“What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?”
At the National Conference of State Legislatures on July 21st, 2009, your husband spoke about our country’s economic crisis and offered an unlikely solution: the Common Core State Standards and the tests that go with them. He asked his audience to “accelerate [school] reform” and came to the following conclusion:
“When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.” (Emphasis mine)
Our ongoing obsession with standardized testing, which your initiatives have intensified, has served to narrow curricula all over the country, stigmatize children and their teachers, and punish districts—all while lining the pockets of testing and technology corporations whose CEOs seek to profit from our children. And as Bill made clear in 2009, profit was the goal.
But in an April 3rd Washington Post op-ed, your husband cautioned against the overuse of standardized tests as measures of teacher effectiveness (yes, the very same tests he pushed aggressively in his 2009 speech), saying that “if we aren’t careful to build a system that provides feedback and that teachers trust, this opportunity to dramatically improve the U.S. education system will be wasted.” And more recently, in an interview at Harvard University, he said, “it would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.”
However innocuous Bill’s 2013 comments might have been, I chose to interpret them as an acknowledgement that your reforms are having damaging, unintended consequences. Is Bill faltering? Is he feeling remorse? Is he beginning to understand the implications of his actions? I was hopeful that yes, he is—and that maybe you are too.
But then I saw you on NBC’s Education Nation and read excerpts from your October 9th interview with Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk. In both instances your message was the same: you claimed to want to support “great teaching,” but at the very same time, you undermined educators (and families) all over the country.
Here are just a few examples:
1. “One of the things about the Common Core is that it’s forcing [teachers] to go back to learning themselves.”
So let me get this straight. Teachers, who dedicate their professional lives to fostering a love of learning in children, never considered that they should be lifelong learners themselves until a bunch of non-educators funded and created the Common Core? Really? This statement is particularly ironic, since your reforms have compromised teacher autonomy by promoting the prepackaged, scripted, standardized lessons that companies like Pearson are selling to make a profit.
And what does this kind of statement say about your faith in America’s teachers? How can you expect them to believe that your motivations are good when you backhandedly challenge their professionalism, their judgment, their work ethic, and their intelligence?
2. You acknowledge that there’s “going to be some angst” when children score poorly on Common Core-aligned assessments (just as they did in New York), but you say, “I think we will overcome some of this angst…after things get rolled out and are being implemented well.”
As your husband noted, this “education stuff” is an experiment—and it’s been implemented recklessly. Your unwillingness to “pause” on a system that will stigmatize children and cost good teachers their jobs shows just how impersonal this approach to reform is to you. Your use of the word “angst” trivializes the effect your damaging reforms are having on career educators–but I suppose it’s difficult for you to understand that the “angst” you insinuate teachers should just tough out is a product of the demoralization and vilification that accompany claims that we, as American educators, are collectively failing at our jobs.
3. “Yeah, I think we should get all kids to go to college!”
Really? Because Melinda Gates says so? Yes, anyone who wants go to college should certainly do so. But with the cost of college rising exponentially (remember, not everyone is a billionaire!), should we really “get all kids to go to college” even when some have no need or desire to do so? There are plenty of jobs that are essential to the workings of our society which don’t require college degrees. But unfortunately, your reforms have forced schools to cut vocational training programs, which for many students was a driving incentive to come to school, in the name of test prep. Are you—dare I label you as part of the 1%—so far removed from this reality that you’re unable to understand it?
I suspect you are.
And since you and Bill advocate reforms that devalue and disinvest in teachers who earn advanced degrees (how very hypocritical), you send the contradictory message that college is supremely important—but investing in it is a worthless undertaking that won’t benefit the investor. Great message.
Your presence on NBC’s Education Nation (where you were identified as the “largest single funder of education anywhere in the world”), which featured a laughable panel that lacked sufficient representation from real educators, proved what many critics of the “reform” movement have been saying: in our society, financial privilege is tantamount. How else do non-educators get seats at the policy-making table ahead of career educators?
Let’s face it: if you didn’t have money, who on earth would call you an expert on education?
As an English teacher, I see literature as a vehicle that helps us understand life. And all things considered, I have some advice for you: don’t be the Lady Macbeth of education reform.
We all know that Lady Macbeth is the driving force behind the murder of King Duncan in Shakespeare’s play. Though her husband is ultimately responsible for his own actions, it is she who encourages him to commit regicide—and it is she who, because of her guilt, is unable to wash the figurative blood of the King from her hands.
Near the end of the play, Lady Macbeth—in her sleep, and while she’s trying to rid herself of the guilt of her wrongdoing—laments that “what’s done cannot be undone.” Though her wrongdoing is different from yours, you must consider the implications of your reforms—and the millions of people whose lives are being negatively affected by your decade-long “philanthropic” experiment.
Because when your reforms fail, you’ll have the blood of the public education system on your hands.
And if you truly care about America’s children, as you claim you do, it will haunt you.
You still have time to return our education system to career educators who know better than you do what’s best for children. Please do it before it’s too late.
Ani McHugh, English Teacher