Wednesday, March 5, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

It was as if Walter Mitty had just morphed into the Incredible Hulk. 

Tony Evers
Tony Evers is known for diplomatic gentleness and nonpartisan schmoozing, a principled educator heading the influential but studiously nonpartisan Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI). He always seems willing to go beyond required politeness to work with all sides of the political gridlock, cooperating with Gov. Scott Walker on such things as new third grade testing models, dropping in on public and charter schools alike across the state to compliment and even hand out awards and grants to dedicated staff and programs.

He was the epitome of cooperation in late February attending an education conference to bring school administrators and employees together. And then in palpable anger he waved around a Wisconsin State Journal story about Senate Bill 619. It was the sudden GOP move to disembowel Common Core.

These were basic standards he (and he thought Walker) along with 45 other states had been moving forward for years to institute as a basic benchmark in K-12 student accomplishment.

"As soon as I saw this, I gasped,"  Evers told reporters about the legislation, especially when it had the backing of Walker and other Republicans who three years ago had stood by the Common Core initiative to raise Wisconsin’s benchmarks. "If we thought the Common Core state standards were political before, this ratchets it up about 1,000%."

And that was one of the nicer things the mild-mannered Evers said. He is now taking full advantage of his bully pulpit status through video, speeches and interviews to sound the alarm, reveal the sham, fight for the children and discuss the dangers of elected officials running wild on the whims of political fortune to control academic progress.

“In these hard economic times the last thing we need to do is send a message that Wisconsin is stepping backwards,” he warned the state Senate, which is trying to whizz the bill through with only one public hearing scheduled March 6. “We’re going to be a national embarrassment.”

He avoids discussing the anatomical contortions that allowed Walker and the GOP to slap him on the shoulders one second and stab him in the back the next, opposing something they supported until Tea Party pressure and national secret funding networks got to them.

What particularly angered the state superintendent of schools, acquaintances concede, was not just the turnaround of Walker – who everyone now knows sniffs the political winds before deciding what he believes in – but how Walker actually used the bill’s senate sponsors, Leah Vukmir and Paul Farrow, as stalking horses for his own power grab. It was Walker’s staff that actually wrote this bill, the media revealed. 

“Senate Bill 619 is a partisan takeover of the bedrock of schooling: the standards that describe what our kids should know and be able to do in each academic subject area,” Evers says to all who will listen. “Every parent and educator should be alarmed.

“This bill would hand over what is taught in our schools to partisan politics. Beyond the Common Core, are we ready for our legislators to debate and legislate academic standards related to evolution, creationism, and climate change . . .  (Will) they take up the science standards? What about topics like civil liberties and civil rights, genocide, religious history, and political movements when they take up social studies? All of this and more is on the table with this proposed legislation.“

While sponsors of SB619 suggested Evers was being farfetched and alarmist, he is supported by legal analysis confirming that under the bill the legislature could add any amendment or change in education standards it wanted, including any or all those specters Evers raised. In addition the makeup of the board would immediately impose arbitrary and still unknown conditions on every public school in the state.

Walker gets appointees despite track record

SB619 would take the authority to set standards for K-12 education away from the state agency, DPI, empowered to analyze and monitor the results and review funding.  In actual operation, the bill gives the majority power on a 15-member board to the GOP controlled legislature but really to the governor, whose record in such political appointees hardly comforts the citizenry.  Eventually, the purse follows the power.

Walker gets to fill more positions than Evers to the misleadingly named Model Academic Standards board proposed – and though private voucher schools would not have to follow the standards, this board must include the parent of a child in a private voucher school.

“This bill is craziness,” said Evers.

“Our children’s education will be subject to the whipsaw of elections every two years when one party or another is in power. Educational standards are meant to set a foundation for learning. They are not supposed to change every few years. “

Evers’ anger was just warming up:

“As a grandfather of school-age children, I am concerned for my grandkids and for all of Wisconsin’s children. Please don’t hand over what is taught to the politicians. To do so will relegate our kids to a future that is neither college nor career ready. Rather, our children’s future will be decided by whatever ideology is represented by the political map. This is wrong. Senate Bill 619 is wrong.”

His view about the bill is supported by newspapers, even those that once backed Walker, by educators public and private, a formidable alliance of state school experts, and even by many people who have questions about Common Core itself. “What happens,” asked Eau Claire Leader Telegram Editor Don Huebscher in a Feb. 25 editorial, “to a society when those we entrust to educate our kids no longer are trusted by politicians, who then take it upon themselves to assume that role? Best practices to teach math, history and reading shouldn’t be political, but if that is what we’ve come to, heaven help our country.”

