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ObamaCore and Honesty Gap: How Business Got Schooled in the War Over Common Core Standards - Fortune

How Business Got Schooled in the War Over Common Core Standards Fortune

How Business Got Schooled in the War Over Common Core Standards Fortune


But it wasn’t wonky details that threatened to unravel the initiative. It was the most extreme claims, which spread like wildfire. Schlafly called Common Core an Obama scheme—in collaboration with book publishers and Gates—to “dumb down” schoolchildren, “indoctrinate them to accept the left-wing view of America,” engage in “active promotion of gay marriage,” and “dismantle moral society.” Bloggers warned that Common Core would allow the federal government to engage in wholesale data collection on schoolchildren—including iris scans—then sell the information “to the highest bidders.” Parents charged that Common Core forced 10th-graders to read pornography out loud in class and required graphic sex-ed instruction. One Florida legislator asserted that the state’s Common Core testing will “attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can.” Never mind that none of those assertions were true.

Common Core was becoming politically radioactive for Republicans. “All of a sudden in 2013, you saw these Common Core repeal bills getting introduced all over the place,” says Fordham Institute president Mike Petrilli. “Those of us for it were caught pretty flat-footed. We realized this thing was at risk.” If somebody didn’t fight back, it appeared, Common Core might go down in flames.

“It is utterly distressing to me to sit and watch these political debates around a subject that is so vitally important to our children, to the future of our country, and competitively,” fumed the silver-haired man in the dark suit and gold tie, waving his arms in exasperation. “And I’m going to tell you, I’m extraordinarily disappointed in my home state. I’ve spent many hours on the telephone during the last legislative session. To no avail. Could not make a dent. So the political forces around this are powerful. But they have to be taken on.”

It was a strange thing indeed to hear Rex Tillerson, CEO of Texas-based Exxon Mobil, bemoaning his impotence at a 2014 panel discussion in Washington, D.C.  But such is the frustration of serving on the frontline in this war. Like other CEOs engaged in education reform, Tillerson sees high national standards as a “business imperative.” Companies simply can’t find enough skilled American workers.

But Tillerson articulates his view in a fashion unlikely to resonate with the average parent. “I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer,” said Tillerson during the panel discussion. “What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation.”

The Exxon CEO didn’t hesitate to extend his analogy. “Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?” American schools, Tillerson declared, “have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.”

Exxon Mobil’s philanthropy has long been focused on math and science education. Tillerson himself became deeply engaged in the Common Core fight in early 2012, when he became chairman of the education and workforce committee for the Business Roundtable, the powerful Washington, D.C., trade group for 202 big-company CEOs.

But while opponents like Ruzicka and Crossin harnessed the power of the web, Tillerson’s team turned to an older, more genteel form of media—the kind that is better at reaching silver-haired CEOs than, say, blogger moms. In April 2012, Exxon Mobil ran an advertisement during the CBS telecast of the Masters golf tournament. Common Core is “unlocking a better way to prepare our children for college and careers,” the ad argued. The tagline: “Join Exxon Mobil in supporting the Common Core State Standards Initiative.”

It’s hard to say whether the Exxon ad had any impact when it first appeared. But by the time it aired again a year later, it generated a reaction—a deeply hostile one. Glenn Beck responded with a 12-minute polemic, and emails—99% critical, according to ExxonMobil Foundation executive director Pat McCarthy—cascaded in. “Big Businesses Whore for Common Core,” headlined one blog post discussing the ads. Critics began urging a company boycott. Wrote one: “Cut the gas cards up … this is disgusting.”

Even the government expressed frustration. In May 2013, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan scolded executives at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event for failing to do more to defend Common Core: “I don’t understand why the business community is so passive when these kinds of things happen.”

As the threat grew during 2013, Common Core’s supporters struggled with how to fight back. “Our responses initially were fact-based,” says Achieve’s president, Mike Cohen. “But the opposition’s appeals were more emotional than that. It turned out facts didn’t often matter.”

Everyone wanted to coordinate strategy; supporters considered a national advocacy campaign, including TV ads. But advocates didn’t want to reinforce the very notion they were trying to combat. “Having someone from Washington explain that there’s not really a conspiracy here doesn’t really put the fire out,” notes Cohen.

Tillerson didn’t hesitate to flex his own muscle. In May 2013, after Pennsylvania delayed implementation, he fired off a letter reminding the governor and others that his company had “significant operations” there. Common Core, he advised them, was necessary to give Exxon Mobil “the confidence that the education standards we require for employment will be met by your state’s graduates.” An education blogger quickly branded this a “Mafia-style letter,” and suggested Pennsylvania’s governor “may soon wake to a horse’s head laying in his bed, which will smell vaguely of gasoline.”

Five months later, Tillerson was even less subtle, warning lawmakers contemplating repeal that Exxon Mobil might not hire anyone from states that don’t have Common Core. “If I can’t find the workforce in the state that I’m in, I will go to the next state and find that workforce,” he told NBC’s Tom Brokaw in an interview on stage at an education conference. “And I’m going to look in states that are using the Common Core State Standards because I have a high degree of confidence in the kids that graduate under that system.”


The anger against Common Core remained fierce, with politicians facing intense pressure. And yet most state education officials and many teachers continued to view the substance of the standards as extremely valuable. In the face of these opposing positions, an almost-too-easy third way began to emerge.

