Thank you Susan Ohanian for Reviewing The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy

A number of years ago, when I was beginning my research in education reform I found a trusted voice.  Susan Ohanian’s website has been a ready source for commentary on education and she has been a stalwart supporter of public education.  Her book Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools, written with Kathy Emery in 2004, is a must read for anyone trying to understand how corporate reformers were able to highjack education policy in the U.S.  She’s written numerous other books, articles, and commentaries in support of teachers, students, and parents.  In 2003 she was awarded the NCTE Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language her contribution to public discourse about education policy.

Susan Ohanian generously agreed to provide a pre-publication review of my book The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy.  I was delighted to read the following on the Palgrave Macmillan website:

“Deborah Owens offers a detailed probe of the corporate-political alliances that cross party lines to push radical ventures traveling as education reform. She provides a needed history of what is really behind the Common Core, the curriculum and testing it requires, and why anyone who supports the survival of local public schools should care.” – Susan Ohanian, Fellow, National Education Policy Center

Susan Ohanian’s endorsement of my book means a great deal to me.

Thank you,

Deb

TIME Magazine, Corporate Superstars, and Teacher Hate

I’m infuriated.  I want to declare my allegiance to heros who have dedicated their lives to  America’s public schools.  My list includes Mrs. Zablocki, my 1st grade teacher in St. Petersburg, Florida; Mrs. Gerstner, my 3rd grade teacher in Ledyard, Connecticut; Mrs. Broadmoor, my 4th grade teacher in Staten Island, New York; and Mrs. Hill, my 7th grade English teacher in Savannah, Georgia.  You see, my father was in the Coast Guard and we moved around quite a bit — so I experienced public school education in a number of states.  My list also includes those on the front lines of efforts to reclaim the democratic institution of public schools like Diane Ravitch, Susan Ohanian, Mercedes Schneider, Peter Green, Anthony Cody, and so many others.  My list also includes the millions of moms and dads who have supported their public schools over the years, the children served by public schools across our country, the teachers who are in the business of transforming the lives of their students, and the administrators and school board members who work diligently to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

 

TIME Magazine’s cover story, “Rotten Apples: It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher.  Some Tech Millionaires May Have Found a Way to Change That,” obviously panders to the One Percenters who position themselves as being the standard bearers of the free market that has rewarded them so richly and has allowed hedge fund managers to set the economic agenda for the rest of the country.  This, however, is not a new phenomenon.  Corporate superstars have been inserting themselves in federal education policy for decades.  And leading the charge has been those involved in the tech industry.  David Kearns, credited with saving Xerox in the 1980s, brought his corporate reform ideas to the education arena and the federal Department of Education during the H. W. Bush administration.  Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, likewise became a powerful voice in education reform in the 1990s, hosting the 1996 Palisades Summit at the IBM headquarters, a meeting that brought governors (who he referred to as the CEOs of their states) together with prominent corporate CEOs to decide the fate of public schools in the U.S.  This was the meeting that birthed Achieve, a free market reform agenda, and the CCSS.  It was at this meeting that President Bill Clinton introduced the education policy world to Bill Gates, then embroiled in investigations into his dubious, monopolistic practices at Microsoft.

 

Teacher hate and a disdain for public schools is not new to the tech millionaires.  In 1995, speaking at the National Governors Association, Lou Gerstner ironically began his speech by stating, “I’m here because of Willie Sutton.  Willie robbed banks, the story goes, because he realized that’s where the money is.  I’m here because this is where the power is — the power to reform — no, to revolutionize — the U.S. public school system.”*  Almost two decades later, I think it’s safe to say that Gerstner’s first assertion has turned out to be more accurate.  The corporate world was there at the table of education reform policy because, indeed, that’s where the money is.  In 2008, Gerstner would reveal the corporate agenda for education reform, calling for “The abolishment of all local school districts except for 70 — one for each of the 50 states and one for each of the major cities and the establishment of a set of national standards for a core curriculum.”

