Standards Opinion

Paul Horton: Why the Common Core Is Unlike Standards of the Past

By Anthony Cody — February 25, 2014 14 min read
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Guest post by Paul Horton.

Many defenders of the Common Core call attention to the idea that critics of the Core often focus more on how it is related to other issues like standardized testing and value added teacher assessments. They claim that the Common Core is good practice and should be separated from the other elements of Race to the Top as an exemplary curriculum.

This claim is also advanced with the argument that many states have implemented standards and that these standards are a good idea. They ask, “why not keep the Common Core as shared standards and disconnect them from the other elements of RTTT? Why not slow down and implement them more carefully? Many teachers and parents like the standards, they say, so lets slow down and get more constituents involved in the implementation and allow teachers more of a say in writing and revising a small percentage of the more troublesome elements?”

This sort of thinking is increasingly expressed among Common Core supporters who understand that there was no adequate process involved in their implementation. But the lack of process is precisely why Common Core needs to be abandoned, especially by public service and teacher unions.

I was a teacher in Texas in the mid eighties when the state began requiring standardized content standards and assessments, teacher content qualification tests, and a seventy-one-point teacher assessment based on the Madeline Hunter Model. Texas was the first state to implement such a regime and other states followed. With NCLB and RTTT, the whole country has followed.

Texas passed these Education reforms on its own initiative. I know. I worked in an eatery on Sixth Street in Austin four evenings a week after a sweaty days teaching in Elgin, Texas so that I could pay my car insurance and gas as a second year teacher (I tried coaching my first year, but seventeen cents an hour coaching did not pay the bills). I waited on then Governor Mark White (D) and I told him that I was a teacher and that I had to moonlight to pay my meager bills. He said he would do something about it, and that teachers had really come out to support his election When I waited on him again after the reforms were passed to get a salary boost for teachers, he said that the reforms were the only way that he could get teachers a raise.

Things have changed since the mid 80s. Please allow me to explain what this has to do with the necessity of eliminating RTTT completely, kit and caboodle, including the Common Core.

I was sitting in my doctor’s office and after he interpreted my latest blood sugar results we got into a conversation about his new work regime.

He told me that he really did not like inputting all the data into his examination room computer. He said, “the HMO keeps telling me that all of the business with data imputing will make his job easier, but he is troubled by the time it takes away from his standard check-up.” Most importantly, he says that “he likes to make eye contact with patients and to discuss what his gut tells him rather than what the numbers tell him.”

I said that sounds very familiar, and I told him about VAM testing based on standardized scores based on the Common Core Curriculum. It was like putting several Blues Clues together. We both decided that it was not about quality, it was about measuring digital units that could be used by “upper management” to evaluate job performance. Our shared Eureka moment was not very heartening.

It just so happened that I had selected chapters out of Adam Smiths’, The Wealth of Nations to have my kids read next week as a part of a unit on the Industrial Revolution before I saw my doctor. I selected and reread chapters on Prices, Wages, and the Division of Labor. The beauty of capitalism is that it attempts to increase productivities by creating efficiencies wherever and however possible. Capitalism stimulates innovations to capture these efficiencies. I was very pleased to be reminded that Smith firmly believed that workers should be generously rewarded for their role in creating higher productively. Unfortunately, corporate employers have stopped reading Smith in the current incarnation of capitalism. Higher productivity has not been rewarded and investors, consulting firms, and multi-national corporations are acting ruthlessly to increase productivity while cutting wages as much as possible.

It has become increasingly clear to me that the Common Core is not about the Common Core and that CBS is not a news network, but a new mindset created by corporate honchos who want to exploit Computer Business Systems to deskill white collar professions to break unions and lower wages.

To the extent that teaching and the medical professions, for example, can be scripted and digitalized in measureable units, efficiency targets can demand less human interaction and “time theft.”

This is the brave new world that Simon Head describes in his recently published, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans.Can you guess? You got it, profit! We have been focusing on Common Core like lonely young men focus on Mona Lisa’s smile. Common Core is like the tip of the iceberg on the surface: it has become the reified image of a global crisis that most of us can not quite get our minds around.

