Self-described right-wing muckraker James O’Keefe has begun publishing a series of undercover videos about Common Core that he says follow Saul Alinsky’s dictates for provoking civil unrest that leads to authoritarian government:
One by one the whole rotten corrupt system is going to be exposed. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. #veritas
— James O'Keefe (@JamesOKeefeIII) January 12, 2016
The first such video is indeed inflammatory, but largely because of the language rather than the substance. It features then-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt employee Dianne Barrow honestly stating what everyone already knows about the education industry: “You don’t think that the educational publishing companies are in it for education do you? No, they’re in it for the money. The fact that they have to align the educational standards is what they have to do to sell the books.”
Amelia Petties, the main subject of the second video, said similarly anodyne things: “It’s never about the kids.” We already knew companies exist to make money. That’s kind of the point of any business. The root problem here is not these ladies or Houghton Mifflin, but that they can make gobs of money selling garbage products.
That’s the fault of lawmakers, regulators, and school officials who have not upheld their responsibilities to create a system in which companies’ incentives are the same as the public’s: helping kids get well educated. Education companies didn’t make the system they’re exploiting. Our “representatives” and other public employees did, and we should wrap this around their necks. Houghton Mifflin wouldn’t sell it if so many weren’t willing to buy it.
When Kids Don’t Know Anything, America Is In Danger
O’Keefe points to a genuine problem. In fact, just about everything “revealed” in these videos (the first features a hilariously drunken teacher for some reason) was published in a thoroughly documented and non-sexed expose by a curriculum industry insider in 2011: “Tyranny of the Textbook,” by Beverlee Jobrack. Before that, it was well documented by Diane Ravitch in 2007’s “The Language Police.” It required no “undercover” videos that get innocent people fired to find this out.
Good criticisms of curriculum companies have been standard fare in education and conservative press for decades. If you’re interested in a robust takedown of Common Core textbooks, you can do no better than rush out and buy Terrence Moore’s “The Story Killers.” Moore, a Marine veteran and erstwhile Hillsdale College professor, is a riveting writer. You will have never read anything so good on textbooks (or much else) in your life. Get a taste with this video of him discussing the book.
Moore also wrote a series of articles detailing how garbagy textbooks are in the Common Core era. Here’s his review of a World War II-themed selection in a high-school literature textbook: “Essentially, all of World War II has been reduced to dropping the bomb and consequently, we are led to believe, America’s inhumanity…Do we want the children just now entering school and in the years to come—who may have never met their great-grandparents—to be made ashamed of that Greatest Generation, of America, and of our resolution to remain free?”
Many people can see with their own eyes how intellectually thin is the brainfood schools serve children now, and research has shown a marked decline in the quality of U.S. K-12 curriculum. This is a big problem, because curriculum rivals teacher quality in its power to help children learn. One study found good curriculum could help children get more than two years’ of additional learning into K-12. This matters because people who haven’t learned anything cannot possibly be good Americans. That requires developing the capacity for self-government, which requires good judgment, which requires actually knowing something that can inform your decisions. Just look around. Does it seem like that characteristic thrives today? If you don’t think so, and you care about reversing America’s decline, then pay attention.
While rants about bad curriculum surface regularly, almost nobody talks about why we are stuck inside a decades-long cycle of curriculum that a) feeds kids politically correct pablum, outrageous examples of which we see pouring over social media constantly and b) insiders can arrange through taxpayer-funded sweetheart deals that never benefit children.
The two, as it turns out, are related, both to each other and to Common Core. I’m about to argue that the second is the cause of the first. To better understand why, let’s hear from industry insiders who spoke to me (on the record) as I’ve researched Common Core over the past four years. In this installment, we’ll talk about the economic truth that monopolies degrade quality, and see how monopolistic and cartelized is the system that generates what U.S. kids study.
Politicians Control the Process, Not Parents or Teachers
A big tip-off to a distorted market is a lack of competition. There are basically three big education materials companies: Pearson, a British-based global giant resented almost everywhere it goes; McGraw-Hill; and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Previously, there were dozens if not hundreds of little education presses.
Whenever you see economic oligarchy, you should suspect cronyism: where businesses get contracts not by demonstrating how good their products are, but by schmoozing with politicians. Pearson is especially well-known for sending political officials on foreign junkets and wining and dining them. But they’re not the only ones.
A California school district’s curriculum director told Andrew Pudewa, a curriculum author and small publisher of truly superb writing materials my husband and I have taught, that “McGraw-Hill will fly her out first-class to Boston, put her in a five-star hotel, give her unlimited expenses while she’s there,” Pudewa told me. “She would go out first-class, be wined and dined, and be given a sales pitch for the newest iteration of things that were foisted off on California. California is a huge market.”
California vies with Texas for having the largest textbook market in the nation due to high K-12 populations and because, like approximately half the states, both are “closed adoption” states. Schools are only allowed to use textbooks that special committees have approved. Guess what that means? Publishers put out all the stops to influence those committees, as do political interest groups.
As a 2004 study found, “Market incentives caused by the adoption process are so skewed that lively writing and top-flight scholarship are discouraged. Every individual analyst and expert panel that has studied American K-12 textbooks has concluded they are sorely lacking and that the adoption process cries out for reform.” That was more than a decade ago. Things have only gotten worse.
