Schools activists protest Common Core

By T.J. BLACKMORE

On Nov. 13 some 800 parents and teachers crowded into the Mineola High School auditorium in Garden City Park, N.Y., to voice their concern to Commissioner John King Jr. over the implementation of the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

The CCSS are national standards in math and English language arts for K-12 students that have been adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia. They were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers in a secretive process, with practically no input from classroom teachers. Bill Gates was one of the principle supporters of this initiative and has contributed $191 million to the development and marketing of the standards.

States were coerced into agreeing to the standards in order to be eligible for a portion of the 4.35 billion dollars in federal funds under Obama’s Race to the Top education plan.

States must fully implement the CCSS and the high stakes tests that accompany them by the 2014-15 school year. An entire generation of students is being treated as guinea pigs, as the standards have never been field-tested.

Teachers are upset by the rushed rollout because they have not had sufficient time to receive training and prepare lesson plans. The Baltimore County Teachers Association filed a grievance on behalf of their 8700 members, claiming the new standards are making them work hours far beyond their normal day. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten has criticized the rollout of the CCSS, but in the end she has not waivered in her support for the standards themselves.

Observations about the CCSS from teachers and parents are disturbing and lead many to conclude that the standards are actually harming children. Reports of children crying, vomiting, and one student banging his head on his desk in frustration during the new Common Core tests all point to the toxic stress that studies show is detrimental to the development of areas of the brain necessary for learning.

According to the American Association of Pediatrics, adults should work to limit children’s exposure to continuously stressful situations. But the new CCSS assessments are only adding to an already extreme regiment of testing.

In Pittsburgh students are required to take 33 tests in fourth grade alone. The schedule in Bridgeport, Conn., calls for six weeks of district-mandated tests, another week of state-required tests in science, and the final 12 weeks of school for the new Common Core tests. Some districts go so far as to administer standardized tests to kindergarteners, first and second graders. In October, 90% of parents of children in these grades boycotted testing at Castle Bridge School in New York City.

A major criticism from experts in early childhood education is that the new standards are developmentally inappropriate for the early grades. Dr. Marcy Guddemi, head of the Gesell Institute of Child Development, asserts that combining an age-inappropriate curriculum with standardized testing for children under eight amounts to child abuse.

After administering the new tests in New York, eight principals drafted a letter to parents articulating 11 points of concern about the tests. In a matter of weeks, 530 other principals and 3000 parents signed in support. The discontent over CCSS has now spread to 17 states that are rethinking, delaying, or considering opting out from the new standards, including Louisiana and Massachusetts. Louisiana has been a stronghold for the corporate reform agenda, and Massachusetts is a state that many others look to emulate as it consistently receives top rankings for its public schools.

CCSS is another step in expanding a lucrative new market in K-12 education. Just as handing over public schools to charter school operators means funneling massive amounts of taxpayer dollars to private companies, CCSS only furthers this process.

Bill Gates said that Common Core “will unleash a powerful market of people providing services for better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large, uniform base of customers looking at using products that can help every kid learn, and every teacher get better.” Giant corporate publishing companies like Pearson stand to make enormous profits on their product line of lesson plans, test-prep materials, and the actual tests themselves.

New York has already spent over $28 million on curriculum development, a task that in the past would cost a District around $1000 per grade level. Another expense to schools is the technology infrastructure needed to administer the computer based tests. The Pioneer Institute estimates full implementation of the CCSS will cost $16 billion.

The corporate reformers not only aim to boost profits from the CCSS, they also will try to use lower test scores to label schools as failing and turn them into charter schools. Ultimately the CCSS serve the corporate elite well because they seek to avoid the real cause of the education gap—poverty.

The wealthy 1% has no solution to an economic crisis that has led to a surge in the number of children living in poverty. About 48% of public school students are now eligible to receive free or reduced lunch. A 2012 National Employment Law Project report revealed that three out of five jobs created during the so-called economic “recovery” have been low-wage jobs, while only one in five jobs lost during the recession were low wage. The education reform agenda of the corporate elite is really aimed at creating a compliant workforce to fill the increasing number of poverty-wage jobs.

Public higher education is also facing severe attacks, which will leave high school graduates with few options other than choosing between a career at Walmart or McDonald’s. But they will be more fortunate than the students labeled as “failing” according to the new standards, who will increasingly drop out or be pushed out and funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline.

The stakes for children are high, but the movement to defend public education is winning significant victories. In Hartford, Conn., two proposals to hand over public schools to private charter school operators were defeated. After Superintendent Kishimoto labeled Clark Elementary School as “failing” and disclosed her plan to convert the school to an Achievement First Charter School, parents, teachers, and community members organized a rally and press conference. Their voices were loud enough to cause the mayor to side with them, and the plan was soon abandoned without ever going to a vote.

Achievement First is the largest charter school management company in the state. It was co-founded by Stefan Pryor, who is now serving as the state’s Commissioner of Education. Recently, Achievement First Hartford Academy came under fire when a report was issued showing that 11.7% of kindergarteners and first-graders were suspended last year an average of 5.4 times each. That is a rate nine times higher than in Hartford public schools.

Days after this victory, Kishimoto targeted another public school, SAND Elementary School. This time the school was slated to go to Steve Perry, principle of Capital Preparatory Magnet School, one of the nation’s most outspoken union bashers. Perry subscribes to the “no excuses” philosophy that is so prominent amongst the corporate reformers—all the challenges that children living in poverty face are discounted. Students are expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, make the cut or face being pushed out.

Last year, Perry created his own charter school management company, which lists him as the president and sole officer. This sweetheart deal would have also given Perry’s private company control of the magnet school where he is now serving as principal, meaning his company would receive upwards of $15 million per year in state funding for operating the two schools.

The next Board of Education meeting was standing room only, with over 200 in attendance. Outraged parents blasted Perry for his arrogance and bullying tactics. They criticized the board’s lack of transparency, and the whole model of school choice that pits parents against parents.

Later, in a closed-door session, the plan was defeated in a 5-4 vote. The following day Perry posted on his Twitter account, “The only way to lose a fight is to stop fighting. All this did was piss me off. It’s so on. Strap up, there will be head injuries.” Several people, including the chair of the Board of Education, are now calling for an investigation into Perry’s behavior.

The movement to defend public education is growing, and each new victory demonstrates that the unity of parents, teachers, and all those opposed to corporate hegemony is more powerful than the deep pockets of the 1%.