 

There has been no secret conspiracy to privatize the American public school system.  Corporate reformers have been quite bold in establishing their agenda.  As I write in my upcoming book, The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy, “The steady drumbeat of corporate encroachment into the education arena was there the entire time. However, its cadence was so steady and natural that, like cicadas at sunset, the noise went almost unnoticed by too many Americans.  The idea that the nation’s public school system was a failure had become an unquestioned zeitgeist by a burgeoning number of critics who jumped on board the anti-public school bandwagon.  Those on the political right and the political left seized every opportunity to point to the need to systemically reform public education.”*

 

“There is a price on the head of every child in America.  As the free market theories of Milton Friedman became the driving force behind public policy in the United States, beginning with the Reagan administration, public schools would inevitably become ensnared in the dragnet of entrepreneurs who envisioned public education as a burgeoning market.”*

 

The issue of teacher tenure is just the latest focus of corporate reformers intent on destroying public schools in America.  Is teacher tenure protection really the problem?  I began my education career as a public school teacher in Mississippi.  There is no tenure protection in Mississippi and no real union presence to advocate for teachers.  Mississippi, therefore, should be the exemplar for the power of eliminating tenure protection and allowing teachers to be fired more easily as a way to improve education and student achievement.  The reality is, however, that Mississippi students have and continue to rank much lower on measures of student achievement than other students across the country.  Apparently, teacher tenure laws are not the largest barrier to student achievement.  Research has demonstrated time and again that poverty and other social factors contribute greatly to student achievement.  So, it is no wonder that Mississippi, with some of the highest rates of poverty in the country, lags behind the rest of the country in rankings of student achievement.

 

Clearly when it comes to corporate led education reform, “America’s public school system has once again become a scapegoat for all that ails American society, while heralding all the ramifications of free market systemic education reform as the means of saving the United States from its supposed enemy –  the public school system writ large.”*  However, as the last short paragraph of my book proclaims, “For American citizens, if there is one thing to remember about public schools it is this: Public schools are not government schools, nor are they corporate free market schools.  Public schools belong to the public.  Public schools are citizen schools, and it is now up to citizens to reclaim what is theirs!”*

 

* Quoted texts are excerpted from my upcoming book The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, January, 2015).

Respectfully,


Deb Owens

Schools are not Businesses!

Veteran North Carolina Teacher Lisa Woods provides insightful commentary on why schools are not businesses.   Her commentary first appeared in the Greensboro News-Record and I couldn’t agree more.  Woods stated:

“I would like to posit a scenario where “job performance and value” are based on the following objectives and conditions:

* You are meeting with 35 clients in a room designed to hold 20.

* The air conditioning and/or heat may or may not be working, and your roof leaks in three places, one of which is the table where your customers are gathered.

* Of the 35, five do not speak English, and no interpreters are provided.

* Fifteen are there because they are forced by their “bosses” to be there but hate your product.

* Eight do not have the funds to purchase your product.

* Seven have no prior experience with your product and have no idea what it is or how to use it.

* Two are removed for fighting over a chair.

* Only two-thirds of your clients appear well-rested and well-fed.

You are expected to:

* Make your presentation in 40 minutes.

* Have up-to-date, professionally created information concerning your product.

* Keep complete paperwork and assessments of product understanding for each client and remediate where there is lack of understanding.

* Use at least three different methods of conveying your information: visual, auditory and hands-on.”

Let me also add to Woods’ comments.  Schools are located within communities.  Sometimes these communities are places in which a business would never consider locating a store, factory, or office.  No business leader would consider locating a business in a location where their employees and customers would be unable to safely walk from their car to the front door or risk vandalism of their car in the parking lot.  They may be located in low income areas in which it would be difficult to find consumers with the cash to buy  their products or employees able to fill the jobs.  For many years corporate driven education reform advocates have blamed schools for the conditions that impede their profits.  True education reform must begin with reforming communities and making them safe places for schools and the children they serve.  Far too many children arrive at school traumatized simply by the very act of walking through crime infested neighborhoods, knowing that at the end of the school day they will have to once again navigate those same streets in order to get back home.  Business leaders would never subject their employees to this and certainly would not expect an employee to be 100% ready to tackle the business of the day after risking being assaulted on the streets outside the workplace day after day.

There is an inherent hypocrisy in comparing schools to businesses.  If corporate reformers would focus their attention on the work of reforming and rebuilding communities that are suitable for families and children, it is possible that schools and academic improvement would be a natural outcome.  Eliminate poverty first.  While there may not huge financial profit in these endeavors, there is profit for humanity and America.

The Conservative Mind and Education Reform

Thank you, Andy Smarick, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, for your commentary on the role of conservatism in education reform (Change and preservation in education reform, August 6, 2014).  Apparently, Smarick and Michael Petrilli (the newly appointed president of Fordham) are wrestling with the education policies their organization helped engineer in partnership with corporate interests and presidential administrations (both Democrat and Republican) in recent decades.  Once again, the conservative lens is being employed to sort out the debacle that has culminated in the current state of education policy with all its accoutrements —  the Common Core, an explosion in student testing, massive data storage systems, value added measurements for teacher accountability, and, last but certainly not least, a free market driven system that ensures the free flow of dollars to the private sector through charter schools and products associated with RTTT education reform policies.

