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Following Common Core money: Where are millions of dollars going?

In this post, award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York raises some new questions about the Common Core State Standards and curriculum being developed around them.

Burris has for more than a year chronicled on this blog the many problems with the test-driven reform in New York (here, and here and here and here, for example). She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by more than 1,535 New York principals and more than 6,500 teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter by clicking here.  And she is a co-author of a new open letter  to parents from superintendents concerned with Common Core testing, which you can read about here.

By Carol Burris

My music teacher, Doreen, brought me her second-grade daughter’s math homework.  She was already fuming over Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s remark about why “white suburban moms” oppose the Common Core, and the homework added fuel to the fire. The problem that disturbed her the most was the following:

3. Sally did some counting. Look at her work. Explain why you think Sally counted this way.

177, 178,179,180, 190,200, 210, 211,212,213,214.

It was on a homework sheet from the New York State Common Core Mathematics Curriculum for Grade 2, which you can find here.

Doreen’s daughter had no idea how to answer this odd question. The only response that made sense to her was, “Because she wanted to.” My assistant principal and math specialist, Don Chung, found the question to be indefensible.

The teachers in her daughter’s school are also concerned.  They are startled to find that the curriculum is often a script. Here is an excerpt to teach students to add using beads from the first-grade module.

T: How many tens do you see?
T: How many ones?
S: 6
T: Say the number the Say Ten way.
S: Ten 6

Scripts like this are commonplace throughout the curriculum.

Similar headaches exist at the secondary level as well. A relative, who is required to teach Common Core Algebra from the modules, shared her worries about the curriculum’s conceptual gaps, disjointed and illogical concept progressions, and insufficient time to complete lessons.

The Origins of the New York State Mathematics Curriculum                   

Teaching from modules is a new experience. Suburban teachers are used to working with a curriculum that they themselves develop based on state standards.  However, because of the rushed Core rollout in New York, along with the dramatic shift in standards, many schools did not have the time nor funds to develop a thoughtful local curriculum, making the state curriculum modules their only real alternative.

Where did this unprecedented scripted curriculum come from?

The New York State mathematics curriculum was developed by an organization located in Washington D.C. known as Common Core, Inc. According to reporter Jessica Bakeman of Capital New York, Common Core Inc. was awarded three large contracts from the New York State Education Department: $3,323,732 for K-2 curriculum, $2,715,958 for grades 3-5, and $8,108,919 for grades 6-12.

That is a total of  $14,148,609 — or more than $1 million per grade level project. Bakeman broke the story about the high costs of the New York State modules, which you can read here.  To put this expenditure in perspective, my school district, Rockville Centre, generally pays less than $1,000 for a grade level curriculum project.

According to the story, New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch bragged that New York State is the only state using its federal Race to the Top dollars to develop curriculum; it has spent in excess of $28 million on curriculum in English and mathematics.  That begs the question, “Why”?

Why would New York State spend such a large sum of money on an optional curriculum, when district curriculum designed to meet local needs could be developed, given a state-provided Common Core course scope and sequence and sufficient time?

Common Core Inc. and Gates Foundation

To understand the answer, one needs to go back to 2007.  That is the year that Common Core Inc. was founded, three years before the standards were made public. In 2009, it received over a half million dollars in the form of a grant from the Gates Foundation to write curriculum for standards that had not yet been released nor adopted by states.

Last week, Catholic Education Daily reported on the connection between Common Core Inc. and the Gates Foundation in a story entitled “Common Core is Curriculum, Contrary to Advocates’ Claims.”

The story reports that despite Bill Gates’ claim that there was no need to build national Common Core curriculum, he has, through his grant program, quietly funded its development in excess of  $10 million, with Common Core Inc. being the first to receive a grant. According to authors Gigante and Archbold, “Despite the overlap between corporate branding, mission, funding and leadership, Common Core Inc. claims that it is ‘not affiliated with the Common Core Standards’.”  The article suggests that although some advocates of the Common Core claim that they want to only nationalize standards, their true intent is to nationalize a still experimental curriculum. Despite repeated attempts, Common Core Inc. has not responded to their inquiries.

The Gates Foundation appears to have a partner in New York State when it comes to curriculum development. The New York State Regents Research fund has received millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation to further its reform agenda. But more importantly, the State Education Department has helped finance the effort to create curriculum by using more than $28 million in Race to the Top federal taxpayer dollars. And it appears that one of the recipients, Common Core Inc., intends to influence curriculum beyond New York State. A search of the Common Core Inc. site shows that the organization will sell textbook editions of the work that they did for New York, thus leveraging New York’s tax dollars to launch a textbook series.

I do not believe that any of the players in this project are evil people trying to control the minds of kids.  Rather they are true believers with an ideological allegiance to untested curriculum. The Common Core has some features that are good and others that are awful. We have been through this before—the New Math program from my childhood and Whole Language when our daughters were in school. Although both programs made some positive contributions, those who wholeheartedly and uncritically adopted them did a terrible disservice to their students. One of my colleagues, Maureen Dockery, tells how when she was an elementary teacher she would close her door and teach students some phonics because of the damage done to her own son’s literacy development by purist Whole Language instruction.

What saved us in the past from wrong-headed reforms was that they were not mandated by state or federal government. They could therefore be adapted or abandoned at the local  level. Now that standards and curriculum are connected with Race to the Top money, high-stakes tests and teacher evaluations by standardized test scores, it is exceedingly difficult to do the careful and critical review that every new program deserves.

Why do New York State Education Commissioner John King and Tisch refuse to slow down New York’s rushed Core implementation, despite outcry from the public?

If parents, teachers and taxpayers had the time to critically examine the curriculum, they would ask the hard questions that would lead to its unraveling. This is not just a math problem. There are English/Language Arts vendors producing $14 million worth of New York curriculum as well. Recently ELA modules were ridiculed at a local school board meeting in upstate New York.

There are big questions that the press needs to ask about Common Core Inc. and all of the vendors that are receiving public money. There is also an overarching question that should be asked: Is this an attempt to create a national curriculum by having federal tax dollars flow to New York State and then out again to an organization committed to Common Core curriculum development?  And to all of the business leaders who so enthusiastically support the Common Core—do you want your future workers to count like Sally? Is this the best curriculum that more than $28 million can buy? I think not.  It is time we take a look with eyes wide open.

 Correction: Fixing spelling of Capital News Service