For parents, Common Core remains confusing

Evers’ main problem in raising the alarm is simply this: Most of the public and most parents don’t know what the heck Common Core means. Nor how carefully it was promulgated – yes, it took big money from the Bill Gates Foundation  -- and that even supporters think it is a work in progress on how to nudge students to the finish line.

The public has become an easy victim of the loudest voice game -- the big money and sound-bite simplicities that have dominated the airwaves, because most of what the public has heard about Common Core is false. 

One prominent falsehood:  Common Core is a federal government takeover of local schools. Actually it was developed at state levels and below by educators from academic coalitions with foundation support, input from practitioners and a big push from governors and school leaders. 

It sets standards as to where a student should be in areas like writing and math at the end of each grade, providing  outlines of plateaus and an assortment of measuring and training suggestions to help get there, with more to be added as results come in.  Not everything is yet there, and teachers are indeed complaining about too much reliance on testing.  Now SB619 has them complaining even more that their doubts are being used by opponents to try to scrub the whole thing.

Right-wingers, in an amazing illogical reinvention of the how long Common Core has been in the works, say that since Obama’s team now also supports Common Core, it was always a secret takeover plot by that socialist animal -- that is unlikely to be a veiled reference to Microsoft founder Bill Gates.  Their logic sounds unhinged -- but then again, aren’t we now debating SB619?

Common Core requires more commitment to training and retaining teachers, a core element in great education in every successful country, along with parental-teacher exchanges and long-term commitment by school districts and others wielding the money to stay the course.  Could that be what has caused the surge against it?  Fear of spending money on teachers and classrooms to explore a variety of approaches tailored to your child?

More heavily touted falsehoods will likely be included in Madison testimony March 6, though this is a PG rated hearing. So it is unlikely to let bill proponent and frequent lecturer on the horrors of Common Core, Duke Pesta, an English professor at UW-Oshkosh, go full bore as he did in his video claims to the John Birch Society -- that Common Core is a Trojan horse (no awareness on his part that Trojans is a company that makes condoms) to impose national sex rules as students advance into high school. His interpretation of the guidelines will come as quite a surprise to those academic drudges who formulated Common Core and never knew they were so sexy. 

But Pesta in a blitz of data may well argue at the hearing, as he does on radio, that Common Core will eliminate home schooling (well, maybe bad home schooling) and is an attack on the largely Christian values emphasized in home schooling.  Except, of course, it could likely encourage good home schooling by offering best practices and precise goals for each kid.  All it demands is verifiable results before moving the child on to a new level.  

Simple discussion vanishes in rhetorical heat

“That’s what disturbs me so much about all this folderol,” one public school official told me, off the record because of concerns about stepping outside the job in talking to the press. “Parents don’t realize that Common Core is simply an agreement on the levels to shoot for. If a school can get there through proficiency rather than massive expenditures in new technological gizmos, fine. So it actually caters to different financial levels and circumstances in raising all boats.”

Yet the falsehoods, taking advantage of parental ignorance, have become legion.  While Common Core imposes more rigorous goals than current Wisconsin standards, its foes suddenly say the higher goals are not high enough.  But it’s really about common sense -- “how high a kid in second grade should be able to count to before advancing to grade three,” as one teacher explained to me.  

Another false criticism relies on jingoistic patriotism, once used to justify slavery as a state’s pride.  But this time it is an appeal to Wisconsin rah-rah over its neighbors. Assembly majority leader Robin Vos has been particularly naked in this appeal. “I want us to not be the same as Michigan, Illinois, Iowa,” he told reporters. “I want our kids to be at a greater level of learning.” That ignores that higher learning is what Common Core does while SB619 simply lets more argumentative voices and unscientific views in – what Vos describes as “stakeholders” --  to muddy the waters, backtrack the progress and stall the future.

The biggest game is to equate doubts about Common Core from the left with the efforts on the right to eliminate it.  

Flexibility doesn’t get much attention

Emilie Amundson, state DPI leader
That false equivalency “drives me crazy,” admits Emilie Amundson, director of Common Core standards for DPI, who has been working for three and a half years with school districts that, under SB619, would have to start over from scratch. She has carefully explained the myths that Common Core would take away local control, pointing out that each school board has the statutory authority to adopt any set of standards, inferior or superior. But nobody believes a district would willingly choose an inferior set of standards.  “You want to encourage the good,” she said.

