Core Tragedy

As schools phase in Common Core, education industry stands to gain

In the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet, two servants boast about the many ways in which they're planning to knock the crap out of their enemies.

Like modern day gangbangers perched on the street corner, one of the men brags about how he's planning to torture the other gang's women by cutting their heads off. When the other servant suggests that his friend might be taking things a bit too far, the first servant corrects himself and says he'll instead cut off their "maidenheads."

Martye Einson loves how this exchange illustrates the Bard's "filthy" side. She's been teaching Shakespeare to teenagers for 20 years, most recently at Santa Fe High School. It can take a lot to grab the attention of high school students, let alone teach them to learn, but Einson says the sex and violence dripping through Shakespeare's work is sometimes good enough to get the job done.

The "maidenhead" exchange, for example, is a reference to taking a woman's virginity. Einson's textbook fails to grasp this.

She's encouraged by the Santa Fe school district to teach from the textbook, a 1,400-page tome written and published by the for-profit education mega-corporation Pearson. The book is aligned with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a set of national education guidelines to which most public school teachers in the country must now aspire.

Einson hates the textbook because she says it strips all the authenticity out of the literature she teaches. Most of the time, she keeps the book out of her lesson plans.

"I use it for punishment," she says, wearing thick-rimmed glasses that match her solid black blouse. Shocks of gray flow down her long, curly dark hair. "I say, 'OK, everybody get the orange book,' and then they wonder who did something wrong."

Her dilemma illustrates the often regimented experience of teaching in the modern era of school reform. Common Core, adopted by 43 states and the District of Columbia, is its newest face.

The national standards are supposed to make their way to teachers' lesson plans in the classroom. They're designed with the same promise of the many reforms of years past: making every student college-bound and prepared to thrive in an increasingly competitive global economy.

But a growing number of teachers like Einson are experiencing a loss in translation when it comes to actually employing the standards at school. To appease her higher-ups that she's using Common Core, Einson displays the standards in her classroom and writes them into her daily lesson plans. She calls it needless busywork.

"The Common Core standards themselves as they are written are fine," Einson says. "It is all the garbage that goes with them that makes the whole thing impossible."

That "garbage" is being marshaled in by a growing web of players who extend from the White House to Santa Fe's BF Young Building, where school district employees work on imposing the new curriculum across the city's 31 public schools. But the top local player is New Mexico Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera, who has what many characterize as too cozy of a relationship with several of the education industry's biggest financial backers.

Extraordinary in its scope, Common Core was conceived in 2009 by just two dozen people largely from the education nonprofit and standardized-testing world. The National Governors Association appointed the group to write new, sweeping standards with the stated purpose of making public education more relevant to the real world.

What they came up with focuses on two learning disciplines: English and mathematics. For English, Common Core emphasizes textual evidence. For example, students will read a classic text like Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and then write essays that pull sentences and phrases directly from that text to make their arguments.

"It's not OK to just summarize the book," says Santa Fe Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Almi Abeyta. "What we're trying to do is shift students' thinking, so they're not just writing opinions. We tell them to back it up with evidence used in the text."

Because so many earlier education reform attempts on the national level were challenged as unconstitutional federal overreaching, states aren't required to adopt Common Core. But states that did so by the summer of 2010 were eligible for lucrative federal grants. Each school district is supposed to have autonomy in how it accomplishes the task.

In Santa Fe, Abeyta is in charge of phasing in the new standards.

For math, she says Common Core requires teachers to go "deeper than wide" and emphasize longer, in-depth lesson plans rather than a more traditional practice of bouncing from one discipline to the next. "Sometimes we're teaching so much content, but the kids are not getting the gist of the subject," she says.

To the more cynical-minded, it's all about the money.

Common Core got its biggest boost when Bill Gates jumped on the bandwagon and directed more than $200 million of his personal wealth to get school districts, education nonprofits and teachers unions all on board.

President Obama also stepped into the game. During the worst moments of the recession, his Department of Education gave federal Race to the Top grants to the states that effectively adopted Common Core the fastest.

