Thursday, December 19, 2013

Common Core and your family’s data

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in an 8-part series exploring Common Core

In May 2010 the New York State Education Department reveled in the receipt of a $20 million grant from the federal government that was dedicated to the implementation of a statewide longitudinal data system (LDS). The alleged goal of the new system was to begin the matching of student, teacher, and course information at the pre-school through Grade 12 levels and ultimately link the vast amount of amassed information with the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY).

This master plan was not the result of an independent need as determined by the State. Rather, it was a submission to the federal government, as the only way to secure more of the $4 billion in Race to the Top funds was to include an LDS project in the application. Race to the Top is also the Obama Administration’s funding tool – and attractant -- for Common Core adoption.

Common Core’s reliance on individual and aggregate student data was not entirely unexpected as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation remains the largest funding source for Common Core, Inc. Look at who benefits from new, mandated computer systems: Bill Gates’ Microsoft (more on this in part 8 of the series). Data-mining is also par for the course in modern government --- look at what the National Security Agency (NSA) gleans from our cell phones, emails, and internet searches. 

As is the case with the NSA’s data collection, citizens should look at Common Core’s with a concerned eye.

The primary software manager and data hoarder behind Common Core’s computer system is inBloom, an Atlanta-based company founded by the Carnegie Corp. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (they they area again!). inBloom will manage every students’ grades, test scores, and attendance reports. On top of that, New York will also collect suspension records, medical diagnoses and economic status. All of the information will be held in a cloud managed by which is accessible by every school administrator across the state, unknown numbers of SUNY and CUNY personnel, federal officials, and inBloom’s commercial clients who will allegedly use the data only to develop teaching modules and learning products. Many more may gain access because inBloom openly admits – despite the expertise of its backers – that it “cannot guarantee the security of the information stored…or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted.”

Parents across the country have raised a stink about the data-mining. Beyond the security fears, many parents see their child’s school records as being something that only they and their local districts can possess and only the parents should be able to decide who else sees. It’s not something that should be shared with just anyone without consent. The thinking is that detailed school history – especially with the finer nuances included - is just as sensitive as an individual’s medical records and should be treated with the same dignity. 

This invasion of privacy and sharing of information across multiple sectors was not what was intended or, more accurately, it’s not what was originally portrayed to the masses. In the press releases that accompanied New York’s acquisition of the database grant in 2010, Senior Deputy Commissioner for P-12 Education John King was quoted as saying, “We are building a data rich foundation for the continuous analysis and improvement of the state’s education structure.” There was no mention of federal or commercial interests and their ability to acquire the same information for their uses.

It just so happens that King is now the state education commissioner and he remains the only education head in the US still pushing ahead with a statewide data-mining plan. Other states that received grants (like Georgia and Delaware) have pulled out while Massachusetts is experimenting with inBloom in just a select few districts.

Others still are watching and waiting. Educators and bureaucrats across the nation want to learn from our experience with inBloom: They want New Yorkers to work out the bugs for them; suffer the consequences of software and security flaws and lawsuits; and make the initial abandonment of families’ right to privacy.

New York is, for once, a leader --- but not in a way any self-respecting parent would like.         

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in an 8-part series about Common Core

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

That quote was courtesy of one of the greatest minds of all-time, Albert Einstein. He understood what helped to develop his incomparable intellect and could do the same for future generations – early and frequent exposure to fictional works.

This is something that language arts teachers (more popularly known as English teachers) have known and practiced for years. By focusing on the readers’ ability to understand and interpret in their own way a masterpiece of literature or poetry, and also affording them the chance to write their own masterpieces, teachers could encourage and hone creative thinking, the single most important tool for personal and professional success.

That is atypical to most schooling. Science, math, and history classes take what is known or proven and ask that students master facts and processes; there is little if any room for exploration or personal interpretation. That is the nature of the beast within those subjects.

English classrooms were always the only places in schools where higher order thinking skills could be fostered. But, those days appear numbered. Because of Common Core, the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum is devolving and English is becoming yet another class where facts are to be regurgitated and expression is stymied.

The alleged goal of Common Core is to make students workforce-ready so, to that end, the developers at Achieve Inc. decided to emphasize nonfiction. Novels and short fiction that once dominated the routine have been diminished in their volume, with newspaper articles, dry text and even boring owner’s manuals taking over.  If you thought Moby Dick’s pithiness was a test of your focus as a student, imagine your child’s disdain for manuals.   

Common Core’s original plan was to divide the eighth grade curriculum along the lines of 55% nonfiction and 45% fiction. That isn’t what is being enforced. Nor is it what students and teachers alike are being graded on. Last year’s Grade 8 ELA test was 79% nonfiction and 21% fiction, a far cry from what was sold to the schools.

I shudder to think of what employers Achieve Inc. consulted in proceeding in this manner. As a businessman, I want people working with me – inside my company and outside of it -- who can think on their feet, creatively and positively react to the circumstances before them, and thoughtfully ponder how to make their lives easier and their customers’ experience better. With creativity stifled in their formative years, they will be unable to perform as well as one would hope in the workplace.

