Commentary

No Common Core Maine Responds to Peter Geiger

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nccmBy No Common Core Maine — The chair of Maine’s State Board of Education, Peter Geiger, wrote recently (see here) that Common Core won’t change Maine’s tradition of local control in education. Pointing to his two decades of having “had an unusually close look at public education,” Mr. Geiger felt he had to respond to the “great deal of criticism in almost every aspect of what we do in our schools.” He then addressed five aspects, which he labeled, “Rigor”, “Secrecy”, “State vs. Local”, “Common Core”, and “Testing”. Mr. Geiger reassured us that while “education has always been a complicated business”, the public has been given every opportunity to comment on the changes we’ve undergone and are undergoing, that the federal government is not “taking control”, and that, in general, the current changes required by the Common Core are both new and nothing new.

Mr. Geiger thus both calms us by claiming that there’s nothing to see here, and chastises us if we do see something for then it’s all our own fault.

After reading the details of Mr. Geiger’s account, you should be upset. Rarely can one find such a combination of ignorance, rhetorical tricks, and muddled thinking in a single document. The fact that the chair of the State Board of Education could write something that is intentional propaganda or poor thinking—or both—should itself be cause for fear and anger.

First, let’s start with a basic consideration—In what capacity did Mr. Geiger write this? As chair of the State Board of Education, Mr. Geiger has the privilege of writing either for himself or on behalf of the Board. The difference between the two is important: if he is writing for the Board, then the piece carries the weight of a policy statement by an important policy making body; but if he’s writing for himself, then he shares only his personal opinion. Thus, Mr. Geiger has the responsibility of telling us the purpose of the writing—is this on behalf of the Board, or on his own behalf as a citizen? We have no record of any draft of this opinion piece having been vetted and approved by the Board. Thus, Mr. Geiger apparently either forgot to make clear his intention to express his personal opinion, or he chose to be vague about it, perhaps in order to provide an impression of consensus without actually having had to obtain prior Board approval.

Whether intentionally misleading or just plain sloppy, Mr. Geiger shows a very unprofessional attitude towards his colleagues on the State Board of Education and the public concerning subject he considers “the most important gift we give our children.”

Second, let’s make it clear on where we do, and do not, agree with Mr. Geiger:

  • We agree that, “The greatest assets for any school system are high quality teachers, strong leadership, adequate resources and involved parents.”
  • We agree that, “Education has always been a complicated business, but it is the most important gift that we give our children, and it is the fuel that feeds our economy and helps build productive citizens.”
  • We agree that, “Parents are the most important teachers in a child’s life.”
  • And we agree that, “In Maine, we offer many opportunities for success in our public school systems.”

But, we don’t buy Mr. Geiger’s appeal “that success can be achieved only if all of us pull together for every student’s future.” That’s just a rank attempt to villainize anyone who disagrees with Mr. Geiger, who wants us to assume that he alone knows what “success” is and how to achieve it.

We all want to see every child in Maine succeed. But that doesn’t mean that we have to accept every dumb idea that comes from Mr. Geiger, the Maine Department of Education, the State Board of Education, or anyone else. Neither Mr. Geiger, nor the State DoE, nor the State Board of Education, owns Maine’s education nor have they some infallible level of expertise in education. Many parents and concerned citizens in Maine have educations and experiences that are at least as good—and often better—than the self-proclaimed infallible experts in Augusta and Washington.

Now, having dealt with the beginning and the end, it’s on to the central portion of the piece.

The subject of the writing is the adoption of what are typically called the Common Core State Standards (“CCSS”) and their effects on Maine’s public education. That much should be clear from the title of Mr. Geiger’s piece, and the fact that he devoted eight paragraphs to “Common Core” but no more than two for each of the other four aspects. Nevertheless, Mr. Geiger devotes much of his argument to discussing the development of the Maine Learning Results, which were adopted in 1996 and revised in 2007—long before Maine joined the Common Core State Standards Organization and SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (“SBAC”) in 2009, using secretive Memorandums of Agreement and Understanding to join those organizations without serious, if any, public discussion or legislative oversight.