Instead of dropping out, 27 states simply renamed their education standards. In most cases they tweaked some of the provisions while retaining the vast majority. In Florida, for example, the dreaded Common Core was dead! Long live … the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards!

This provided political cover for Republicans. For their part, supporters of Common Core concluded they had no need to fight such initiatives. (The advocates note that any serious standards will necessarily share many elements with Common Core. Says Rich McKeon, head of the education program at the Helmsley Charitable Trust, a philanthropy that has given millions to support the standards: “It’s hard to get rid of Common Core completely unless we don’t want kids to do a lot of math and writing and deep analytical thinking.”)


This time, though, the business community had seemingly learned how to tangle with the organized opposition. The Arizona chamber of commerce—and Barrett—fought back hard. The chamber lobbied furiously, senator by senator, arguing that the state, which had been struggling for years to improve its poor-performing school system, needed the standards to attract jobs. They made the same case to Ducey, a former CEO of Cold Stone Creamery. Soon after, the governor publicly stated that getting rid of the Common Core standards wasn’t “necessary” after all. A week later, the Arizona senate voted 16–13 to preserve the standards.


The adversaries of Common Core have no intention of capitulating. In 16 states, it now faces various implementation “reviews.” The clock ran out in 2015 without any more states dropping out. But in 2016, legislative assaults will undoubtedly resume.

That said, Common Core has become a reality. Like Obamacare, it’s reviled in many quarters. Yet it’s increasingly impractical to undo. Countless schools have established curriculums designed around the standards, retrained teachers, and bought new books and materials. Reversing course would require redoing all of that again. Today, 42 states remain officially committed to the Common Core (under whatever name), while South Carolina, Indiana, and Alaska have standards of their own that experts say closely resemble Common Core. After decades of controversy and conflict, a single set of thoughtful, higher standards is shaping the education of most American schoolchildren. (Exxon Mobil is confident enough of the standards’ staying power that it has rescinded its policy of withholding campaign contributions to opponents of Common Core.)


The first states started using the new tests this year, producing refreshingly honest—if predictably dismal—results on student proficiency. As education experts see it, it will take several years to assess how successfully the combination of standards and “aligned” tests can drive improvements in the classroom.

“We’re better off than we were before Common Core,” says veteran education scholar Chester Finn, a senior fellow with Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “We’ve got better standards. There’s less lying about the performance of kids and schools. There’s some better curriculum in place. If you were hoping for a 100% gain, today we’re probably looking at a 37% gain. But honestly it’s still early days. The aircraft carrier of an education system turns really slowly.”

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Agnotology in action, perhaps the ultimate case since there is no real connection to race, religion, politics, nationalism, or anything but getting the best education for children.  Reading this, I really like Rex Tillerson.  I'm even warming up to Gates, although he's got a lot to atone for.  Before I reached his matching statement, I was thinking "Companies and universities should threaten to strongly handicap ratings of students from states that don't implement Common Core.".

It would be really interesting and useful to rate all educational systems, and cultures, for their baseline and effective ranges of educational and cultural knowledge.  To be able to comprehensively test people on the full spectrum, sidestepping only certain protected or irrelevant areas, would be an important measurement of a potential employee, relationship partner, friend, etc.

I'm not familiar with agnotology. Will learn more.

Proctor explains that ignorance can often be propagated under the guise of balanced debate. For example, the common idea that there will always be two opposing views does not always result in a rational conclusion. This was behind how tobacco firms used science to make their products look harmless, and is used today by climate change deniers to argue against the scientific evidence.

“This ‘balance routine’ has allowed the cigarette men, or climate deniers today, to claim that there are two sides to every story, that ‘experts disagree’ – creating a false picture of the truth, hence ignorance.”

We live in a world of radical ignorance – Robert Proctor

For example, says Proctor, many of the studies linking carcinogens in tobacco were conducted in mice initially, and the tobacco industry responded by saying that studies into mice did not mean that people were at risk, despite adverse health outcomes in many smokers.

A new era of ignorance

“We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise,” says Proctor. Even though knowledge is ‘accessible’, it does not mean it is accessed, he warns.

“Although for most things this is trivial – like, for example, the boiling point of mercury – but for bigger questions of political and philosophical import, the knowledge people have often comes from faith or tradition, or propaganda, more than anywhere else.”

Proctor found that ignorance spreads when firstly, many people do not understand a concept or fact and secondly, when special interest groups – like a commercial firm or a political group – then work hard to create confusion about an issue. In the case of ignorance about tobacco and climate change, a scientifically illiterate society will probably be more susceptible to the tactics used by those wishing to confuse and cloud the truth.

Consider climate change as an example. “The fight is not just over the existence of climate change, it’s over whether God has created the Earth for us to exploit, whether government has the right to regulate industry, whether environmentalists should be empowered, and so on. It’s not just about the facts, it’s about what is imagined to flow from and into such facts,” says Proctor.

Geez. I had no idea. Thanks sdw!

You're welcome.  -- The Anti-Agno Warrior, aka @scienteer, aka sdw.  (Poetically, I felt I should have inserted "much-maligned and always outnumbered" but thankfully I have a good number of intelligent friends and I live in one of the more enlightened areas of the world.)

Ha! Thank goodness you're not much maligned and always outnumbered. :)

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