Smarick wonders if education reform is “inherently anti-conservative” and if things might “be better if we sought counsel from conservatism?”  He refers to an article by Phillip Wallach and Justus Myers in National Affairs entitled “The Conservative Governing Disposition.”

Smarick discusses the “conservative governing disposition,” citing several of the conservative’s favored political and economic thinkers and philosophers and concludes that a conservative governing disposition embodies a belief that “change ought to advance gradually… .”

While Smarick may be thinking about current education reform initiatives when suggesting that our country should have proceeded more cautiously and circumspectly in adopting the widespread sweeping reforms associated with the current administration, it is simply wrong-headed to look longingly back to conservative thinkers and wonder how much better education would be if we’d heeded their advice.  Smarick would be wise to consider the seminal works of conservatives like Albert J. Nock, Russell Kirk, and Murray Rothbard (to name a few).

In chapter 2 of my upcoming book The Origins of the Common Core:  How the Free Markets Became Public Education Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, January, 2015), I examine the ideas of several conservative thinkers on education policy.  For example, Albert Nock, writing in the 1930s, believed that “the progressive theory of ‘educational equality’ that undergirded America’s education system was particularly troubling because he felt it was based on a socialist model that created a ‘perverse’ popular doctrine leading people to believe that ‘everybody is educable.’”  Russell Kirk (considered a giant of conservatism and revered by President Reagan), likewise considered America’s public school system to be a reflection of “a socialistic federal government in collusion with progressive educators …”.  Murray Rothbard continued the conservative assault on public education in the 1970s, claiming that one of the major problems associated with public schools arises from compulsory education policies.  According to Rothbard, children who are “dull” and “have little aptitude” should not be forced to even attend school because it is a “criminal offense to their natures.”

Are these the conservative people we should be heeding?  Or are these the voices behind A Nation at Risk during the conservative Reagan era that lead the all-out assault on public education and teachers?  I think the latter.

In a previous posting, Smarick attempts to distinguish between free market advocates and the true conservative mindset, claiming that free market ideology is only “one strand of conservatism.”   I disagree.  I find the ideas that undergird free market economics — the supremacy of property ownership and the restriction of government intervention through taxes or regulation — to be an enduring theme throughout conservative thought.  Nonetheless, President Ronald Reagan, the icon of conservatism in America, embraced the free market ideas of Milton Friedman wholeheartedly and ushered in the era of laissez faire, free market policies that have governed our public policies across many sectors since the 1980s.  Friedman’s tenacity in promoting school vouchers, choice, and their latest iteration — school charters garnered him the title “the father of modern school reform” and his Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice continues to advocate for a free market, conservative approach in education reform.

And what of the conservative notion that change is best when it takes place gradually?  Conservative advocates of maintaining the Plessy v. Fergusen “separate but equal” policies certainly embraced that notion when they attacked the Brown v. Board decision in 1954.  Southern segregationists found a home among conservatives during their widespread resistance to desegregation of their public schools.  As a matter of fact the conservative National Review (William F. Buckley’s publication) published an article in 1958 by Anthony Harrigan lauding the “essential conservatism” of the south.  According to Harrigan, “The South … has an essential conservatism …. The original shapers of the Southern tradition believed that progress resulted not from equality of condition, but from fruitful inequalities.”

Let us not forget the terrible price American citizens had to pay while segregationists embraced essential conservatism.  A number of Americans were denied their right to vote, beaten, and even murdered.

In the 1950s Milton Friedman arose as a hero to segregationists when he advocated for the use of tax vouchers to send students to segregated private schools.  For Friedman, the fact that his idea was being embraced as a way to maintain segregated schools was not really a problem.  He believed that “the appropriate activity for those who oppose segregation and racial prejudice is to try to persuade others to their view, if and as they succeed, the mixed schools will grow at the expense of the nonmixed, and a gradual transition will take place.”  That sounds very conservative.  I suppose Ruby Bridges’ parents should have taken more time to “persuade” angry white segregationists to allow their daughter to attend the all-white William Franz Elementary School before sending her to school.  Same with the Little Rock Nine.  Friedman persistently referred to public schools as socialist institutions and government monopolies.  As a matter of fact he generally didn’t use the term public schools, referring to them instead as “government schools.”