“We have school districts taking the tack of buying new material and equipment (software, special furniture, I-Pads and the like) to help them achieve the standards,” Amundson points out. “But there are others doing it on their own” -- with meetings, self-evaluations, trial and error teams. “There’s not been much attention paid to the flexibility allowed.”

But that flexibility, she concedes, requires attention to teacher training, plus district persistence and parental-teacher networking. 

The national criticism on the left focuses on going slower and not letting politicians take the sort of control from educators that SB619 represents in Wisconsin.  Progressives were taken aback by the zeal of corporations and politicians to embrace Common Core and suspect that was greed more than concern about kids. That strikes many observers as excessively partisan.

But still, hovering out there is a multi-billion dollar testing, textbook and software industry. There clearly is a temptation that lazy or uninformed officials will leap for expensive new tools when they don’t have to, because that makes Common Core easier in interpreting the standards while applying for grants and awards. 

Does Common Core threaten charter marketing?

The conservative rich right-wing and charter networks are pushing for SB619 because that would eliminate Common Core in total.  Could it be a threat to the way they raise money and gain attention and followers?

Common Core requires fresh focus on the ratio of teachers to students, on long-term commitment to becoming better teachers, on retention and advancement in practical proficiency, not just to what marketing language and goodies generate enthusiasm among unsuspecting new parents. 

Many cost-saving charter techniques – such as one teacher to 50 students and new software in place of human interaction, or throwing more special needs children into public schools that have the specialists – attract municipalities with the temporary chance of reducing education outlays while sounding modern and engaged.

But if time proves that this clone marketing is an education loser, that these cost-savings contradict the proven applied benchmarks within Common Core, there goes the excuse for existence of many charter juggernauts, and there goes much of their heavy financial backing.

“It’s something to think about,” said a state K-12 official.
Diane Ravitch
Progressive critics of Common Core, including nationally known and respected Diane Ravitch, famous for switching out of the conservative pro-privatizing doctrinaire because of her research, worry eloquently that Common Core has been embraced by so many corporations and politicians nationally because they see profit more than education. Think about that -- Ravitch opposes Common Core as too profit tempting and right-wingers want to drop Common Core as not profit-minded enough!

Caution is not condemnation

Her concern is that Common Core was not field tested as it raced across the nation. So her issue is not with the standards but -- will they work?  Ravitch doesn’t want Common Core to rely on expensive high stakes testing to measure student progress, and she thinks the US Department of Education’s embrace furthers the suspicion of a federal intrusion that demands higher testing levels to win grants. She is not alone in worrying that, for too many politicians, accountability equals testing. 

But her  attitude is caution not condemnation: “I will remain open to new evidence. If the standards help kids, I will say so. If they hurt them, I will say so,” she concluded one essay on Common Core.

“Progressive educators are bringing up valid concerns,” said Amundson.  “The concern about high stakes assessments through testing are particularly crucial in Wisconsin due to our increasingly politically charged environment in the wake of Act 10.  But my feeling is we are steeped in Common Core and just have to spend more time wrapping ourselves into and around the standards for the sake of our children.”

What is crystal clear to Evers, and to parents who actually study the issue, has been clouded even in sympathetic press reports.  For instance, the Journal Sentinel, a proud past supporter of Walker, blasted the SB619 in an editorial recalling the “unfounded rumors that Common Core standards could lead to such alarming tests as retinal scans, fingerprint scans, blood-pressure cuffs or posture chairs for kids. There also have been allegations that the federal government coerced states into approving the standards. Nonsense. These are merely scare tactics meant to arouse fear.”

Yet the same newspaper ran an opinion piece opposing  Evers’ stance on SB619  without identifying the author, Kim Simac, as a Republican operative, Tea Party proponent and failed candidate.

Somewhat nutty, too, was the anti-democracy reaction of Sen. Paul Farrow, a sponsor of the SB619, who demanded Evers’ resignation for daring to speak up against the majority party’s leaders, meaning him.

Another Republican legislator was blunt with me, off the record, of why he thinks Evers will lose the publicity battle. “Sure, we are sticking our nose into the education tent,” he admitted. “But the taxpayers are going to be more concerned that Obama is sticking his nose in. That’s the card we’re playing.”

For 10 years the author, Dominique Paul Noth, served as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press until its demise in 2013 and continues to freelance to many publications as well as write for his own websites. A professional journalist since the 1960s he has won multiple cultural and political journalism awards and for nearly two decades was film and drama critic before serving as  senior editor at the Milwaukee Journal.

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