Fordham and the Use of Passive Voice

Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli responded today to the criticism over a nationalized set of standards, curriculum, and assessments.

Charles Miller, the former chair of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas and one of the chief architects of Texas’ accountability system, sent me the following note.  He observed the extensive use of passive voice in the Fordham reply, which serves to conceal who is supposed to be doing the described actions.  He wrote:

So much of the discussion by the advocates of Common Core Standards is filled with references to steps which have to be taken or events which have to take place without identifying specifically how and by whom it happens.  Almost always, there is the implication that some set of elite experts or the federal government will handle what’s necessary with the utmost competence…and virtue—and no unintended consequences, the bane of central planners.  For my own satisfaction, I took this paragraph below from the Gadfly’s response to the Counter-Manifesto [it should always be in [bold]] and tried to fill in specifically who the implementing agents of change will or should be.

 Here’s what I came up with:

 “So here’s where we stand: First, states should be encouraged [by the federal government’s funding lever] to stay the course with the Common Core standards and assessments, at least until we [the federal government] see what the tests look like. While the standards aren’t perfect, they are vastly better than what they are replacing in most states [as judged by the federal government]. Second, à la the Shanker manifesto, efforts should be made [by the federal government] to develop all manner of tools, materials, lesson plans, professional development, curricula, and more that [the federal government determines] will help teachers implement the standards in their classrooms—and to help students master them [as determined by the federal government]. We have no particular concern with the federal government—or philanthropists and venture capitalists, big and small—helping to pay for those activities, as has been done so often in the past [because the federal government never exercises control or significant influence when it spends money]. But, third, it should be made crystal clear  [by the federal government] that the use of all such materials will be completely voluntary for states and, we would argue, for districts within states, schools within districts, and teachers within schools. And fourth, the two consortia now building new Common Core assessments should take pains [with perhaps a loyalty oath to the federal government] not to cross the Rubicon into micromanaging schools’ curricular and instructional decisions.”

I would also add that Fordham’s continued assertion that this entire nationalization project is voluntary is getting downright annoying.  The adoption of the national standards was coerced by making state receipt of federal funds at least partially dependent  on endorsing them.  Fordham did not lift a finger to object to this federal coercion on standards, so why would we believe their new-found conviction that all of this should “be completely voluntary for states”?

Fordham’s credibility in claiming that this nationalization project is voluntary is further undermined by the fact that they recommended that the reauthorized ESEA should:

Require states to back-map achievement standards down to at least third grade, so that passing the state assessment in each grade indicates that a student is on track to graduate from twelfth grade ready for college or a career. States that opt out of the state assessment consortia funded by Race to the Top (RTT) would have their standards peer reviewed at the federal level by a panel of state officials and content-matter experts.

Of course, standards, curriculum, and assessment are all connected.  Once the federal government coerces states to adopt a set of standards, as it has already done without Fordham’s objection, and once states are compelled to adopt a particular set of assessments, as Fordham proposes the federal government should do, then we have a de facto national curriculum regardless of whatever else is done.

The signers of the Counter-Manifesto do not necessarily agree with each other about whether standards, curriculum, and assessments are best handled at the school, district, or state level, but we all agree that centralization to the federal level is undesirable.  Fordham’s facile suggestion that we should find centralization to the federal government acceptable because some of us find centralization to the state level acceptable, assumes that centralization is the same regardless of the level to which power is allocated.  If Fordham is so comfortable with centralization and finds the “hodge-podge of standards, tests, textbooks, curricular guides, lesson plans” so bothersome because it lacks “coherence,” then why wouldn’t they support centralization to the U.N.?  Why should math be any different in Mexico than it is in the U.S.?  A fair number of children cross the border.

The point is that some level of centralization involves the delegation of power to people who are too far removed from the circumstances to be effective, even if they were perfectly benevolent in their exercise of power (which we generally trust less as power is aggregated further).  The signers of the Counter-Manifesto are consistent with the sentiments of the Founders, the legislative authorizers of the Department of Education, and the American people in understanding that education standards, curriculum, and high-stakes assessments should not be done at the national level.

Fordham, in coalition with its friends at Gates, Pearson, AFT, and the US Department of Education are trying to subvert this historical and legal consensus against federal control by failing to be candid about what they are proposing.  That’s why they love the passive voice so much in addition to the use of weasel words.  And that’s why Charles Miller’s clarification of the actor in each sentence is so useful.

15 Responses to Fordham and the Use of Passive Voice

  1. MOMwithAbrain says:

    I just have to laugh at all of this “brilliance”. Common Core Standards …now what happens when this latest fad fails? Will they apologize and admit it or will we figure out a new one to sell to the public?

    Here’s how it works for those who can afford a good education. We shop around for the best school. When we find it, we pay tuition and we get the best education for our children. Those who cannot afford it, are stuck in miserable schools with political operatives making money off of schemes that tell everyone how much better things are going to get if we just spend more money on public education.

    In the meantime, parents who can afford it, find quality, a disciplined environment, and are happy.

    So you go ahead and you keep peddling this nonsense to the poor people who do not have the money or power to demand that THEIR tax dollars be used on THEIR children the way THEY see fit.

