How For-Profit Publishing and the Common Core Hurt Kids

Like the majority of Americans, I think that a common curriculum would be a good idea, since it would help students who move from school to school (and these students are disproportionately poor). My major quarrel with the Common Core–and you’ll see in a bit that it’s not standards, but a de facto curriculum–is that it’s not very good. It’s reinventing a square wheel. Just use the curriculum that Massachusetts, which year in and year out has one of the best educational systems in the world, developed. Or inflict some untested, unproven bullshit on your* kids. Whatever works.

But we read with both interest and sadness about the effect that the one-two combination of textbook publishing and the push to adopt the Common Core is having on Philadelphia’s school children and their schools (boldface mine):

When a problem exists in Philadelphia schools, it generally exists in other large urban schools across the nation. One of those problems—shared by districts in New York, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities—is that many schools don’t have enough money to buy books… Unfortunately, introducing children to classic works of literature won’t raise their abysmal test scores.

This is because standardized tests are not based on general knowledge. As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers.

All of this has to do with the economics of testing. Across the nation, standardized tests come from one of three companies: CTB McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or Pearson. These corporations write the tests, grade the tests, and publish the books that students use to prepare for the tests. Houghton Mifflin has a 38 percent market share, according to its press materials. In 2013, the company brought in $1.38 billion in revenue.

Pennsylvania currently has a multi-million-dollar contract with a company called Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) to grade the PSSAs. DRC works with McGraw-Hill as part of a consortium that has a $186 million federal contract to write and grade standardized tests for the rest of the country. McGraw-Hill, meanwhile, also writes the books and curricula schools buy to prepare students for the tests. Everyday Math, the branded curriculum used by most Philadelphia public schools in grades K­–5, is published by McGraw Hill.

Put simply, any teacher who wants his or her students to pass the tests has to give out books from the Big Three publishers. If you look at a textbook from one of these companies and look at the standardized tests written by the same company, even a third grader can see that many of the questions on the test are similar to the questions in the book. In fact, Pearson came under fire last year for using a passage on a standardized test that was taken verbatim from a Pearson textbook.

The issue often has as much to do with wording as it does with facts or figures….

Unlike college professors, who simply assign books and leave it to the students to buy them, K–12 teachers have to provide students with books. But it’s not a simple matter of ordering one book per student per subject. Based on the schools I visited and the teachers I interviewed, each student needs at least one textbook and one workbook per class, plus a bunch of worksheets and projects the teacher pulls from assorted websites (not to mention binder clips and construction paper and scissors and other project-based materials). Books can be reused year to year, but only if the state standards haven’t changed—which they have every year for at least the past decade….

It may be many years until Philadelphia’s education budget matches its curriculum requirements. In the meantime, there are a few things the district—and other flailing school districts in America—can do. Stop giving standardized tests that are inextricably tied to specific sets of books. At the very least, stop using test scores to evaluate teacher performance without providing the items each teacher needs to do his or her job. Most of all, avoid basing an entire education system on materials so costly that big, urban districts can’t afford to buy them. Until these things change, it will be impossible to raise standardized test scores—despite the best efforts of the teachers and students who will return to school this fall and find no new books waiting for them.

Once these poor schools ‘fail’, because they lack the essential text books, ‘reformers’ can swoop in, blame the teachers, and institute their ‘reforms’, such as shuttering schools** and firing teachers. This is the definition of dealing from a fixed deck.

Maybe, instead of busting teachers unions, reformers should advocate for, erm, books, even if it flies in the face of their Peter Pan ‘If you wish hard enough’ high expectations hooey.

*Actually, reformers typically don’t inflict education reform on their children. Odd, that.

**I’ve never seen any data suggesting that kids from shuttered schools do significantly better academically having experienced the shock of leaving a familiar school.

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5 Responses to How For-Profit Publishing and the Common Core Hurt Kids

  1. Amen. And there’s a strong chance that this sort of thing may be working its way up toward college (all in the name of “accountability”; I’m already seeing indications that, especially when it comes to the very real need for making sure online courses offer an education genuinely comparable to the bricks-and-mortar version, there’s a tendency to create complex, bureaucratic standards that are much more easily met by a publisher-created course “package” than an individual instructor creating and tweaking as (s)he goes). It’s also a sad fact that, as a Ph.D. with considerable experience, I strongly suspect that I could find more lucrative, and possibly more secure, employment as an employee of one the publishing/testing conglomerates you mention above than as a college instructor.

    P.S. The Rachel Aviv piece from the New Yorker you linked to a couple of days ago was, indeed, excellent, and also very sad.

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