As a parent, I can’t help but wonder how Common Core will help my daughter at all when the time comes. I spend much time thinking about how my wife and I will be investing considerably more effort into her intellectual development to overcome what Common Core doesn’t give her. 

What it could give her can be pretty scary.

Consider an assignment given to third graders at various school districts across the US. After reading the following text, students were asked to complete an exercise where the solutions can only be provided by making logical inferences and explaining how they got their answers:

“Ruby sat on the bed she shared with her husband holding a hairclip. There was something mysterious and powerful about the cheaply manufactured neon clip that she was fondling in her newly suspicious palms. She didn’t recognize the hairclip. It was too big to be their daughter’s, and Ruby was sure that it wasn’t hers. She hadn’t had friends over in weeks but here was this hairclip, little and green with a few long black hair strands caught in it. Ruby ran her fingers through her own blonde hair. She had just been vacuuming when she noticed this small, bright green object under the bed. Now their life would never be the same. She would wait here until Mike returned home.”

Let that sink in. Third graders were given a story about entirely-adult content (infidelity) that is beyond their realm of maturity and understanding. Most of them have no idea what’s going on here (and any parent worth their salt would not want them to) and any student who does is likely experiencing a painfully dramatic and emotionally damaging home life.

This is the present and future of education in America under the Common Core regime. How is any of it supposed to make our nation smarter and stronger? 

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Editor’s note: This is the 3rd in an 8-part series about Common Core

While the National Governors Association was instrumental in promoting and distributing the Common Core standards, it was an organization that calls itself Achieve, Inc. that created the standards themselves.

In 2006, Education Week ranked Achieve as one of the most influential education policy organizations in the nation. Achieve, founded in 1996, touts itself as, “…an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit education reform organization dedicated to working with states to raise academic standards and graduation requirements, improve assessments, and strengthen accountability.” It hangs its hat on being “…the only education reform organization led by a Board of Directors of governors and business leaders.”

You will notice that despite identifying itself or being recognized as one of the leaders in American education, Achieve’s board of directors is missing the most important part of the equation – the educators. Instead, the emphasis of power in deciding who should learn what is placed on people who don’t administer education or fail to be directly involved with it -- and shouldn’t be.

Yes, governors may budget for state spending on schools, but in the day-to-day operations of a state government their personal involvement in primary and secondary education is minimal. They aren’t trained in education (when is the last time you saw a governor with a teaching degree?) and they leave such matters to their staff – who ultimately assume control through top-down methods proven to broken (i.e. Regents).  

While it sounds good that business leaders are involved in the process (they are, after all, consumers of the final product of public education through employment), and it’s something that this columnist has advocated, it is best left at the local level where consortiums of business leaders, teachers, and superintendents can more effectively work together to address the needs of the workforce and students in that specific region. As you get higher up in the food chain and further away from local efforts and local control, corruption – both illegal and in its legalized form of corporatism – run rampant (that is something we will discuss in Part 8 of this series when we look at the private entities benefitting from the institution of Common Core).   

Without teachers, let alone administrators like principals or superintendents, involved in the strategic planning and oversight of Achieve, Inc., thus Common Core, you know that it was destined for failure from the start.

Achieve, Inc. alleges that educators were involved in the standard writing process. The National Governors Association website has a list of 135 people who developed the standards and/or provided feedback of them. It can be read at

A cursory glance at the list finds that only 11 of the contributors work at or recently retired from school districts. The other 124 are employed in universities and state governments or they may be consultants. So, the standards were written by team of which 92% do not or have not worked with youth. The rule makers ended up being people who teach adults and/or tell schools how to teach. They are folks totally disconnected from children and teens and the art and science of teaching them.

This was never made more evident than the fact that the teams, though dictating what is expected of early childhood education (K-3), had not one expert or teacher versed or experienced in that matter. A high schooler is nothing like a college student who is nothing like an elementary school student. Yet, it seems Achieve, Inc. would have us believe otherwise.

It’s a classic case of the ivory towers telling everyone else how to live.

Had teachers actually been involved in the process the standards might have been more palatable and useful. But they weren’t and the standards aren’t. That’s a big reason why only 31% of New York students met or exceeded the first round of Common Core exams last spring.

Next week we will look at the English and math curricula forged by Common Core. You will see how our kids and our country have been set up for yet more failure.        

Thursday, November 28, 2013

What is Common Core?

Editor’s Note: This is the second in an eight part series about Common Core

When I was an elementary school student in the 1980s the anxiety and urgency that teachers and administrators had for the California Achievement Tests were palpable.  Even as a child I could sense that the exams were make-or-break not just for the students but also for the school district’s workforce. The same observations held true a few years later when my classmates and I were being prepared for New York State Regents Examinations.

Looking back on those experiences, it’s obvious that the tests had a deleterious effect on educators and students alike.