    No we’ll let the elites in education figure this all out for them but in the meantime the rich will not suffer, nor will their kids.

    • Brett Lane says:

      Yep – Best response I’ve seen in a while.

      Same standards and same assessments in two schools.

      School A in a middle or upper class area, regardless of ethnicity or racial composition; parents value public eduction and send their kids to the public schools.

      School B in a middle class or high poverty area, regardless of ethnicity or racial composition; but schools have a bad reputation (justified or not) and parents learn, by word of mouth, that the elementary schools are good but not the middle or high schools.

      Sound familiar?

      Will common core solve this issue?

      Doubt it.

  2. Jeanne Allen says:

    Perhaps the most brilliant way to frame the debate I’ve seen in a long time:

    “The point is that some level of centralization involves the delegation of power to people who are too far removed from the circumstances to be effective, even if they were perfectly benevolent in their exercise of power (which we generally trust less as power is aggregated further).”

    I’d add some historical perspective as well, having been here and participated in just about every standard setting exercise since the early 90s, (though it feels a bit like the 1890s!) A standard — voluntary or not — at any level (publisher, government, commission), begins with inviting people who allegedly know to offer what they believe a standard should be. This is often teachers, but most likely, association leaders. When the reps from the National Council of Teachers of Math were first consulted about the content of NAEP standards, they of course offered what became known as “fuzzy math.” Their credibility, however, was unchallenged. Afterall, they represented teachers of math!

    At a state level, such input can and will be kept in check, as institutions are created and monitored specifically for their work, by legislators, who spent 50% or more of the state’s budget to manage education. They pay attention. A lot. Not so at the federal government or amongst Commissions, where there is no direct line of authority or accountability; just power that makes them feel like they are in charge.

    Alas, being against national standards these days is like being against technology in the classroom. The reality is we must keep reminding ourselves that most policymakers — indeed — even our dear Checker Finn — know little about how policy is actually implemented once great ideas are set forth and end up on paper, in regulations, in mandates, and eventually in books and tests, where they’ve lost the fervor of the idea, but not the fervor of the requirement.

    Charles Miller knows from whence he speaks. That’s because he’s actually worked at the state level for more than a nano-second, something anyone who claims to understand the standards debate should do before issuing platitudes and calling things voluntary.

  3. J. A Stallcup says:

    While we dither Rome burns. A set of world class standards for k-12 mathematics and science have already been established,tested and proven to be highly effective at imparting high levels of average achievement. You can buy the curricular materials, workbooks, textbooks, teachers guides and even the pc games online at The materials are all in English. The current NAEP math “standards” for what we deem to be for advanced eighth grade students are the same set of math problems all Singapore sixth graders are required to master. Why we are bothering to reinvent the math and science k-12 standards and curriculum “wheel” when they have already been created, tested and improved by the world’s #1 ranked education system in math and science(TIMSS)is a tribute to our continuing belief in the myth of the always positive impact of “American Exceptionalism”. It’s reminiscent of pre civil war paper currency in the US. Every state printed their own $10 bill, until the war when no one could tell a counterfeit from the genuine article and we adopted a “national standard paper currency”. That situation now exists with high school diplomas they are 90% of the time a “counterfeit currency” denoting nothing more than how many years you attended school.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    If you think high school diplomas are counterfeit currency now, wait until you see what things are like when the U.S. Department of Education establishes control over curriculum.

  5. J. A Stallcup says:

    If we adopted the MCAS exam as the national high school exit exam it would at least establish a fairly high standard for a high school diploma that would be understandable. MCAS beats California’s exit exam by a mile. California’s exit exam is sophomore level content, which on the world stage is 8th grade level content in math. The current “states rights” driven process gives you Mississippi defining levels of proficiency so low as to not pass the laugh test. I am surprised that the “common core” proponents don’t construct a website hosting sample lessons taught to the typical students in the worlds best systems and compare those to those being taught in the best and worst states as measured by NAEP. I of course have no expectation of any national history standards.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Funny you should mention MCAS! As a result of the push for national standards, Massachusetts has voted to abandon its best-in-the-nation standards and adopt the inferior standards being pushed by the nationalizers. Rather than making Mississippi more like Massachusetts, the nationalizers are making Massachusetts more like Mississippi. Oops!

  6. Grard Manley Hopkins answers the standardizers:…

    Pied Beauty

    GLORY be to God for dappled things—
    For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
    Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

    All things counter, original, spare, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
    Praise him.

