“Snake Oil Salesman.” The phrase conjures up images of seedy profiteers trying to exploit an unsuspecting public by selling it fake cures. Mark Twain had harsh words for a snake oil peddler when enraged by the peddler’s attempt to sell bogus medicine to Twain by way of a letter and leaflet delivered to his home. According to the literature, the peddler’s “Elixir of Life” could cure such ailments as meningitis (which had killed Twain’s daughter in 1896) and diphtheria (which killed his 19-month-old son). A furious Twain dictated a letter of response to his secretary, which he then signed. What is a “snake oil salesman”? Why is peddling snake oil such a terrible thing?
A “snake oil salesman” is somebody that sells an item that claims to have some miraculous powers. This product is usually accompanied by a tremendous amount of hype. In an attempt to help push their products, the “snake oil salesman” will usually utilize planted accomplices who will claim that the product actually works. Snake oil salesmen take advantage of struggling people willing to pay whatever they have to find a cure for their chronic problems. The snake oil peddlers know their promises of relief aren’t supported with well-designed research, but, pilot studies and longitudinal research will interfere with the agenda of salesman’s corporate and foundation sponsors. The “suckers” are not only cheated out of their money, but they forgo opportunities for authentic, locally developed solutions to their schools’ specific ailments. In other words, parents and taxpayers pay “opportunity cost” as well as financial costs. Hucksters hock hope. Twain lashed out at the peddler because he was grieved by genuine pain that the snake oil salesman disingenuously promised to relieve.
Mark Twain’s letter of fury unleashed on a snake oil salesman for fraudulent advertising conjures up similar images when thinking about Mike Petrelli and Robert Pondiscio’s “Missouri: Don’t shoot the messenger.” Petrelli and Pondiscio are the president and vice president for external affairs respectively of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A non-governmental organization frequently referred to as a conservative think tank. Why are Petrelli and Pondiscio likened to snake oil salesmen? Because they are using earned media to generate a tremendous amount of hype and push their untested, never-been-validated products – the Common Core State Standards and tests aligned to them. The Common Core peddlers repackaged a product discredited decades ago (slides 35- 44) with some new-fangled, untested software still under development; and banked (figuratively and literally) on the naiveté of a new generation of parents. Wanting relief from the fear that their children are being handicapped (a golf term) in a global race to the top (the top of what has not been clearly established), parents and other taxpayers are seduced into exchanging their hard earned dollars for Petrelli and Pondiscio’s “Elixir of Life” for American education.
Petrelli and Pondiscio wrote the template for their ad, I mean article, when discussing the poor test results of students in West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette, and then, about a week later, minimally altered it with a few changes of the statistics for Connecticut and Missouri publications – tailoring their “pitch” for the standards and tests to parents and taxpayers in those states. Petrelli even billed himself with the “Missouri’s native son” spin in the author description of the STL Post Dispatch. He and Pondiscio used their parent status to identify themselves with readers in West Virginia and Connecticut. Clever, huh? What’s worse, like the classic snake oil scam, accomplices were on standby in the audience to claim that the products actually work. The West Virginia article was reviewed on the Common Core Fact Checker website on August 24, 2015, the day after Petrelli and Pondiscio’s article was published in West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mail. Here are the Common Core Fact Checker logo (note the underlining under honest in the logo) and excerpts of the article review:
Because parents, policymakers, and our kids deserve an honest debate.
News You Can Use:
Charleston Gazette-Mail, “Don’t Shoot the Test Score Messenger”: The Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio write that states have “reached a critical milestone” following the first year of student assessments aligned to higher education standards. In West Virginia, …Common Core should help to boost college readiness – and college completion – by significantly raising expectations… Mountain State parents, in other words, are finally learning the truth.”
What It Means: Petrilli and Pondiscio make a strong case that high-quality student assessments are a necessary step to ensure parents get an honest evaluation of how well their child is developing the skills and knowledge to succeed at high levels of learning, and ultimately to graduate high school college- and career-ready. For a long time, states systematically lowered the bar instead of adequately helping students to levels of college- and career-readiness. By holding students to higher expectations, states are taking the difficult step of improving student preparedness. ... [italics added]
Honest in my world means full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. Honest in my world also means test materials are demonstrated to be valid and reliable by independent external reviewers who present validity and reliability data before a test is administered as operational and cut scores are determined. My world has been shaped by the standards of ethical conduct of research writers published in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association and the APA’s Code of Fair Testing Practices in Education. Clearly, full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest and validity and reliability data published by independent external reviewers are not what you get when fact checking the Common Core Fact Checker website and Petrelli and Pondiscio’s article.
For starters, read the fine print in the lower left corner of the Common Core Fact Checker webpage to identify it as a project of The Collaborative for Student Success (CSS). Then, when you visit the CSS partners webpage, who should appear but the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (that is, the home organization of Petrelli and Pondiscio) along with other high profile Common Core developers and supporters such as Common Core architect, David Coleman’s Student Achievement Partners, the workforce planners at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and The Bill and Melinda Gates funded PTA. So, it appears that Petrelli and Pondiscio are rounding up insiders and accomplices to affirm their claims about the wonders of common core standards and tests. Conflict of interest abounds. I think I smell a funny odor, like essence of snake oil.
