Policy Documents

Testimony to the Michigan Subcommittee on Common Core

July 23, 2013

Testimony to the Michigan Subcommittee on Common Core
July 31, 2013
By Joy Pullmann
Education research fellow, Heartland Institute

Thank you, Chairman Kelly, for the invitation to speak today, and to those assembled for your time and attention. I’m Joy Pullmann, an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute and mother of three children, one of whom you can see when I stand up. Michigan is where my grandparents met and raised five children outside of Detroit. My mother, aunts, and uncles were born here, my aunt has been a public school counselor here, and my uncles, cousins, and grandfather have made countless rounds as Michigan policemen and -women. I attended Hillsdale College here; this is where I met my husband, and where we became engaged. It is a beautiful state that has given me many of life’s greatest blessings, and I am always glad to return.

The Heartland Institute is a nationwide, state-focused think tank that researches and promotes ideas that empower individuals. I speak for myself, as we believe in intellectual freedom. Today I will outline the main arguments against Common Core, both from Michigan and around the nation. These include a loss of state sovereignty and local autonomy, low academic quality, dangers to student privacy, and subverting the central reason public education exists.

My testimony is heavily footnoted and will be available through Representative Kelly’s office if anyone wishes to check my facts. Some will be surprising.

Governor Snyder believes Common Core originated with lawmakers, but he is misinformed. Private organizations created the initiative, and continued to control it throughout the Common Core development process. In 2007, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned a report on the future of No Child Left Behind, which called for national education standards.[1] In May 2008, the Gates Foundation awarded the Hunt Institute $2.2 million to promote national standards.[2] The Hunt Institute then began partnering with the National Governors Association (NGA) to target state leaders with its national standards message.[3] In December 2008, NGA, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and Achieve Inc. released a report calling for national standards. It recommended “a strong state-federal partnership” to accomplish this goal.[4] These three groups then answered their own call, and coordinated Common Core. Their efforts were underwritten, once again, by the Gates Foundation.[5]

The list of people who sat on Common Core committees is long, but the people who controlled the outcome were few. Committee members told me they had no power over the standards. That was reserved to the standards’ five lead writers, of whom none live in Michigan, none have been K-12 teachers, and two had never written standards.[6] Although Common Core’s shepherds requested public comments, they never published these or responded to them publicly, which is typically required for public rule-making.

The NGA and CCSSO are private, Washington DC-based trade organizations. Unlike state boards of education and legislatures, their activities are not subject to open records requests or open meetings laws. Common Core was created entirely in private, and its contributors signed confidentiality agreements.[7] NGA receives approximately 80 percent of its funds from the federal government, according to its tax documents.[8] CCSSO receives approximately half its funds from the federal government.[9] Furthermore, Americans already have “state-led” mechanisms for instituting new policies. These are the state legislatures and U.S. Congress. Private groups are free dream as they wish, but not to cover their attempts to control public policy with a veneer of legal legitimacy. State legislatures—and, here in Michigan, also the state board of education[10]—are the only bodies constitutionally granted power over K-12 education, not governors and state superintendents with powerful whims.

Even so, NGA and CCSSO looped governors and state superintendents into signing a complete education restructure, without the consent of the legislature or state board, through memorandums of agreement committing to the Common Core project,[11] and subsequently to national Common Core tests.[12] The second agreement clearly subordinates Michigan’s legislature to the national Common Core testing group it has joined, Smarter Balanced. It commits the state to “address barriers in State law, statute, regulation, or policy to implementing the proposed assessment system.”[13] I’ll have more to say about these agreements later.

Lawmakers, business leaders, and the public must understand there is simply no evidence on which to base claims bandied about here in Michigan that Common Core standards are necessary to improve learning. None. When people, such as the Detroit Free Press editorial board,[14] Jeb Bush, or Business Leaders for Michigan,[15] state Common Core will benefit children, you must demand they provide evidence. They have none, besides talking points sponsored by the Gates Foundation and the federal government (yes, both have paid for Common Core public relations campaigns[16]). It would insult religion to call Common Core a matter of blind faith. 

A series of data analyses from the left-leaning Brookings Institution find no link between high state standards and high student achievement.[17] Many nations whose students outperform ours on international exams have national standards, but the same is true of countries that perform far worse.[18] In short, no research supports the idea that common standards and tests benefit children. Michigan should have learned about this through working with Achieve’s American Diploma Project, through which it and 34 other states updated their standards and tests. Eight years later, we have Achieve back telling Michigan what a rotten job they did leading Michigan’s pursuit of better standards and tests, because the outcomes of Michigan students are still pretty lame, so the answer is more Achieve-led coalitions of states changing their standards and tests.