Both the Tea Party and the Democratic Populists led by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders certainly understand that something is terribly wrong with increasing income inequality. For the Koch brother funded Tea Party and the Glenn Beck followers of the world, the answer is big government, and they are quick to talk endlessly of the hints of an Obama inspired socialist takeover disguised as the Common Core Curriculum. On the Democratic side, the Congressional Progressive caucus and the party’s two most liberal senators, Harkin and Durbin, are under the curious illusion that Race to the Top and the Common Core Standards are an improvement over the failed No Child Left Behind Policies of the previous administration. This might have something to do with several factors: loyalty to the President, loyalty to the memory of Ted Kennedy (cosponsor of NCLB), the fundraising of Democrats for Education Reform (Wall Street bundlers who want to discredit public schools in increase investment in charter companies), and the insidious influence of Teach for America education staffers on the hill.

But while the corporate funded technocrats of the Democratic party are pushing their education policies down the throats of as many Americans as they can, inspiring more mobilization from the right, what is left of the union supported Populist wing of the party is steaming mad. The Tea Party has been successful in its Grover Norquist inspired strangulation of government at all levels, and the Democratic Party is cooperating with corporate led attempts to break public unions. The Obama administration has gone after teacher unions with a vengeance.

According to Head, most Americans can’t see the big picture because “CBSs (Computer Business Systems) are the semidiscovered black holes of the contemporary economy.” (3) He argues that Information technology is creating income inequality by driving down wages in the white-collar professions that could not be previously “Taylorized.” “By making us dumber, smart machines also diminish our earning power.” (3) In other words my doctor and me face the same set of issues: as machines and algorithms take over, our work can be divided into units and our efficiency can be statistically measured. We are in the same boat as weavers who worked the “putting out” system in the late eighteenth century--they were paid for each piece produced. In other words, corporate bosses are trying to push teachers, doctors, and all white collar-service workers into a work structure that is increasingly deskilled to justify lowering salaries and benefits, busting unions and professional organizations, increase productivity, and forcing all white collar workers to compete through the use of digitalized efficiency reports and student and student test data banks. This data will be shared with consulting firms like McKinsey to evaluate potential and current employees world why. Troublemakers, union organizers, and those with low productivity and test scores will be funneled into the lowest paying service jobs.

“A report commissioned by the Big Three accounting companies reported that 75-80 percent of America’s largest companies were engaged in Business Process Reengineering,” Head reports. Head speculates that the percentage is much higher today because multinationals can not compete without integrating CBSs. (4)

In the United States, according to Head, Walmart and Amazon have led the way in digitalized CBS performance management. By ruthlessly pursuing higher and higher efficiencies and deskilling all work, both companies have increased economies of scale that allow them to edge out competition. Competing companies are forced into pursuing similar efficiencies. While Walmart has focused on hostility to labor unions, gender discrimination, and intimidation of its workforce; Amazon uses anklet tracking devices to insure that no movement is wasted and that employees take the shortest path to the bathroom. (29-46).

Head sees CBS replicating “speed-ups” that characterize the factory floor in as many white-collar professions as it can to increase efficiency and productivity. Head, and expert on integrated computer systems, argues that “In the American case the close identification of information technology and CBSs with an authoritarian, mass production model, heavily influence by Taylorist Scientific Management, is the outcome of this history and culture and is not an intrinsic quality of technologies themselves.” (48) He offers the counterexample of the influence of skilled craftsmen on the production processes in Germany and Scandinavia as a telling contrast to the American obsession with CBS.

Many American CBS proponents Human Resource Management process invented by Robert Kaplan called the “Balanced Scorecard.” This scorecard evaluates the performance of service workers in several domains: “financial performance, internal business processes, innovation and learning, and customer service.” According to Head, “This multiplication of key performance indicators also multiplies the opportunities for top-down monitoring and control” the designers of this assessment ask managers to “think of the balanced scorecard as the dials and indicators in an airline cockpit.” This HR regime has been used to evaluate Oxford University faculty, “that Oxford of all places should be subject to misindustrialization, testifies t the metastasizing powers of the CBS world and its capacity to threaten humanist values embedded in institutions located far beyond the frontiers of the market economy, and also far beyond the borders of the United States.” (71)

CBS reengineering of job assessment has even filtered into the evaluation of emotional responses to customers and client. Human Relations Management specialists have developed assessment rubrics for the regulation of emotional labor: “antecedent-focused emotion regulation” and “response-focused emotion regulation.” “Emotional Labor” has been integrated into performance evaluations under the headings of “politeness, respect, consideration, and friendliness.” Customer service employees and increasingly broader numbers of white-collar workers have their interactions monitored digitally or through voice and visual recordings. So when “emotional labor” is permitted as a part of job performance, it is measured as a piece of completing a task, closing a deal, or producing a unit for further monitoring or assembly. (116-17)