Within a matter of months, states began signing on at a rapid pace. The Washington Post later called it "one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in US history."

New Mexico was no outlier. The state adopted the standards in October 2010, just months before the end of Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson's term. Susana Martinez' Republican administration latched onto them wholeheartedly when she replaced Richardson the following year.

Last May, the state found itself embroiled in a Common Core controversy. Through its Public Education Department, New Mexico joined 13 other states to give Pearson—the same corporation that writes Einson's textbook—a large contract to write and administer a Common Core-related standardized test that could reach up to 10 million students.

Like the spread of Common Core itself, Pearson's contract to control the standardized test is sweeping in its size and could earn the company more than $1 billion over eight years. It's enough to make a Mississippi Department of Education official who helped negotiate the deal pronounce its scale as "unprecedented."

One of Pearson's competitors uses another word: illegal.

To critics, Pearson is the epitome of the dark side of the education reform—a company profiting from an increasing corporatization of the public school system that's pushing out well-paid teachers in lieu of cheap labor and outsourced work.

Pearson is indeed a moneymaker. The London-based publishing house, which also has major stakes in Penguin Random House and owns the Financial Times newspaper, reported more than $8.8 billion in revenue last year.

Lots of this money comes from the US public education system. In neighboring Texas alone, Pearson is in the thick of a five-year, $500 million contract to write and grade several standardized tests.

But Pearson's new Common Core contract takes lucrative to the next level. It comes through the Partnership For Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers (PARCC), a federally funded consortium of 14 states that banded together to create a new standardized test aligned with the Common Core standards.

Each member state's education chief makes up PARCC's governing board, which meets quarterly. For New Mexico, that's Skandera, who enrolled the state in the consortium in August 2011.

To create the new standardized test, PARCC needed to find a company willing to take on the grunt work. The consortium also needed one of its member states to volunteer as a fiscal agent in charge of issuing the contract to create the test. New Mexico, a state that often finds its government involved in questionable dealmaking, was more than willing to step up to the plate.

What followed is a Land of Enchantment cliché.

Accusations that state officials rigged the bid to favor Pearson flew even before New Mexico officially awarded the contract to the company. In December, just weeks after the state issued the request for proposal for the contract, the Washington DC-based American Institutes for Research filed a protest against the bid.

Chief among the nonprofit's concerns in its reading of the proposal was how the bid required the winner of the contract—whether it was Pearson or a different company—to use Pearson's online testing system for the first year of testing. After that first year, the contract requires PARCC to switch from that online-testing system to a yet-to-be determined open source system for the remaining seven years.

To the institute's Executive Vice President Jon Cohen, the setup seemed sketchy.

"No one but Pearson could have won that first year," Cohen says. "They wanted to carry that advantage to all the other years."

Given the institute's own interest in the PARCC contract, its arguments should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, one thing's for certain: The circumstances that led to the Pearson contract contradict the competitive business environment that Common Core promised to create. Earlier this year, Bill Gates characterized the breadth of Common Core as akin to a universal "electrical plug" that will lead to more opportunities for more businesses to get involved in the mix.

"Scale is good for free-market competition," Gates said at a Washington DC panel sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute think tank. "You'd think that sort of pro-capitalistic market-driven people would be in favor of it."

But for those who follow the education industry, Pearson's awarding of the PARCC contract was as predictable as ever. Last year, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing warned that Common Core-aligned exams will still be written by "the same, incompetent, profit-driven companies" that have dominated the standardized testing market for years. Pearson was the only company to even bid on the PARCC contract.

Pearson's troubles with administering tests have cost nearly $40 million in court settlements and fines resulting from its wrong scoring of tens of thousands of tests across the country over the last 15 years. Yet, critics say the company's lavish donations to education nonprofits and influential relationships with public officials help it overcome these slip-ups.

