Erin Osborne warns in this powerful article at Salon.com that the profiteers are invading the classroom. They aren’t just selling pencils and textbooks. They are creating business ventures to make millions from controlling and directing the curriculum and testing, supplying the software and hardware that the new curriculum and testing requires.
Tellingly, she titles her article: “Keep Fox News Out of the Classroom! Rupert Murdoch, Common Core, and the Dangerous Rise of For-Profit Public Education.”
Arne Duncan spins a narrative that the Common Core standards mark a brilliant new direction for American education, in which achievement gaps will disappear as every child learns the exact same lessons in the same sequence in every state and school district.
But Osborne sees something else:
America’s most recent education reform, the Common Core State Standards, has divided teachers and parents across the United States. Whether or not the standards mark a step in the right direction for the education system, one thing is for sure. For the first time in American history, businesses are able to freely tap into the K-12 market on a large scale, and they aren’t waiting.
Make no mistake, she writes, the Common Core standards were designed to create a national market for goods and services (Joanne Weiss, tapped by Secretary Duncan to run Race to the Top, said that this was the purpose of national standards). Now, entrepreneurs are devising plans to get rich from taxpayer dollars:
How have the authors proposed we track the success of this reform? Testing, and lots of it. Along with the Common Core come two new major testing consortiums called SmarterBalanced and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Forget your No. 2 pencil; these aren’t the bubble tests you remember from school but adaptive computer testing that is required two to three times a year for every student in every grade. From the SmarterBalanced website, “The full suite of summative, interim, and formative assessments is estimated to cost $27.30 per student … These costs are estimates because a sizable portion of the cost is for test administration and scoring services that will not be provided by Smarter Balanced; states will either provide these services directly or procure them from vendors in the private sector.”
Big business in education isn’t new. Pearson and McGraw-Hill have dominated the textbook market while the College Board, makers of the SAT and Advanced Placement courses, are the veritable gatekeepers to higher education. The entire U.S. education system has been valued at nearly $1.5 trillion, second only to the healthcare industry. As media mogul Rupert Murdoch said after acquiring education company Amplify (previously known as Wireless Generations), “When it comes to K-12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.”
Until the creation of Common Core, businesses have found breaking into the K-12 market very difficult. States have historically written their own curriculums and standards, buying suitable materials and textbooks as they saw fit. Creating content that was accessible to multiple states was difficult and being able to approach the districts within their tiny budget window was nearly impossible. The nuanced field of state, local and federal funding and regulations that companies are forced to navigate takes years to master and states were the ones controlling the checkbook.
From a business point of view, why go to them when you can make them come to you? Many of the people who financially aided the creation of Common Core have investments in place in companies that would do quite well with the standards implementation. By using financial clout and political connections, billionaires, not teachers, were able to influence the landscape of our education system. If states wanted a chunk of the RttT money, they had to adopt Common Core. If they adopt Common Core, they have to pay for the assessments and proprietary materials that come with it. Products that are “Common Core Aligned” have flung the door to K-12 wide open. Still not convinced Common Core is more about money than education? Check out the American Girl back-to-school accessory set children can buy, complete with a mini Common Core-aligned Pearson textbook.
Osborne notes the number of start-ups that have jumped into the education business, seeing this lucrative market, and she also notes that most start-ups don’t survive:
Given the growing emphasis on technology in the classroom plus Silicon Valley’s affinity for gadgets, there are dozens of start-ups trying to cash in on the new market. Rupert Murdoch’s company Amplify has created its own tablet and Common Core-aligned games. According to CNBC, the amount of venture capital invested in education start-ups quadrupled, from $154 million in 2003 to $630 million in 2012.
Mick Hewitt, co-founder and CEO of education start-up MasteryConnect, said earlier this year, “I would be wrong if I said the Common Core and the dollars around it haven’t driven a lot of the activity for us.” MasteryConnect raised more than $5.2 million in investments, $1.1 million of which came from the NewSchools Venture Fund, which in turn has received more than $16 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation since 2010. Hewitt does not have an education background.
Note the investment in this particular start-up by the NewSchools Venture Fund. NSVF is the epicenter of the for-profit approach to education. Its CEO Ted Mitchell was nominated by the Obama administration to become Undersecretary of Education, the second most powerful job in the Department. NSVF is not known as a friend of public education, but as a source of funding and strategy for charter chains, charter schools, and for-profit ventures.
It should not be surprising, really, that Secretary Duncan picked the head of NSVF to become #2 at the Department of Education. In 2009, he asked Joanne Weiss, who was then the CEO of NSVF to run Race to the Top. Once the Race to the Top competition was completed, Weiss then became Duncan’s chief of staff. Weiss memorably described the rationale for the Common Core this way in a blog for the Harvard Business Review:
The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.
This was certainly the first time in history that the U.S. Department of Education created a program whose purpose was to stimulate new markets for entrepreneurs and investment.
Erin Osborne is an active member of the Education Bloggers Network, a group of bloggers who support public education. These were her first reflections on the recent conference of the Network for Public Education.