A competent sales team can get you to think you need what they’re selling, and that’s what has happened. The result has been a perversion of states’ legal systems and usurpation of authority over education by outside special interests who believe bigger is better, and central control by technocrats is best, contrary to all economic and socio-political evidence and experience showing otherwise. Economist Milton Friedman and sociologist James Q. Wilson definitively show—if the USSR did not—that planned economies mangle humans.

Since I understand you will again hear from English language arts expert Dr. Sandra Stotsky, I will leave her to discuss the quality of Common Core dictates on that subject. So I will discuss its math, which is nowhere near “rigorous” or “internationally benchmarked,” according to people involved with and independent of the Common Core project.

Dr. William Schmidt of Michigan State University has repeatedly presented state legislators deceptive explanations of his research on Common Core math. To quote Ze’ev Wurman, a contributor to California’s previous math standards, which were among the best in the nation: “Schmidt and [coauthor] Houang’s own data do not support the claim that the topic progression in the CCSSM are similar to the progressions of the TIMSS A+ countries, nor that states that did better on the NAEP had standards more closely aligned with the CCSSM. Further, their claim of ‘coherence’ and ‘hierarchy’ for the CCSSM is achieved only by reshuffling of CCSSM content coverage charts so they will seem to look like those of the successful nations.”[19] The actual research these two did shows that Common Core at most matches top international math standards approximately 56 percent. It also shows that the standards of states that perform poorly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are much more aligned with Common Core math than the math standards of top NAEP achievers. The two repeatedly shuffle data to get the conclusions they’ve been foisting upon state policymakers, moving standards out of one grade into another until they all magically seem to align.

Let’s talk about the math aside from Dr. Schmidt. Compare Common Core math to that recommended by the acclaimed program initiated by Dr. E.D. Hirsch, called Core Knowledge. As early as kindergarten, Core Knowledge students encounter money in math class, while Common Core students don’t until second grade.[20] In second grade, Core Knowledge students begin learning multiplication, which Common Core delays until third grade.[21] By sixth grade, Common Core students are still exploring multiplication, which Core Knowledge says is far too late: “By fifth grade in countries like Japan or France, students are already at work on a sophisticated curriculum, quite different in its demands from their work in third and even fourth grade. Students still learning multiplication facts in fourth grade would not be prepared for such demands.”[22] This quality gap only widens as students age.

This is why Stanford University mathematician R. James Milgram, who was the only math content expert on its final review committee, refused to sign his name to Common Core. He says “[B]y the end of fifth grade the material being covered in arithmetic and algebra in Core Standards is more than a year behind the early grade expectations in most high-achieving countries. By the end of seventh grade Core Standards are roughly two years behind.”[23] Johns Hopkins University math professor and Common Core math feedback committee member W. Stephen Wilson says the math standards of California, Florida, Indiana, Washington state, and Washington DC are “clearly better” than Common Core’s.[24] Indeed, one of the two Common Core lead writers in mathematics, Jason Zimba, told the Massachusetts board of education Common Core graduates students prepared for a non-selective community college.[25]

We now turn to the last area of major concern, which is testing and data collection. Common Core absolutely requires data collection on students, despite what Achieve’s Michael Cohen told you earlier this month. Although Achieve coordinated the writing of Common Core and now runs one of the national Common Core testing groups, perhaps he hasn’t read its voluminous agreements—some are more than 1,200 pages long. But I have.

These documents reveal Common Core is not merely standards. The memorandum of understanding governors and state superintendents signed to start Common Core envisions the project as standards plus common assessments.[26] These assessments and their related agreements place not just state sovereignty but student privacy at risk. Michigan has promised to send unspecified“student-level” data to national Common Core testing group Smarter Balanced,[27] which will enter “a centralized data repository…where all student responses and professional development materials will be housed and all test results and other information will be generated and reported.”[28] Smarter Balanced runs its own day-to-day operations, and big decisions are made by the 21 states on its governing board, another mechanism that places control of Michigan’s testing and data policies outside of Michigan and again unaccountable to taxpayers.[29] By the way, Smarter Balanced has not publicly specified its student data policies.

Once Michigan student data reaches the Smarter Balanced national database, Smarter Balanced has agreed to “provide timely and complete access to any and all data collected at the State level” to the U.S. Department of Education or any government or research agency the feds designate.[30] I call this the “student data pipeline.” Once the federal government can access that data, recent changes to the federal student privacy law mean student data can go literally anywhere. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education rewrote the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act to say it or any educational agency such as a state or school may share student information with anyone the agency wants, without consulting or notifying parents.[31]

A great deal more information about children is being entered into Michigan’s expanding data systems that are now open to Smarter Balanced. According to its 2009 federal grant application, Michigan is working to “interconnect PK-12, postsecondary, and workforce data systems.”[32] The state also is “connect[ing] data from assessments, special education, Michigan Department of Human Services…and career and technical education systems.”[33] This data includes electronic transcripts for all high school students that will be stored indefinitely.[34] The state Department of Education wants to fill these databases with student financial aid information and ACT testing results, too.[35] I don’t know if you’ve ever filled out a financial aid application, but it essentially encompasses a family’s entire finances.

