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The Real Problem with US Common Core: It Further Outsources Education

New York is the latest to revolt against Common Core. What's especially scary is more business intrusion into the classroom

The latest US educational standards were developed largely by the Gates Foundation. (Photograph: Juice Images/Alamy)There's a pretty good chance that up until last week, you'd never heard of the Common Core national standards and curriculum. That changed recently when New York State became the largest state thus far to see a sharp reversal in the adoption of the standards. A bipartisan group of legislators proposed suspending the use of the Common Core assessment tests, based largely on the rebellion of the state's largest teacher's union. After endorsing a plan three years ago that would link teacher evaluations to student test scores, the union has now seen the actual testing results – available for the first time last fall – and isn't so sure.

Geographical media bias has drawn national attention to New York, but similar backtracking has occurred in Louisiana, Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Alabama. New York stands out on the list for another reason besides its size and location. If this were a standardized test, would you be able to tell which one of these things is not like the other?

If you said anything besides New York, consider remedial education for yourself. New York is a dark navy blue beside the brilliant reds of the other states. It has not just a Democratic governor, but one otherwise closely aligned with the Obama administration. Until recently, opposition to the Common Core has come almost solely from conservative corners, with Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin leading the charge. Beck's primary allegation is familiar: "Kids are being indoctrinated with extreme leftist ideology." Of course, conservatives have been saying that schools "indoctrinate kids into extreme leftist ideology" for years – if this were as prevalent or effective as the GOP seems to think it is, they should all be out of office by now.

No, if that were the sole criticism, the battle would not be as pitched or as grimly entertaining as it is. Rather, Beck has spun the Common Core standards into a wistful steampunk dystopia, complete with stormtroopers and biomechanical monitoring. The Common Core will be used to nudge children into government-approved professions; it will rinse from American culture such subversive texts as Huckleberry Finn; student evaluations will eventually include "using cameras to judge facial expressions, an electronic seat that judges posture, a pressure-sensitive computer mouse and a biometric wrap on kids' wrists". Beck's final ironic fillip on the conspiracy is worthy of Philip K Dick: students will no longer learn cursive, and thus be unable to read the constitution in its original form: They won't even know what rights have been stolen from them. (I would so see that movie.)

The opposition to the Common Core is so larded with distinctively Tea Party paranoia, one might assume that it was an Obama administration program. It's not. It's not federal program, either. It's not even a government program, per se. The Common Core was formulated and promoted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and brought to national implementation by the National Governors Association. The Department of Education (DOE) has promoted heavily. More importantly, the Obama administration has essentially drafted it as a de facto set of official national standards. Barred by federal law from "directing, supervising or controlling elementary and secondary school curricula, programs of instruction and instructional materials", the DOE has used the promise of "Race to the Top" grants in exchange for adopting the Common Core standards and process.

There are different levels of adoption, and states – simply because of the way our educational system is set up – have some degree of latitude in how they implement the program. One could argue that the states in the most trouble now were the ones who grabbed at the money the most desperately to begin with. New York was facing a $10bn educational funding shortfall when it put together its proposal for Race to the Top (ie, Common Core) funding. Indeed, the states that have protested the loudest about the cost of Common Core-calibrated standardized tests have been those with the historically worst-performing students, and facing the biggest changes in infrastructure. They needed the money the most, they got it, they were ill-prepared to spend it wisely.

But the problems of implementation in New York and elsewhere do not validate the claim that the Common Core is a sinister plot, nor to they suggest that national educational standards are a bad idea in and of themselves. No, the problem with the Common Core is that it's not a national standard, or a government program. It arrived at government's doorstep looking like a gift, but it remains to be seen if it is one.

The Gates Foundation spent $170m to create the program, largely independent of input (financial or intellectual) from actual school systems, but with the suggestions and guidance of corporations. The non-profit company that actually authored Common Core, Achieve Inc, boasts that it is "the only education reform organization led by a board of directors of governors and business leaders".

Corporations continue to support the Common Core as a part of workforce development. One of the many rifts on the right right now is between the Tea Party Common Core liberators and traditionally conservative organizations such as the Business Roundtable and the US Chamber of Commerce, both of which have announced support and even undertaken advertising campaigns for the Common Core.

The Common Core wasn't developed and debated by state politicians or parents, it was created in a lab.

At least Achieve Inc and the Gates Foundation are non-profits. The companies contracted to administer the Common Core assessment tests – the key to the entire system – are the same for-profit entities that have been doing a none-too-successful job of testing America's students for the past few decades: in the past 10 years, Pearson, one of those companies, has paid out over $20m in fines because of lost, misgraded, or otherwise mishandled student tests.

Here is where the Tea Party critics and I part ways, perhaps: I thought the free market was supposed to fix this kind of thing. But paranoia makes strange bedfellows: Malkin's writing on the Common Core tends to the anti-Obama alarmism. But she has also pointed out the corrosive force of profit on education, noting that in some schools attempting to keep up with the Common Core's demand for computer instruction, Google's Chromebooks come with "certification programs" that "turn teachers into tax-subsidized lobbyists for the company".

I wish Malkin would follow this anti-corporatism a little further; she can sit beside me at the next Occupy event.

I'm not disturbed by the intrusion of the federal government into our schools, but the intrusion of capitalism. Perhaps the most alarming report out of New York wasn't how badly students were doing on the tests, but that Pearson Inc "included corporate logos and promotional material in reading passages". The slippery-slopers of the right worry about biometric testing for government-selected vocations; I worry about replacing education with a 13-year-long focus group.

I am not so conspiracy-minded as to think that the Gates Foundation is consciously shaping the educational system to some malicious intent, but I am concerned that the Common Core, successful or not, will normalize the idea of simply outsourcing education and bring to a whimpering end one of the final refuges Americans have against the modern era's non-stop assault of marketing and commercial persuasion.

What's the harm?, you might ask. The money has to come from somewhere, right? Marketing is designed to discourage critical thinking. Its purpose is to insinuate itself into your subconscious and keep you from making your own decisions. It invalidates the workings of the mind and the heart. You can know Shakespeare's sonnets backwards and forwards, but if you spend your spare time chasing the next Shiny New Thing, what good will poetry do you?

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