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, Linda Zecher, said in a statement that Barrow “is a former employee” who was with the company “for less than a year.” (Talking Points Memo reports that she was likely fired because of her comments.) The video also shows a clip of a foul-mouthed Brooklyn teacher in a bar complaining about how the standards were created “to sell more books.”

Barrow is portrayed as somewhat of a villain—though perhaps unfairly because she eventually says that she wishes education were always about the kids (and given that she’s in sales, it’s debatable that liking kids should be a requirement of her current job).

But the real aim of the nearly eight-minute video, it seems, is to take down the standards. O’Keefe uses repeated imagery of dollar bills raining down, saying “billions of dollars has been spent by the federal government implementing common core. Most of that goes to big textbook-publishing companies.”

“It’s clear common core isn’t really about education, it’s about selling books,” O’Keefe says in his narration.

Take what you will from the video, which is already verging on 100,000 views. But it’s also worth keeping these points in mind:

• Education publishers have always made money off of schools. There is nothing new here. Like other businesses, these publishers exist to sell products, and schools are their buyers. (Pearson spokeswoman Laura Howe would not respond to O’Keefe’s claim that the company has made “literally billions of dollars off common core.”)

States adopt new academic standards about every six years, and the textbook companies adapt accordingly. So again, this is not unique to the common-core era. As my colleague Sean Cavanagh wrote, it’s unclear how much of the spending that states put toward common core they “would have incurred anyway as part of the normal process of making costly updates or replacing resources.”

Textbook publishing companies were not involved in the standards’ creation. (You can see a list of people on the math and language arts standards’ working and feedback groups here.) These companies adapted their books after the standards were released and after states adopted them. Barrow makes this point but it’s somewhat buried in the video.

Publishers do gain when new standards go into place, because they get to sell new products. But with more than 40 states now using the same standards (rather than each developing their own), the publishing companies also stand to lose. There’s more opportunity now for states and districts to share free resources, and there’s more free material available that works for nearly everyone. Some districts are attempting to abandon traditional textbooks altogether.

No federal money went directly to textbook companies, though an uncertain amount of federal funds did trickle down that way through state grants. The federal government awarded 11 states and the District of Columbia about $4.3 billion in Race to the Top money, which they could use to help shift to the common core, among other things. New York used some of its $700 million to create an online bank of common-core resources. The state paid four publishers a combined $36.6 million to produce common-core content, though it’s not clear that pot of money all came from the federal funds (and neither Pearson nor Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, those mentioned in the video, were among the vendors chosen).

The federal government did dole out about $360 million to two groups to create common-core aligned tests. And big publishing companies did see a lot of those funds. But the money was not for textbooks. (See a flow chart on how exactly the money was distributed.) So maybe testing would have been a good target for O’Keefe?

As always, the floor is all yours in the comment section below.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.