I would, therefore, urge Andy Smarick to think more deeply about the conservative notion of gradual change.  We may agree about  the current RTTT debacle.  However, it is wrong to begin with an assumption that these reform initiatives are those of progressives or liberals.  There are no clean hands.  When it comes to education reform the apt metaphor may well be “hands across America” as one presidential administration handed off its policies with very little change to the next administration.   And the momentum kept growing with each new administration since Reagan, adding layer upon layer of policies.  The glue that has held the opposing parties together has been the conservative ideal of the free markets and competition as the arbiter of education policy.  And the biggest winners have been those who have financially gained the most from this era of free market education reform — big business and venture capitalists.

I wonder if we removed the profit incentive from education policy how much better our schools could become?  Even those involved in the “non-profit” charter school movement seem to be getting quite fat off the backs of America’s school children.

I’ve spent several years examining the impact of free market ideology on education policy — policies that have been embraced by both Democrats and Republicans since the era of “Reaganomics” and “Friedmanomics.”  The result is “The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy.”   I completed research for this book with one certainty.  Until education policy makers disavow themselves of market based reforms and cast the money lenders from the temple of public education, we will not have true reform.  Our challenge is, therefore, attempting to disentangle ourselves from the mess that has been created in recent decades and get back to the real work of schools — teaching our children to be informed, compassionate, well educated citizens.

 

References:

Deborah Duncan Owens, The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, January, 2015).

Milton Friedman, “The Role of Government in Education” in Robert A. Solo (ed.), Economics and the Public Interest (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1955).

Anthony Harrigan, “The South is Different,” National Review, (March 8, 1958).

Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 7th revised edition (Washington D.C.: Regency, 1985).

Albert Jay Nock,  The Theory of Education in the United States.  (reprinted by the Ludwig von Mises Institute in 2007).

Murray N. Rothbard, Education: Free and Compulsory (reprinted by the Ludwig von Mises Institute in 1999).

Chester Finn Steps Down!

On August 1st, 2014,  Chester Finn will resign as leader of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.  He will be replaced by Michael Petrilli.  The Fordham Foundation has been a leader in the creation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards, other conservative education initiatives, and the assault on public schools.  This will not change under the leadership of Petrilli.  As a matter of fact, I think it is fair to say that Petrilli will be a stalwart proponent of the Common Core as well as other free market conservative education reform initiatives such as school vouchers, choice, and charters.  I also think it is fair to say that we can expect the promotion of education policies that further erode the local control over public schools.   On the other hand, Finn, in his farewell address, seems to admit that the privatization of public education is problematic, leading to the feeding frenzy we have seen by those who envision the education of children as a boon to entrepreneurial capitalists.  Finn acquiesced:   “I hail the entry into the ed-reform camp of entrepreneurs with all their energy, imagination, and venture capital, but I’ve seen too many examples of them settling for making their venture profitable for investors or shareholders (or themselves) rather than educationally profitable for the kids it serves. That’s not so very different from traditional adult interests within the public and nonprofit sectors battling to ensure their own jobs, income, and comfort rather than giving their pupils top priority. …”   Thanks at least for that, Dr. Finn.  Professional educators and public school supporters will continue to try to clean up the mess you helped make.   Read Dr. Chester Finn’s farewell address at: http://edexcellence.net/articles/education-reform-in-2014 See you on the flip side! Deborah Duncan Owens

Elmira Heights, Church Bells, and a Stop Common Core Sign

As I sat on my little deck in my backyard after work yesterday, I found myself looking forward to the 6:00 hour. My dog had just rested her head on my knee, looking for a good ear scratch, and my husband had just lit the Weber grill.  But at 6:00 every day something magical happens in my small town of Elmira Heights, New York.  Church bells emanate from the Methodist church a block from my house.  They are lovely and while it is true that they are prerecorded – not the old fashioned bells produced by bell ringers of yesteryear – they are lovely and always remind me of Thorton Wilder’s play “Our Town” and why I love living in a small town.  I am new to Elmira Heights. I have become friends with several of my neighbors.  While we are very different in some respects, we share a common bond in that we enjoy living in our little community and going about our lives doing those things people do to make our lives enjoyable and meaningful, like cutting our grass, planting petunias and impatiens in the summer, grilling outdoors, and watching the neighborhood kids playing and walking up and down the streets of our neighborhood.  I can say with all honesty that when I bought my old house, a house in much need of love and repair, I didn’t just buy a house, I bought a neighborhood and a community.