  7. J. A Stallcup says:

    To quote Ravitch “50 states with 50 standards” has been and will continue to be destination disaster. So it’s a matter of when not if we get some form of national standards at least for math and science. The common core is really just a nationalized version of the unspecific general descriptions used by states now, to discuss what students are expected to learn. It’s not content specific enough to allow all the stakeholders to understand in enough detail what they need to learn in specific enough manner to be use full to parents and students on a daily basis. Until parents know what math problems their child needs to master by Christmas break in third grade we will remain adrift in a fog bank of blather. The idea that those specific math problems are either undefinable or not already defined around the world is just not factual

  8. (Stallcup): “…it’s a matter of when not if we get some form of national standards…
    What is “it”?
    (Stallcup): “… at least for math and science.
    The State (government, generally) cannot pay for education without a definition of “education”. The current definition amounts to “whatever happens to children when under the supervision of dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel (unless it’s bad; they we blame parents)”. That definition, coupled with the higher priority which system insiders assign to their own welfare than to the welfare of children and taxpayers, guarantees a wretched result. Even with the simplest topics (Math, Physics, Chemistry), standardization will cause a lot of damage. Children are not standard. They learn at different paces, and different curricular emphases at different points in the sequence will yield different results. To a considerable extent the choice between these results is a matter of taste. There is no better argument for nationalizing curricular tastes than for nationalizing taste in breakfast cereal.
    Why suppose that centralized decisionmaking will yield better results the results of an unsubsidized, unregulated, competitive market in education services?
    (Stallcup): “…Until parents know what math problems their child needs to master by Christmas break…
    Needs? Define “need”. I believe it was Lao Tzu who said: “The wise man does not need to live.”
    (Stallcup): “…in third grade we will remain adrift in a fog bank of blather.
    Third grade? That’s when I introduce the notation of Set Theory and Logic. If kids know how to add and subtract rational numbers, that’s when I start Algebra I (linear equaations in 1 and 2 variables) and Analytic Geometry (graphs of linear equations in 1-space and 2-space). When would you recommend that I introduce Combinatorics or Modular Arithmetic? If a student can solve linear equations in two variables, I can teach them to do this…
    Find t such that 187^t gives a remainder of 20 when divided by 43 and a remainder of 17 when divided by 47

    in two or three weeks. Does it make sense to do this?
    Seems to me there is no good argument for mandating one answer to that question.
    The most effective curricular standard is the parent standard: “Do I want my child in that school?”

  9. J. A Stallcup says:

    I certainly don’t think this is about breakfast cereal. Very few people would think it’s a good idea to go back to allowing states to print their own money. We currently allow states to print their own high school diplomas and claim they equally difficult to attain and are worth as much as those from other states, which on occasion they are. Typically they are either worth far more or far less. Most parents don’t have the economic ability to pick their school, those that do purchase private education or buy a house in a better public school district (or represent they live in that district whether they do or not) The vast majority of parents in the US deal with what is provided by their local schools, good, bad or mediocre but seldom if ever world class. If there is not one answer to the question what does 2 + 2 equal, I’m on the wrong planet. I will defer to the ministry of education in Singapore, India or Japan to determine where in the process of becoming numerate you need to learn what. Unregulated free enterprise exists in education now they are called private schools and 90% of parents can’t afford them.

  10. Bob Dean says:

    I agree totally…. but here is what bothers me the most:

    “The standards are intended to be useful to classroom teachers and accessible to students, parents, and the general public.”

    Consider this sample of the 5th grade Common Core Standards

    Interpret the product (a/b) × q as a parts of a partition of q
    into b equal parts; equivalently, as the result of a sequence of
    operations a × q ÷ b. For example, use a visual fraction model to
    show (2/3) × 4 = 8/3, and create a story context for this equation. Do
    the same with (2/3) × (4/5) = 8/15. (In general, (a/b) × (c/d) = ac/bd.)

    Does this look like a standard that would be useful to students, parents and the general public? The fact is the common core standards are written in a cryptic mathematical style that will make them all but useless to a typical elementary teacher or the general public.

    Compare the above to a Singapore Standard from the 5th grade:

    * addition and subtraction of proper fractions without using calculators,
    * addition and subtraction of mixed numbers,

    multiplication of a proper fractions and a proper/ improper fraction without using calculators,

    multiplication of an improper fraction and an improper fraction,

    multiplication of a mixed number and a whole number,

    division of a proper fraction by a whole number without using calculators,

    solving word problems involving the 4 operations.

    Which of these standards do you think would be more helpful to elementary teachers, students and parents? The Common Core Standards will need to be interpreted for most of the intended users which makes them all but useless for most stakeholders. The only reason people believe otherwise is because of the multimillion dollar propaganda campaign funded by Bill Gates that falsely told them different.

    Anyone who has ever used standards in the classroom (none of the people who wrote the common core standards) and compared them to international standards knows that the CCSS are a total disaster.

    Bob Dean

  11. […] “voluntarism” ruse. But if you’re not satisfied with my analysis, try this post over at Jay Greene’s blog, in which Jay reproduces a terrific fill-in-the-blanks analysis of […]

  12. J. A Stallcup says:

    I agree that plain English and specific concrete understandable problems to solve are whats’ needed. It’s about power and control. It reminds me of Wall Street creating financial products that are as opaque as possible so they control what happens. I happen to like the TIMSS release items because I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t understand what they are asking. Take a look at the English version of the Japanese educational materials at as well. I keep hoping someone at Google will take a couple of weeks and organize what’s online now into a world class content specific math and science standards for K-12. It’s already online just in hiding.

  13. Greg Forster says:

    So will you join us in opposing the movement to force states to adopt these unhelpful, incomprehensible, and in many other ways inferior standards?

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