Why I Wrote “The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy”

My book will be released next January by Palgrave Macmillan.  It represents a number years of research which began when I was an elementary public school teacher in Mississippi.  What originally began as an inquiry into the voucher movement emerged throughout the implementation of No Child Left Behind and the introduction of the Common Core State Standards and Race to the Top policies.

http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/the-origins-of-the-common-core-deborah-duncan-owens/?isb=9781137482679

It’s Sunday morning and my husband, Thomas Fiala,  and I are listening again to an interview with David Berliner that was posted on Chalk Face radio last summer.*  Berliner has been a valuable voice in education policy for quite a number of years.  The book he wrote with Bruce Biddle in 1995, The Manufactured Crisis, is an essential read for anyone attempting to understand education policy history.  I read The Manufactured Crisis when it was first released.  It remains on my bookshelf, now highlighted, annotated, and a little worse for wear — an enduring valuable resource.

David Berliner was asked by Shaun Johnson, how do we go about having a conversation with our teacher colleagues about what’s happening in education?  Berliner basically said, by somehow getting enough people to talk about it will get the conversation going.  I found it interesting that the interview began with the notion that we need to get a conversation going, given that the blogosphere seems to be well populated with voices opposing Race to the Top policies and the Common Core.  Grassroots movements, such as the opt-out movement, have indeed been fueled by the blogs.  However, it’s hard to stop a freight train, particularly when it carries a cargo laden with millions of federal RTTT dollars and a slew of free market devotees poised to make huge profits from charter school expansion policies, creating data mining systems, publishing and administered standardized tests, and promoting Teach for America and alternate certification paths for teachers.  Well funded conservative think tanks have dominated education reform discussion for many years and they continue to fuel the education reform freight train, persevering in efforts to free-marketize and privatize public education.

The grassroots movement to address failed education policies certainly lack the financial resources of those who are actually making education policy in the U.S.  To the billionaires who have a seat in policy discussions, the blogosphere represents a swarm of mosquitoes biting at their heels, which they too often seem to easily swat away. Will grassroots efforts have an impact?  YES!!  Certainly, for example, the opt-out movement has the power to impact education policy — and it doesn’t cost a thing to simply refuse to take a standardized test.

One of my motivations in writing the Origins of the Common Core was to do my part in helping to get a meaningful conversation started.  However, I wanted to not only get teachers involved in the conversation, but to get all citizens involved who support their public schools and local control over those public schools, something that Berliner indicated was important.  I realized that what was needed was a coherent story that helped explain how we ended up in this place and time in education policy history.  On March 2, 2014, as I was completing my book, Diane Ravitch spoke at the first Network for Education conference in Texas, echoing my thoughts.  In her speech she explained, “The problem that liberals have is liberals believe that facts will persuade people.  Conservatives understand that stories persuade people, so we must have our story.  We already have the facts. … There is no question that the facts are on our side.  But we have to shape the narrative. … So its very important that we shape our narrative to say we’re defending American democracy, we’re defending the children, we’re fighting for what’s right.  We have the narrative.  We’ve got to think about our rhetoric and get the story to the public …”.**   In writing this book I have tried my best to accomplish this task.

Over the years, as I transitioned from elementary teacher to teacher educator, first at Arkansas State University and now at Elmira College in New York, I continued to try to make sense of what was happening in education policy. Why is America so convinced that our public schools are a failure?  Why were the dominant voices in education policy coming from conservative think tanks, continuously promoting school choice, high stakes standardized testing, VAM teacher accountability models, the erosion of local public school governance, and national standards?  And in spite of the voices of scholars like David Berliner, Susan Ohanian, Alfie Kohn, Patrick Shannon, Joel Spring, and Gerald Bracey, to name just a few, who for many years warned the American public that we were on the wrong track, the freight train of systemic education reform continued at break neck speed.  Nevertheless, the voices of these giants should be heeded as never before!  Seamlessly, however, from one presidential administration to the next, education policies were re-hashed, re-framed, re-named, and foisted on the American public.  I breathed a sigh of relief when Barack Obama spoke along the campaign trail about the problems associated with high stakes testing and promised to address these issues once he became president.  It soon became obvious, however, that President Obama would heed the siren song of free market ideas in the education arena.  His appointment of Arne Duncan solidified his position and, once again, the U.S. would continue its quickstep march toward free market education reform. Race to the Top policies would solidify the Obama administration’s allegiance to free market reform initiatives in education.

While much has been written about the current problems associated with the Common Core and corporate reformers, and certainly Bill Gates is being well and thoroughly blasted on the blogosphere, how is it that the Common Core so readily became the law of the land?  And why are charter schools seen as the panacea for education reform?  I set out in The Origins of the Common Core to lend my small voice in telling that story.  It was an interesting journey, leaving me to realize that our federal education policy makers acquiesced their decision making responsibilities to corporate reformers a long time ago.  Tech companies have led the way.  Bill Gates is walking, albeit with much more money at his disposal, in the footsteps of other technology corporate superstars like David Kerns and Lou Gerstner, who led the charge to revolutionize education policy through systemic free market reform education policies.  Other billionaires would lend their effort to these efforts.  Along the way, the voices of less monied education scholars were systematically silenced.  Federal policies, built on the false notion that America’s public schools were a total failure, continued to thrive in spite of documentation to the contrary.

The titles of the chapters in The Origins of the Common Core demonstrate a road map to my journey in writing the book:

  1. The Nation Was at Risk and the Public Schools Did It
  2. Public Schools: Conservative Coalescence and the Socialist Threat
  3. Friedmanomics, School Vouchers and Choice
  4. Corporate Superstars and an Inconvenient Truth
  5. Public Schools and a Third Way of Governing
  6. NCLB and the Texas Tall Tale
  7. Education Reform and the Deep State: An Alternate Universe
  8. The CCSS: Systemic Education Reform Writ Large
  9. CCSS: The Gorilla in the Room for Free Market Education Reform

*http://www.blogtalkradio.com/chalkface/2014/08/17/david-berliner-the-chalk-face

**http://www.publicschoolshakedown.org/diane-ravitch-speech-network-public-education-conference

http://www.amazon.com/The-Manufactured-Crisis-Americas-Schools/dp/0201441969

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