‘There Is No Open Market’
“There is no open market for school books. Mine have been on official adoption lists in a bunch of states including California, Texas, and Virginia. Doesn’t matter. City, town, and county adoptions are almost always controlled by the ubiquitous sales staffs from the big three. No one else can compete with them,” Joy Hakin, author of critically acclaimed science and history textbooks accompanied by teacher materials developed at Johns Hopkins, told me. “There’s big money involved in these adoptions. Pearson has been taking school officials on junkets to Singapore and Finland–salespeople come along.”
Concentrating the power in the hands of a few people exacerbates special-interest control because it makes it easier for a highly motivated faction to dominate everyone else simply by capturing the few regulators. A tiny faction can’t convince the majority to do what it wants. But government-run central planning means it doesn’t have to. The faction only has to convince a few key regulators the rest of us don’t even know exist.
This is why a free market is better for everyone, because it requires textbook companies to go school by school and convince a hundred thousand principals individually rather than having to just convince a few dozen unelected bureaucrats somewhere. Those principals then can pick materials that better fit local sensibilities—say, for a history curriculum that is not anti-America. This allows publishing houses to multiply to cater to a niche-ified market, rather than a mass market created by central planning.
Not incidentally, this is why Big Education loves Common Core. Bill Gates, who has bankrolled almost everything Common Core including its initial development and state petitions for the federal government to lock them into Common Core, has likened it to standardizing electrical outlets. Setting up a national curriculum monopoly instead of fifty state curriculum monopolies flattens the market, which benefits big companies by doing away with individual needs and preferences so everyone everywhere must buy the same kind of curriculum. Mass markets mean consolidation.
A Series of Interlocking Monopolies
While curriculum monopolies create strong incentives for publishers to play hard during state adoption time, American schools don’t just have one umbrella monopoly at the state (and now national) levels. American education is a series of interlocking monopolies.
So, as Pudewa explained to me, often every single little piece of curriculum that enters a school district has to go through level after level of bureaucrat–assistant superintendents, curriculum directors, purchasing authorizers, and the like, all of whom have their own checklists and priorities and need massaging. In many school districts, local principals and teachers don’t get to decide what curriculum they will use. The school district does that for them. That’s why Pudewa doesn’t market to school districts directly any more.
While teachers buy all kinds of things for their classrooms, which has sparked innovative private exchanges such as Teachers Pay Teachers and Share My Lesson, it is extremely rare, for obvious reasons, for a teacher to purchase an entire set of curriculum for her students. Teachers will hoard old textbooks and lesson plans they like and make copies for a long time, but not most of them. It’s too much work.
Obviously, a process like this favors big publishers who have the time and overhead to sponsor sales reps who can do this sort of thing with hundreds of school districts, just like massive regulations like Dodd Frank favor big banks, which can afford to hire a pile of new layers to get into compliance. In regulation-heavy environments, the little guy goes out of business a lot more easily, no matter how good his product, because it fixes overhead above his ability to spread out its costs to his smaller base of customers.
This means the big guys can just put pressure on a few people up at top through gladhanding rather than getting their butts out into the market and convincing individual teachers or schools one by one that their products are the best ones for the children in those specific classrooms. We call this cronyism—and our system is designed for it. It is less the publishers’ fault that they have gotten good at leveraging a crooked system than our fault for allowing it to be so crooked in the first place.
Common Core Sets Up a Big Curriculum Monopoly
Common Core itself is one huge regulation that applies now to all classroom materials, and not only is it written in nearly unintelligible educationese that requires the education equivalent of lawyers to interpret (as Moore’s book points out), it’s 640 pages long. So Common Core itself is a regulation that favors the big guys at the expense of the little guys. Textbook publishers have massive standards compliance databases, which are basically searchable documents that ensure every product of theirs at least mentions the things the myriad state and now national curriculum regulations demand. Does any of this correlate with better instruction for kids? Absolutely not.
“The trend in state standards has reduced decision making at a more local building level or classroom level, and consequently the variety of what’s available is much less,” Pudewa noted. “You and I would probably not have to be convinced that a greater variety in the marketplace was a better thing, but there are some people who don’t necessarily agree with that.”
Basic economics demonstrates that monopolies like this inevitably lead to low-quality products, because genuine competition pushes producers to make better things so people want to buy those things. When companies can earn money not by producing substantively good things people want to buy but by influencing politicians to tilt the playing field in their favor, quality drastically suffers. Politicians and bureaucrats can’t evaluate lesson plans. They can only evaluate how good the meal tasted during a “business meeting,” or how flashy the sales PowerPoints and textbook covers look.
“My experience is that decentralized buying causes people who buy educational materials to have more freedom and shop more selectively,” Pudewa said. “And centralized buying appears to empower the big companies that can spend a ton of money on marketing and…the appearance of everything.”
In a follow-up to this article, I’ll reveal more shocking details about just how horrible American curriculum is, why Common Core not only cannot help reverse the damage but reinforces it, and what we must do to end a cycle of intellectual degradation that politicians in both parties have been deepening for decades and that threatens our nation’s very existence.