"I smell a rat in this whole thing," says Kathy Korte, an Albuquerque school board member who in the last year has become one of the most vocal critics of the state's education reform policies. "There's something weird and wrong going on here when you think [about how] this testing stuff is going for all the PARCC states, and only one company benefits."

Korte is especially critical of Skandera's relationships with the many organizations that financially back Common Core.

Between the summer of 2011 and the fall of 2013, for example, PARCC paid at least $13,000 in airfare and lodging for Skandera to attend nine out-of-state conferences. Pearson frequently donates to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education-reform advocacy group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The foundation paid another $9,000 worth of Skandera's airfare and lodging during the same period. Skandera, meanwhile, serves in Chiefs for Change, a reform-advocacy network of current and former state education chiefs also run by Bush's foundation. (Before arriving in New Mexico, she worked as a deputy commissioner in Florida's Department of Education when Bush was governor.)

Skandera's dalliance with outside education groups has led to a complaint by an advocacy group to the Internal Revenue Service. Last fall, ProgressNow New Mexico accused Bush's group of breaking federal laws that prevent nonprofits from paying for gifts and services to public officials. The complaint is pending.

A public records request by SFR found that Skandera still billed regular salary hours from her department during many of these out-of-state trips. She has argued that the substance of these trips, such as testifying about New Mexico's reform efforts in front of Congress, were in the state's best interest.

State education department spokeswoman Aimee Barabe says Skandera's partnerships have resulted in bringing more money to the state to pay for public education, including a $150,000 Common Core-aligned grant from General Electric. She adds that taxpayers win because they don't have to pay for Skandera's trips.

But former state Health Secretary Alfredo Vigil says public officials must be careful even on trips that can easily be considered public business. Vigil, who served as a cabinet secretary from 2007 to 2010, cautions that taking money from outside groups is "generally a bad idea."

"It always raises the question of conflicts of interest," he says. "My rule of thumb was if the thought would cross my mind that it would in any shape or form look like a conflict, I wouldn't do it."

Pearson is the easy target, but the American Institutes for Research is possibly just as guilty in its quest for a piece of the education industry pie.

Pearson accuses the institute of desiring to break up the PARCC contract in a way that would force New Mexico to issue bids for smaller jobs. In this scenario, the institute would reap the benefits and taxpayers would pay more for the same services, Pearson argues.

The institute is no stranger to outsourced public education contracts, even here in New Mexico. Recently, the company has contracted with the state to design and administer standardized tests for students with disabilities.

Cohen maintains that unlike Pearson, the institute's nonprofit status means his company's first priority isn't to line shareholders' pockets and that it can't advocate for political causes.

"Our mission is to conduct and apply the best social science to make people's lives better," he says.

But in many ways, the institute's business model relies on the very same education-reform agendas that for-profit companies like Pearson back. Cohen's company has already proven it can win when states make unexpected U-turns in their education policies.

Last fall, Florida shocked the education community when it left the PARCC consortium over mounting concerns about costs and federal overreach. By the spring, the state granted the institute a six-year, $220 million contract to create and administer Florida's new flagship standardized test. Like the PARCC test, Florida's new standardized test will be based on Common Core standards.

Indeed, one of the New Mexico education department's biggest criticisms of the institute is that it holds contracts in Florida and Ohio that bundle the tasks of writing and administering tests in the same manner as the PARCC contract they're disputing.

"Apparently, what is anticompetitive in New Mexico is perfectly competitive in Florida and Ohio," reads the state education department's filed response to AIR's protest.

Kris Nielsen, a Las Cruces public school teacher and author of the anti-Common Core book Children of the Core, criticizes AIR for "just trying to get in on the action" in the public education outsourcing sweepstakes.

"The good news is that it [could] break up the Pearson monopoly," Nielsen says. "The bad news is that it's just more of the same."

Korte goes a step further by equating the scramble over the PARCC contract to "using our kids as guinea pigs and moneymaking objects."

For now, the institute's arguments against Pearson aren't meeting much success in New Mexico. Last week, State Purchasing Agent Larry Maxwell rejected the company's protest against the PARCC contract, stating that the bid's crafting "was a careful and thoughtful decision and approach made for the benefit of the public."