 

Parents I speak to in Elmira Heights like their local schools.  They like the principals, the teachers, and the school buildings.  In the morning I often see dads and moms walking their young children to school and in the afternoon I see the promenade in reverse.  A few months ago, a sign appeared in one of my neighbor’s front yard.  It’s pencil yellow with bold black words simply stating, “Stop Common Core.”  I haven’t formally met these neighbors yet, but I do see them outside regularly, so I know they have young children.  It’s not without irony that as they engage in their own simple form of protest I have been huddled inside my house over the past few months, using every spare minute trying to decipher the decades long political wranglings that have culminated in the Common Core and all the other education policies that accompany the standards.

 

I often wonder about the individual parents who are resisting the Common Core.  Are they conservatives concerned about government intervention in education?  Are they liberals fighting against the transformation of teaching and learning into days filled with standardized testing and test prep?  Or perhaps they understand that the Common Core, as a set of national standards, represents an attempt to dismantle the public school system and wrestle control of their public schools from local school boards.  Perhaps the anti-Common Core movement reflects parents’ concerns about the influence of corporations over education reform and the use of their children as capital to fatten the wallets of CEOs and venture capitalists.

 

As I read the growing number of blogs devoted to efforts to resist Common Core I have come to believe that the answer is somewhere in the middle and that parents on both sides of the political spectrum are uniting over their concerns about current education policies.  They speak for their children, citizens who have no vote or ability to impact education policy.  And perhaps they understand that current education policies will inevitably result in their diminished capacity to have a voice in how their schools will be governed.  Current policies are squeezing the life out of community schools.  State budgets are stretched almost to the limit, leaving local school boards no option but to either raise local taxes or find alternative ways to finance their schools.  With much of the public money being funneled into expensive testing schemes and purchasing the technology required to administer these tests, local schools districts are scrambling to maintain some kind of autonomy over how they spend what remains of their budgets.

 

With my book finally written and in production, I plan to get to know more of my neighbors.  One of my students enrolled in the graduate literacy program at Elmira College where I teach is starting a preschool program at the Methodist Church in my neighborhood, the one with the lovely bells.  I plan to visit her new preschool and offer her assistance and support.  She tells me that the church has a little room that serves as a museum dedicated to the church’s history and that, yes, the original church bell is still there with a bell pull still in place.  I can’t wait to see it and learn more about that old church and my community.  I plan to introduce myself to the young family who has posted the Stop Common Core sign in their front yard.  And I plan to continue in my quest to help preserve what I believe is one of America’s best institutions — our public schools.

 Deborah Duncan Owens

 

Common Core Origins: A New Book on the Horizon

As a long time supporter of public schools, a former public school teacher, a teacher educator, and a believer in democracy and local school governance of public schools, I am pleased to announce that my book The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy is on the horizon.  It is currently in production with Palgrave Macmillan, with a scheduled release date of January, 2015. While this is scholarly endeavor, it is also written from my heart.  I began researching the impact of free market policies on education fifteen years ago while working as an elementary teacher in Mississippi.  This research led me to Milton Friedman, who has been hailed as the “father of modern school reform” and is often credited with originating the idea of school vouchers and school choice — a concept that has morphed into the charter school movement.  Of course, within this book there is a great deal more  than a discussion about Friedman!

I will discuss further details about my book in future postings on this website as well as further research on this topic.  The goal of this book and website is to add to the efforts of those bloggers and authors who are valiantly defending America’s democratic institution of public schools, an institution that has historically served America well.  I hope my future contributions will help those millions of public school supporters in their quest to maintain the integrity of American public education.

I am providing a few short selections from the book’s forward, which I believe captures the spirit of The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy:

“What Owens has been able to accomplish is an explanation of how … the free market became public school policy.  As Owens points out, within this process, America’s public school system has once again become a scapegoat for all that ails American society, while heralding all the ramifications of free market systemic education reform as the means of saving the U.S. from its supposed enemy – the public school system writ large. …

For those individuals on the political and ideological right or left who are militantly wedded to their ideas, however, this book will not provide safe haven.  This is because, as the book makes clear, both political parties have found common ground in a unified allegiance to a free market approach to systemic education reform that has created an educational sea of profit at the expense of America’s most important resource – its children. …

For those who see the numerous reform initiatives such as high stakes testing, charter schools, vouchers, value added measurement, student data collecting, and the disempowerment of citizens in decision-making when it comes to their public schools as the wrong approach to meeting the education challenges confronting the U.S., this is an empowering book. …” (by Thomas J. Fiala)