Michigan also told the federal government it would use stimulus funds to “create compatibility” with the National Center for Education Statistics’ “data model.”[36] This data model includes 416 datapoints on individuals, including invasive subjects like family religion, voting status, bus schedules, medical records, and more.[37] And while Michigan uses randomly generated student identification codes, in the internet era these are no longer a secure way to keep a large file of individual data anonymous. To connect education databases to Michigan’s workforce systems the state plans to connect student identification numbers to Social Security numbers.[38] That guarantees student records lose their anonymity. Even without Social Security numbers, the amount of information in these growing student files means anonymity is impossible because no two have the same data profiles, according to researcher Richard Innes. This multiplication of highly sensitive student information sets up several sets of databases extremely attractive to hackers, beyond placing it far beyond the hands of its rightful owners.

The whole point of these data initiatives, and of Common Core, is to “accelerat[e] the transitions of thousands of workers into good-paying jobs through relevant postsecondary training or education,” according to the Michigan Department of Education.[39] In short, this entire Common Core system is aimed to create a factory-style economy, where you input small children at one end and get worker drones out the other, carefully pruned to fit the workforce slots laid out for them by the central planners of a managed economy. Consider the mantra of Common Core: “College- and career-ready.” It contrasts with what the Michigan constitution cites as the reason for the state’s public education system: “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”[40] Odd—we never hear anything about good government or happiness in regards to Common Core. Perhaps they didn’t study Michigan’s constitution.

Michigan’s people knew as recently as 1963, when the constitution was amended, that the purpose of education is not narrow workforce training, especially in a world where the fastest growing jobs for today’s kindergarteners don’t even exist yet. Taxpayers fund education because constitutional republics demand self-governing citizens. Any education system that does not seek to graduate citizens cannot graduate good workers, either. I believe Dr. Arnn and Phil Kilgore will have more to say about that. 

How can Michigan do well by its students without relinquishing its constitutional autonomy over education to unaccountable private interests and the federal government, neither of whom are legal authorities in this regard? Simple: Michigan could upgrade its own standards and testing above Common Core. As Dr. Wilson noted, several states have already done so. To accommodate reasonable concerns teachers have about jettisoning their work preparing for Common Core, give them an overlay of Common Core compared to new and better Michigan standards. Virginia has done that without adopting Common Core.

Common Core is not only an unproven experiment in which Michigan children are unwitting guinea pigs, it gives parents and communities no place to go with their concerns about education because it controls education through bureaucrats and commissions they pay but didn’t elect and can’t demand answers from. Anyone who has been educated for self-government and knows a bit about history and American citizenship can see Common Core restrains the people’s rights and liberties, and as such should be abolished.

Thank you. I welcome your questions. 

[1] “Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation’s Children,” Commission on No Child Left Behind, Aspen Institute, 2007: http://www.aucd.org/docs/Aspen%20Commission%20on%20NCLB.pdf.

[2] “Our Response to Florida Republican Leaders’ Defense of Common Core,” Jane Robbins, American Principles Project, July 24, 2013: http://americanprinciplesproject.org/preserve-innocence/2013/our-response-to-florida-republican-leaders-defense-of-common-core/.

[3] “Five People Wrote ‘State-Led’ Common Core,” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, June 7, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/06/07/five-people-wrote-state-led-common-core.

[4] “Benchmarking for Success,” National Governors Association, Chief Council of State School Officers, and Achieve Inc., December 18, 2008: http://www.nga.org/files/live/sites/NGA/files/pdf/0812BENCHMARKING.PDF.

[5] “Education Policies Led by Gates, Not States?” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, February 11, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/02/11/education-policies-led-gates-not-states.

[6] “Five People Wrote ‘State-Led’ Common Core,” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, June 7, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/06/07/five-people-wrote-state-led-common-core.

[7] “Message from Professor Jim Milgram, Standford University, to Richard Innes Regarding the Conduct of the Common Core State Standards Validation Committee, May 11, 2013: http://www.freedomkentucky.org/images/8/81/Message_from_Professor_Jim_Milgram_Regarding_Delphi_Issues.pdf.