If we see Common Core as one element of a bigger process, then we might be able to understand what it is intended to do. Aside from slick packaging and all of the social uplift rhetoric that is apparently included in many lesson modules, Common Core is, above all, an attempt to align learning with the CBS model that multinationals are imposing all over the world. The Common Core is not only an American standardized curriculum, it is a global standardized curriculum. Common Core is not only about measuring the literacy and math skills of American students; it is about the collection of data to allow companies like McKinsey to select potential employees from a global workforce.

The reason Mr. Gates and Mr. Duncan become very upset when states want to drop the Common Core, PARCC, data collection, or standardized testing is that all of these components are required by CBS. Pearson Education, a British company that gave ninety-four percent of its campaign contributions to the Obama campaign, is working with Microsoft and InBloom to scale up data collection. All of these companies are scaling up the deskilling of the education workplace and they are breaking what is considered learning down to discrete, easily measured units. The global teaching profession at the school and university levels is being set up for work speed-ups with productivity gains going to management and investors. Assessment data for all teachers will be stored to determine salaries based on effectiveness as measure by student test scores. Students will also have their data collected and evaluated at each stage of their academic and professional careers. Based on McKinsey’s model of employment disruption, CBS and data analysis will be used to force white-collar employees to compete with employees around the world. Layoffs will be frequent to motivate greater productivity.

Another essential component of RTTT was to increase the number of charter schools in each state. The charter school model is being pushed to break teacher unions. Teach for America students are brought in in large numbers to increase profit margins for EMO companies that manage charters. The Common Core allows them to read scripted curricula without adequate training.

The Common Core deskills the teaching profession by turning the teaching into a delivery machine. Relationships with students are to be ignored and replaced by the mechanical delivery of scripted lessons in a particular sequence. In effect, the teacher craftsman will be forced to work on an assembly line. Evaluations will be based on a standard Charlotte Danielson rubric that has its origins in Kaplan’s “Balanced Scorecard” and “Value Added Measures” based on student test scores. Teachers will be paid more if they are rated highly and teach more students. The founder of the idea of “Human Capital,” Nobel prize winner Gary Becker, told our students a couple of months ago that “I enjoy teaching sixty students in a class and there is no reason why this should not be done in all schools.”

In addition, the Common Core alienates the student because the student’s subjectivities are ignored (the arts and humanities are eliminated or deemphasized) in favor of the objectification of all learning outcomes in the form of digitalized learning and assessment. The Common Core is the “bubble test” and the bubble test will follow the student for the rest of his/her life. Consulting firms will make hay out of this information and it is no surprise that Microsoft and McKinsey are selling schools CBS packages (personal communication with a former member of the Rochester NY School Board).

Understanding Common Core is about seeing a much larger picture. That picture is a collage of the strategic plans of most multinational corporations that are increasingly managed or heavily influenced by the CBS approach to business and labor relations. What the Tea Party erroneously views as the socialistic overreach of the Obama Administration is in reality the administration’s acquiescence to the power of multi-nationals that are pushing the CBS imperative to deskill and destroy what is left of the American and global skilled white collar middle class.

The corporate owned major editorial boards and television media refuse to report the big picture. They will focus on Glenn Beck’s ignorant bloviating about the Common Core to throw “reasonable people” who read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal off the real story: corporate greed.

Mr. Head’s new book is essential reading that will enable us to see beyond the conspiracy theory smoke screen to see the tip of the CBS iceberg heading our way.

We need to discard every element of the Race to the Top including the Common Core because RTTT is a very different animal than state curriculum standards. The global economy has changed since the mid 80s when states were coordinating education policy reforms. RTTT is the handmaiden of multinational corporations that want to bust unions to capture productivity gains. This might be ok if they planned on sharing some of those gains with a hardworking workforce as Adam Smith believed should happen. The global reality of growing income inequality should serve as a wake-up call to our education unions.

We would all do well to read our Smith andMarx to understand why we rid ourselves of a Common Core and RTTT make no effort to consider either moral sentiments or alienated labor.

Will the drive to establish CBS style management eventually deskill and deprofessionalize Education?

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.