The Student Industrial Testing Complex

For the reader without school-age children (me included, but I substitute teach on a regular basis in a public school), all anyone knows about Common Core and the PARCC test is what they read or see in the media.  For those with school-age children, they will understand what this article is about.  It is not about teacher/school accountability or raising standards or those other good things conservatives want to see in education.  It is about corporate welfare pure and simple.

PARCC stands for Pearson Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers with the key word being “Pearson.”  That is a huge British-based educational textbook conglomerate who has it’s tentacles in every aspect of education from teacher training to textbooks to educational software to testing regimens to online schools like K-12 which advertises heavily on television.  Recently, there has been a backlash against Pearson.  Conservatives view it as a behemoth dictating curriculum from on high while liberals bemoan it’s profits.  Both are correct.

From the conservative side, the problem starts with Common Core which is strange, perverted outgrowth from No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  NCLB placed a heavy emphasis on educational accountability to ensure that all students would become productive members of society.  The best way to determine accountability was through testing.  Using the NAEP- National Assessment of Educational Performance, a standardized test- it sought to gauge student performance at various age groups.

But that started the problem.  Given the importance of student performance on these standardized tests and the fact that whether a school was considered “failing” or not based on the scores, teachers began the horrible process of “teaching to the test.”  School curriculum was tailored not towards a well-rounded education in math, science, social studies and language arts, but towards how a student could raise their scores on the test.  As a result, many of the time-tested methods of teaching and learning were discarded.

Along came the Obama administration and the Race to the Top program- a series of grants to states under the aegis of his stimulus program.  Being cash-strapped, many states applied for and received the grants.  Adoption of Common Core was an unspoken requirement to receive the grants.

Common Core itself is an educational ruse of the highest order.  It was established by 30 “educators” supported by the Governor’s Association with a $200 million grant from the Gates Foundation for starters.  It was once described this way: “…adopting nationalized education ‘standards’ that require students to find another way to reach an answer, particularly in math and science, even if the answer is wrong, justifying the incorrect answer as the path to helping students learn to think critically.”  In other words, maybe 2+2 was not 4 IF the student can justify why it wasn’t.

Unfortunately, Common Core tried to reinvent the wheel.  It also locked teachers into a new method of teaching subject material where rote learning was thrown out the window in favor of creating a student body of critical thinkers.  The problem with that mentality is that most students before a certain age lack the ability to think critically unless you somehow change brain chemistry.  Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but Common Core assumes everyone can be made that “exception.”

Of course, Pearson is a huge proponent of Common Core because it presented an opportunity for it to sweep into American education.  Suddenly, textbooks long used in schools were obsolete.  Pearson would provide those new books.  Methods of teaching that were used were also obsolete.  All that education teachers learned was no longer useful.  Pearson would provide training for teachers.  Given the great emphasis on technology in Common Core from the teacher aspect, Pearson would provide the necessary software for classroom instruction.  All of these things were not free; they were not provided out of the goodness of Pearson’s heart.

Something had to gauge student performance of these new standards.  After all, the NAEP and state tests were old and outdated and did not really address what Common Core was trying to achieve.  Pearson would provide that test- the PARCC.  Just in high schools, Pearson makes $2.5 billion in the United States on the PARCC.

And what has it achieved?  The answer is basically failure because there is more profit in failure.  When you suddenly shift the standards, failure is to be expected and that is what Pearson was counting on because then they can swoop in with the tools to ensure less failure with the next round of testing through providing schools- for a cost- more teacher training, more textbooks and more software.  The result is that greater than half of Pearson’s $8 billion in global sales now comes from the United States.

States and, by proxy, the federal government that adopted Common Core and the associated testing regimen- the PARCC- engaged in the worst form of corporate welfare because it essentially resulted in a failed experiment in educational reform.  The losers are the students and parents.

The result has been resentment from teacher unions nationwide, but that was to be expected.  They have always been against basing teacher performance appraisals on student testing, but their current disdain is quite hypocritical given their initial acceptance of Common Core.  President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers is one such example given their initial acceptance of Common Core…until his member teacher’s students showed failure which impacted the teacher’s performance appraisal.

There are two insidious aspects to this whole story.  The first is that it has had the effect of nationalizing education through state adoption of Common Core.  While that was a choice states made, it came with some heavy-handed funding requirements from the Obama administration and what state is going to turn down funding?  The second aspect is that teachers today now more than ever “teach to the test.”  I cannot count the number of times I have heard a teacher respond to a student, “Because it’s on the test,” or “You need to understand this because it is on the test.”

In the particular school where I substitute teach, hall monitors are brought in during PARCC testing to make sure there is quiet during testing hours.  Recess is cancelled lest noise from the playground filter into testing areas.  Lunch room doors are closed fearing noise reaching a testing room nearby.  Try keeping 85 kindergarten children quiet during a 45 minute lunch period knowing they will miss recess for the next three weeks.  They even hold a pep rally for test-takers.  Teachers administering the test undergo mandatory 2-day training classes and they are sworn to secrecy regarding the test content.

Pearson and Common Core have created a nation of test takers, not students.  Everything in the curriculum is geared towards the test.  At best, the mind of a 5-year-old in kindergarten is interested in fractions- yes! fractions- perhaps for 10 minutes at best, but they are subjected to at least 40 minutes of such instruction over a 2-week period.

Equally important is that schools that can afford the new Pearson software and textbooks have an advantage on the testing regimen that other schools lack.  The irony is that the child who was being left behind is now further behind and the student who was not left behind, now finds themselves “behind” because they cannot “justify” the fact that 2+2 may not be 4.

Like most programs, NCLB and Common Core may have set out with good intentions, but the end results have been anything but good.  Worse, they have allowed a company whose only goal is to increase profit not a foothold in American education, but a huge thumb print on American education.  Pearson cares less about the outcome of a child’s education as long as taxpayer money is filtered into their coffers.  This is corporate welfare of the worse kind and the government-sanctioned establishment of a monopoly in education.  It is perhaps the best justification for the conservative view that K-12 education is best left to the states.