[8] “‘State-Led’ Common Core Pushed by Federally Funded Nonprofit,” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, April 24, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/04/24/state-led-common-core-pushed-federally-funded-nonprofit.

[9] “Tax-Sponsored Common Core Meetings Closed to Public,” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, January 3, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/01/03/tax-sponsored-common-core-meetings-closed-public.

[11] “Common Core Standards Memorandum of Agreement,” National Governors Association and Chief Council of State School Officers, May 8, 2009: http://www.freedomkentucky.org/images/c/c6/2009_CCSS_Commitment_MOA_from_Open_Recs_Request.pdf.

[12] Memorandum of Understanding, SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, Race to the Top Fund Assessment Program, Comprehensive Systems Grant Application, p. 400: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-assessment/rtta2010smarterbalanced.pdf.

[13] Ibid, p. 402.

[14] “Indulging the fringe on Common Core while Michigan's students fall behind,” Detroit Free Press editorial, July 17, 2013:  http://www.freep.com/article/20130717/OPINION01/307160111/common-core-michigan-legislature-McMillin-Republicans-education.

[15] “Common Core is right for Michigan,” William Parfet, Mlive.com, July 24, 2013: http://www.mlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2013/07/common_core_is_right_for_michi.html.

[16] Gates’ funding is through myriad organizations and can be found at its grants tracker here: . The two federally funded Common Core testing consortia included in their federal grant applications a plan for public relations related to the tests and standards.

[17] “How Well Are American Students Learning?” Tom Loveless, Brookings Institution, Volume III, Number 1 (February 2012): www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2012/2/brown%20center/0216_brown_education_loveless.pdf.

[18] Testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Education, Elementary, and Secondary Education, Jay Greene, September 21, 2011: http://jaypgreene.com/2011/09/21/my-testimony-on-national-standards-before-us-house/.

[19] Personal correspondence with the author, reprinted here: “Why Common Core’s Math Standards Don’t Add Up,” Ze’ev Wurman, Pioneer Institute, June 24, 2013: http://pioneerinstitute.org/news/why-common-cores-math-standards-dont-measure-up-by-guest-blogger-zeev-wurman/

[20] What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know, ed. E.D. Hirsch (Delta 1997). “Common Core State Standards for Mathematics,” National Governors Association and Chief Council of State School Officers, 2010.

[21] What Your First Grader Needs to Know, ed. E.D. Hirsch (Delta 1999). “Common Core State Standards for Mathematics,” National Governors Association and Chief Council of State School Officers, 2010.

[22] What Your Third Grader Needs to Know, ed. E.D. Hirsch (Delta 2002). “Common Core State Standards for Mathematics,” National Governors Association and Chief Council of State School Officers, 2010.

[24] “The Common Core Math Standards,” Ze`ev Wurman and W. Stephen Wilson, Education Next, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer 2012): http://educationnext.org/the-common-core-math-standards/.

[25] Minutes of the Regular Meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, March 23, 2010: www.doe.mass.edu/boe/minutes/10/0323reg.doc‎.

[26] “Common Core Standards Memorandum of Agreement,” National Governors Association and Chief Council of State School Officers, May 8, 2009: http://www.freedomkentucky.org/images/c/c6/2009_CCSS_Commitment_MOA_from_Open_Recs_Request.pdf.

[27] “Race to the Top Assessment Program Application for New Grants,” SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, June 23, 2010, p. 100: http://www.smarterbalanced.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Smarter-Balanced-RttT-Application.pdf.

[28] Ibid, p. 142.

[29] Memorandum of Understanding, SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, Race to the Top Fund Assessment Program, Comprehensive Systems Grant Application, p. 406-410: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-assessment/rtta2010smarterbalanced.pdf.

[30] “Cooperative Agreement Between the U.S. Department of Education and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium and the State of Washington (fiscal agent), January 7, 2011, p. 10: http://www.moagainstcommoncore.com/documents/SBAC%20USED%20agreement%20copy.pdf.

[31] “Controlling Education from the Top,” Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins, Pioneer Institute/American Principles Project, May 2012: pioneerinstitute.org/download/controlling-education-from-the-top/.

[32] Michigan’s Application for Grants Under the Statewide Longitudinal Data System Recovery Act Grants, November 19, 2009, p. e0: https://nces.ed.gov/Programs/SLDS/pdf/Michigan2009-ARRA.pdf.

[33] Ibid, p. e2.

[34] Ibid, p. e7.

[35] Ibid, p. e17.

[36] Ibid.

[37] National Education Data Model, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed May 13, 2013: https://nces.ed.gov/forum/datamodel/.

[38] Ibid, p. e16 and e24.

[39] Ibid, p. 10.