The reason why becomes clear when you consider the history of the development of the CCSS and SBAC, and their secretive adoption by Maine in 2009. Mr. Geiger conflates the Maine Learning Results, and the history of its adoption through a transparent process that included many active teachers, with the CCSS and SBAC, which were developed by a small number of business consultants and representatives of testing corporations and funded by the Gates Foundation after private meetings between Bill Gates and David Coleman, and later between Gates and Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education.

Why? Perhaps he fell for the “fallacy of association” and the “definist fallacy”, in which he confuses the two because they share the property of being standards and sharing the same terms. But perhaps he hopes that you will confuse the two, and agree that the process of the adoption of the Common Core “Standards” was the same as what he calls the Maine Learning “Standards”, which really are the Maine Learning Results.

And of course he would want to avoid those pesky details, and fool us into confusing the transparency of the process that led to Learning Results with the CCSS. We now know from Bill Gates’s own mouth in an interview with the Washington Post that the idea for CCSS came from David Coleman, a consultant, and Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs. We know from the Gates interview that Gates used his vast wealth to buy support from states and education groups, including the national teachers unions.

And the Post article goes on to explain that, “[a]s Race to the Top was being drafted, the [Obama] administration and the Gates-led [Common Core] effort were in close coordination.” As the article explains, not only did U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have ties to Gates, but Duncan’s chief of staff Margo Rogers was “a top Gates official”. And Duncan also hired “Joanne Weiss, previously the chief operating officer of the Gates-backed NewSchools Venture Fund,” to head Race to the Top.

Still think that CCSS and Race to the Top were state led? Can Mr. Geiger explain why the Post and Bill Gates are wrong?

Diane Ravitch, who has published more than two dozen books on education and was a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for George H. W. Bush, has demanded a Congressional investigation of Gates’s activities, writing:

Thanks to the story in The Washington Post and to diligent bloggers, we now know that one very rich man bought the enthusiastic support of interest groups on the left and right to campaign for the Common Core. Who knew that American education was for sale? Who knew that federalism could so easily be dismissed as a relic of history? Who knew that Gates and Duncan, working as partners, could destroy state and local control of education?

The Post interview and Ravitch’s comments were published in early June of this year; so these issues aren’t new, and they built on earlier reporting published in the Portland Press Herald last February that debunked the claim that the CCSS was “state-led” and driven by educators. Indeed, Ravitch’s Post article supports those claims (my emphasis):

I have written on various occasions … that I could not support the Common Core standards because they were developed and imposed without regard to democratic process. The writers of the standards included no early childhood educators, no educators of children with disabilities, no experienced classroom teachers; indeed, the largest contingent of the drafting committee were representatives of the testing industry. No attempt was made to have pilot testing of the standards in real classrooms with real teachers and students. The standards do not permit any means to challenge, correct, or revise them.

As the reality of CCSS has set in, Mr. Geiger’s claim that “45 states agreed to what is being called the Common Core” is not very true anymore. Education Week reported on April 21 of this year that “Lawmakers in roughly 15 states, wary of what they see as federal pressure to adopt the common core and of other problems they associate with the standards, have introduced legislation during their current sessions to repeal the standards or replace them with other standards.”

That’s right, one-third of the states are in the process of dropping CCSS.

And then we have the testing. Mr. Geiger wants to make short work of any concerns about testing. He writes,

When I was in school, there was a national test. Many new tests have come and gone in an attempt to measure student growth. Smarter Balanced [the test designed and used under the SBAC] is one test that many states agree will best serve our students. The work comprising this test comes from some of the best research around the country, and has been voluntarily practiced in many Maine districts. Yet it has received criticism without being fully used.

So, he was tested; we all were tested; tests come and go; this is just another test. And, heck! Many states agree SBAC is the best; its “work comprising … some of the best research around the country”; and some Maine districts are using it already. What’s the big deal?

Here, Mr. Geiger appeals to the fallacies of association (all tests are the same), appeal to authority (“best research around the country”), and appeal to widespread belief (“many states agree”). He then contradicts himself by complaining that the test has been criticized before it’s been fully implemented! He can’t have it both ways: If the SBAC’s critics are wrong in view of it’s being used by other states and in Maine, then they can’t also be wrong because it hasn’t been “fully used”.