Teachers and schools were being graded as much as their pupils were on the test grades, so they were being forced – either directly or indirectly – to teach to the test, rather than to the mastery of the subject matter. In order to conform, creative, engaging, and effective teachers saw their potential stifled and in turn, had to dictate rote material and administer an endless series of practice exams. It wasn’t the career they wanted or expected.

It’s not coincidental that as standardized testing has becoming more commonplace, even pervasive, at all grade levels and in all states since the advent of the US Department of Education in 1980, the outcomes have suffered. America, once one of the world’s leaders in student performance, now sports only a middling showing; according to the Program for International Student Assessment, of 65 countries featured in their study, we rank 23rd in science and 31st in math.  It’s no wonder that most high school graduates are ill-prepared for the rigors of higher education, let alone employment.

It’s obvious that the American educational system is in crisis. It’s in need of a significant transformation, one with both immediate and long-term positive results. Status quo will only cause our country’s brilliance to lose some of its shine in the coming decades as the more-learned people of other lands begin to dominate in our or ever-shrinking world.

Unfortunately, the latest attempt to right the ship will sink it further, because the Common Core State Standards (simply known as “Common Core”) are only a continuation of the status quo. American students and educators will be besieged by more standardized tests and, in essence, more standardized classrooms and more standardized students. Common Core will be the catalyst for mediocrity.

Common Core is supposed to redefine education through providing “…a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn” while providing measurable results that are “…robust and relevant to the real world.”

Simply -- and more realistically put -- it’s a series of standards in English and math that will alter the landscape of education dramatically, dumbing down curriculum in order to accommodate and satisfy the relentless testing and tracking associated with the administration of Common Core. For example, classic literature will be replaced with manuals and articles while creative thinking will be unacceptable in English classes and the number of math topics covered per grade level will be reduced dramatically so students can learn the subjects more slowly, decreasing their knowledge base.          

Such foolishness was blindly implemented because Common Core is widely – and wrongly -- promoted as being a response by the states, working together, to address our educational needs. It can be sold that way to the people in power, as well as the citizenry, because an organization calling itself the National Governors Association (NGA) was one of the main progenitors of Common Core and most responsible for its integration into 45 states.   

Despite its moniker, governors are not directly involved with the NGA, nor were they involved with or even consulted about the development Common Core standards -- something that can be attributed to yet another mysterious outfit which calls itself Achieve, Inc. (which we will discuss in next week’s column). The NGA is not a fraternal organization. It is instead a trade group that serves as a public policy liaison between state and federal governments.

That last sentence is all you really need to know about Common Core. It further proves that it is an effort by the federal government to assume total control over education (the absolute worst thing that could happen), something that was already made evident by the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program and its $4 billion carrot to states that adopted Common Core.          

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An introduction to Common Core

Editor’s note: This is the first in an 8-part series about Common core

One of the hottest issues of the last half of 2013 has been Common Core. I’m sure you’ve read or watched numerous reports about how parents and teachers are fired up about the latest and allegedly greatest attempt to redefine education and develop a world-class workforce and well-versed society.

These stories abound because conflict sells newspapers and airtime – just think about the brouhaha over New York State Education Commissioner John King having originally abandoned his statewide speaking tour just one event into it.

While we’ve been inundated with such reports, a great disservice has been done to the parents whose children will be educated under these new standards, taxpayers who are funding public schools and the employers who need them to produce a quality finished product: We haven’t been told what exactly the activists are so mad about.

Sure, we can sense the passion and urgency in their protests, but what good does that do us?

You would be hard pressed to find a community newspaper or TV news broadcast or talk radio show that gives its customers even a perfunctory lesson on what Common Core is all about.

So, for the next two months, this newspaper will, courtesy of this column, do what others have failed to do and offer a breakdown of the various components of Common Core.

Here’s what you can expect in coming installments:

Part Two: What is Common Core?
Part Three: The Standards of Common Core
Part Four: The Standards of Common Core (continued)
Part Five: Data-mining your kids
Part Six: Bringing the Police State to the classroom
Part Seven: Common Core’s impact on school districts
Part Eight: Who benefits from Common Core?

As I develop this series I welcome input from teachers who are as equally appalled by Common Core as I am so that we can emphasize how the new system is impacting classrooms here and now.

I also encourage letters to the editor from proponents of Common Core – I know there are a bunch of you out there somewhere -- behind the scenes, maybe -- or this wouldn’t have been foisted on Americans so quickly and so quietly.      

It is my hope that during and after the series I will have given you, the reader, enough ammunition to join any of the numerous coalitions of angered parents and educators (or you could start your own) so that we can turn back the tide on these onerous, intrusive and dim-witted standards and get back to the tenets of what had made the American educational system so great before the infiltration of the federal government and standardized testing in the late-1970s/early-1980s.

Simply put: We need to get back to basics, back to local control in education. We need to let the teachers teach and the parents parent.

Common Core doesn’t allow for that. It robs us of our powers and our rights. Its resulting bureaucracy will only continue to put us further behind and widen the already-disheartening educational gap that exists between our nation and the rest of the industrialized world.  

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at