As of press time, the institute was weighing whether to challenge Maxwell's decision in a way that wouldn't delay the PARCC test from happening this year. Cohen says the legal team met after the ruling and feels positive about the institute prevailing in an appeal in Santa Fe's District Court.

In the classroom, Martye Einson is gearing up to teach the new PARCC test, which this year replaces the state's Standards Based Assessments.

Einson's test prep will begin the first day of school with vocabulary exercises. Soon, she'll have to sign a confidentiality agreement that will bar her from looking at the test questions and student answers. The PARCC "security agreement" warns that teachers caught peeking at tests could be investigated and lose their teaching licenses and jobs as a punishment.

Parents also don't get to see the tests. This is one of many reasons why Santa Fe parent Jennifer Gilmore says she opted her first-grade daughter out of standardized testing last year.

"You can't see the test," Gilmore says. "You can't look and tell what your child did wrong."

Cynthia Allen, another Santa Fe parent, opted her son out of standardized testing as well. She particularly disagrees with how students' standardized test results now factor in to the state's teacher evaluation system.

"My 7-year-old son is basically grading his teacher," Allen says. "How would you like a 7-year-old to be grading your job?"

States are also starting to opt out of the new standardized test plan. Ten states have dropped out of PARCC since 2010. Last month, Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal made an announcement that his state would decline to participate in both PARCC and Common Core. His state education board is expected to sue him over the matter, leaving Louisiana's future with PARCC up in the air.

Indiana, South Carolina and Oklahoma have completely dropped Common Core.

New Mexico won't likely be joining these states anytime soon. Instead, schools here will spend the next year adjusting to the more time-consuming test. This year, state public schools will block out eight weeks to issue the test, according to a PED document obtained by SFR. That's more than twice as long as the period the school district used to set aside for the previous testing scheme.

While kids won't be slaving away at the test the whole time—their exams take roughly 10 hours to complete over periods while the schools spend the remaining time on regular lessons and makeup exams from absent students—the test will still dominate much of the agenda.

"I can't imagine that extending the window is going to create less problems," argues Grace Mayer, a De Vargas Middle School art teacher who's also president of the National Education Association Santa Fe. "The primary focus of school [will be] to make sure that the primary population is going to get through the test."

Compounding the situation is the fact that Santa Fe isn't completely ready for the new test, at least not to the standards of PARCC's vision.

That's because students are supposed to take the test completely on computers. Mandates like this have raised hackles about the cash that tech companies stand to gain as schools are forced to update their computer equipment to provide for the test.

In February, the Santa Fe school board approved a property tax increase for a $55 million tech bond to inundate the district with computers and tablets over the next few years. The school district maintains that the new technology will be used primarily for its own five-year Digital Learning Plan and not just tests.

Even with the new coming money, Santa Fe schools are still not in a position to issue PARCC completely digitally this year. While the schools have the option of a full paper test, SFPS Chief Accountability and Strategy Officer Richard Bowman says the district is working to find a middle ground between paper and digital testing.

At 61, Einson's education career may come to an end before SFPS can fully adopt to a digital exam. Until then, she'll continue to juggle her literature lessons with teaching to the test.

She laments about recently seeing another Common Core-related assignment for Romeo and Juliet. The assignment instructs students to write an essay as Friar Laurence, the character who marries the couple in an attempt to resolve the violence between the lovers' warring families. As the friar, students must write a letter apologizing for Romeo and Juliet's suicides to their parents.

For Einson, the assignment is yet another lazy interpretation of the tragedy.

"It's assuming that Friar Laurence is somehow responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, and he's not," she explains. "He's done everything that a good pastor can do for his community."

She ends with a thought that could also easily explain her views on Common Core: "The whole thing just kind of pissed me off."

Read the state education department's latest PARCC memo:

July 7 Pwu - Parcc 21 Facts by joeyjpeters

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.