Mr. Geiger apparently hopes we’ll overlook the fact that we already have good regional and national tests—The NEAP and NECAP tests. Why do we need a new test? What will it provide that we don’t have now? Is this new test worth the expense of replacing the tests we use now?

And in fact, the failings of the SBAC are well documented. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (“FairTest”) has provided extensive commentary about the Common Core tests, which include the SBAC. Here are some of their observations:

  • The Gordon Commission, formed by the Educational Testing Service to evaluate the Common Core tests, including the SBAC, concluded that the Common Core tests are “far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes.”
  • The tests will largely consist of the same old, multiple-choice questions that we use now.
  • Students will be tested too frequently for effective learning.
  • Testing costs will rise.
  • The testing will be done by profit-driven companies that will abuse the testing process for more cash.
  • The testing companies have been found incompetent to accomplish the testing tasks.
  • Making the test harder will not make the kids smarter.
  • “Proficiency” will be just as subjective under the CCSS testing as current testing.

These comments were published in September 2013. Couldn’t Mr. Geiger at least have addressed them now, instead of using faulty logic? Couldn’t he have at least bothered to compare the SBAC to the NEAP and NECAP? After looking at the comments from FairTest and the Gordon Commission, shouldn’t he be concerned?

But the truth is that the SBAC is not just another test. The SBAC is critical to turning the Common Core State Standards into a national curriculum. That’s because the claim that the CCSS are “just standards” is false. To understand that, we need to realize that the CCSS is only part of several separate, but inter-connected, changes Maine was forced to adopt in order to qualify for a chance to get Race to the Top (“RttT”) funds and obtain a waiver of the penalties we would suffer under the No Child Left Behind Act (“NCLB”).

To join the RttT and get the waiver, Maine had to agree to the following:

  1. Join the Common Core State Standards Organization and adopt the CCSS.
  2. Join the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium and agree to use the SBAC tests.
  3. Agree to allow charter schools.
  4. Agree to collect student, school, teacher, and family data for use in a national database.
  5. Agree to link teacher and school performance evaluations with SBAC scores.

Maine had never before been required to make so many fundamental changes to its educational system to get federal funds and waivers.

And although at first blush the changes may look unrelated, look again. The SBAC will only test on the CCSS materials. Teachers and schools will be evaluated on the SBAC tests and other data collected in the database. Many companies like Microsoft will offer both free and for-purchase materials that are “aligned” to the CCSS.

Do you really think that teachers and administrators will want to stray from the CCSS and the “aligned” materials? Do you think they can afford to?

When you look at the whole picture, which Mr. Geiger cannot or will not do, the true scope of this reform project becomes apparent. In New York, which has fully implemented the Common Core standards, testing, data collection, and evaluation, the teachers are in revolt, voting unanimously to withdraw their support for the CCSS program.

Of course, none of these points and issues were discussed. Instead, our Commissioner of Education quietly signed the Memorandums of Agreement and Understanding to hitch Maine to the CCSSO and SBAC. Our legislature later amended the law to enable the Commissioner to bind Maine to these organizations (although not retroactively). Separate legislation and rules changes were used to bind Maine to the other commitments. We had no hearings, no debates, no discussions. This was a piecemeal educational coup.

How then could Mr. Geiger, someone who wants us to believe that he has been closely involved in education for at least 25 years, not have enough awareness of these news stories to at least address these issues directly with evidence and not just his say-so?

  • Does he really believe that “[t]he fear that the federal government is taking control is sheer nonsense.”?
  • Does he really believe that “Maine participated in the standards process, [and] so did many other states”?
  • Does he really believe that the CCSS came about when “[s]tate education commissioners decided to see if there were some common points in what was being developed”?
  • Does he really believe that Race to the Top was just another way fund education?
  • Does he really believe that “[t]he actual writing of the standards was done by educators. The business community worked hand in hand with them to identify the skills needed for careers, and numerous state teaching organizations endorse these standards, believing we’ve done a good job of building them”?

Is he really that ignorant? Can he prove with evidence what he has claimed, and disprove with evidence what the Washington Post and other journalists and experts like Diane Ravitch have reported?

Or does he hope that we’ll all just go away without looking too closely?

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently producer for the Howie Carr Show. Follow him on Twitter @Stevie_Rob or send him an email at Steve@HowieCarrShow.com.

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