While Petrelli and Pondicio scrutinize student scores in three states and pronounce that the percentage who have reached a proficient level of performance is woefully unacceptable, they warn readers to “. . . resist the siren song of those who want to use this moment of truth to attack the Common Core or the associated tests.” They fail sound the alarm against critics who might be holding the standards and tests to standards of professional review. As it turns out, the tests from which the scores are gathered, the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBAC), fail to meet even the most basic level of scrutiny for test selection and use – that is, scrutiny by independent external reviewers which holds the test developers accountable to professional standards of test construction. Even the U.S. Department of Education that awarded the grant to develop the SBAC required such basic criteria and stipulated in the April 9, 2010 Federal Register that,
An eligible applicant awarded a grant under this category must—
1. Evaluate the validity, reliability, and fairness of the summative assessment components of the assessment system, and make available through formal mechanisms (e.g., peer-reviewed journals) and informal mechanisms (e.g., newsletters), and in print and electronically, the results of any evaluations it conducts;
Ideally, the data should have been available before the assessments were administered as “operational” so that states exercising due diligence, could determine whether the assessments should be administered. The Smarter Balanced consortium published year 1, 2, and 3 reports to the U.S. Department of Education to demonstrate accountability for funds awarded throughout a four year grant period. The purpose of the reports was to describe the accomplishments and challenges of developing a new generation of tests that meet expectations for valid, reliable, and fair assessments. The federal funds supporting the consortium expired in September of 2014, and since that time, the number of states that are governing members has reduced – including an exit from the consortium by Missouri. To date, a year 4 or final report has not been published on the U.S. Department of Education website.
Implicitly acknowledging the external validity data were not available prior to administering what was pitched as the operational test , a September 11, 2014 memo from SBAC to state leaders stated, “Once the Smarter Balanced assessments are administered operationally in spring 2015, it will be possible to determine “external validity,” which is the degree to which test results correspond to external indicators (consistent with expectations). It’s now over three months after the administration of the “operational” tests. To date – no external validity and reliability data have been published for public review. Without independent external evaluation of the SBAC, Petrelli and Pondiscio’s article is akin to peddling a product of unknown quality that can only yield useless numbers promoted as student scores, but, that doesn’t stop them from pitching promises to unsuspecting readers.
Not only do the SBAC assessments lack independent external validation, the common core standards to which they are aligned are of questionable validity as well. According to Zeev Wurman, the standards were not validated before they were published. The Common Core State Standards were released on June 2, 2010; the validation committee report was published in the same month. According to Sandra Stotsky, a member of the ELA validation committee, “Any tests based on these invalid standards are also invalid, by definition”. Issues of validity apparently did not concern members of the Common Core validation committee who blessed the standardsa and then went on to lead the development of the Smarter Balanced assessments that generated the student scores reported by Petrelli and Pondiscio. These include West Ed’s Stanley Rabinowitz, who went on to become the project management director for developing the Smarter Balanced assessments, and Linda Darling Hammond (yes, the same Darling-Hammond who was head of the Obama transition team and whose Aspire Charter High School, partially funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was closed for persistent low achievement) became the senior research advisor for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.
In 2013, Bill Gates, the largest private funder of the Common Core State Standards Initiative and financial supporter of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute said, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.” So, without having evidence that the Common Core State Standards and tests aligned to them are valid and with credible evidence that conflict of interest abounds, where did Petrelli and Pondiscio get the idea that Common Core Standards and tests set “dramatically higher expectations” for students? From the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s wish list, that’s where. In May 2002, the foundation’s five year report listed six essential elements of its credo that guides all its work in education reform. The first and fifth of the six elements is “dramatically higher academic standards” and “a solid core curriculum taught by knowledgeable, expert instructors.”[italics added]. The third element is “verifiable outcomes and accountability.”
Fordham’s President Emeritus, Chester Finn, has worked really hard for decades to make the Fordham wish list come true. The problem is that the motive to effect real change requires grounding in real processes that contrl for conflict of interest. It was the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that published the 2010 State of the State Standards, the document, partially funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and others was used to recommend that states abandon their state-generated standards in public domain and adopt the privately copyrighted Common Core State Standards. According to Jamie Gass at the Pioneer Institute,
A closer look [at the report] reveals the tortured path Fordham took to arrive at its conclusions. In previous Fordham reviews, English standards had to be presented either for every grade or for a two-year span to receive full credit for “organization.” This time, that definition conveniently disappeared. Massachusetts was marked down for a few two-year spans, but Common Core was not.
Fordham gave the Common Core mathematics standards an “A-” despite the failure to organize the high school standards by grade level, grade span, or course. Instead, they are listed in five unordered categories of mathematical constructs leaving it unclear which standards belong to algebra and which to geometry.
What is interesting, but not disclosed in the document’s content, is that the lead author and primary examiner of the 2010 State of the State Standards, Sheila Byrd Carmichael, was a member of the Common Core English Language Arts feedback team. Additionally, what is not disclosed is that she enjoyed an ongoing relationship with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, including having been employed as a paid consultant in 2007 and having collaborated with Fordham on previous publications. Also not disclosed is that Byrd Carmichael launched the American Diploma Program, the forerunner of the Common Core State Standards, under the sponsorship of Achieve Inc. In sum, Byrd Carmichael hardly qualifies as an independent external reviewer of the standards.
Also not disclosed, is that promotion of the common core standards and general operating costs of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute are supported by the wealthiest private funder of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, Bill Gates. Funny thing though, a 2015 grant from the Gates Foundation to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute is not mentioned on the Fordham Institute’s list of recent funders webpage. Perhaps it’s my imagination working overtime, or perhaps Petrelli is avoiding disclosure of his institute’s financial relationship with Gates.
In the table below are the virtually identical articles Petrelli and Pondiscio placed in various news publications in Connecticut, West Virginia, and Missouri. The text that is common to all of the ads appears in red font; text that intersects between two of the three ads appears in green (Missoui and Connecticut), pink (Connecticut and West Virginia), or blue (Missouri and West Virginia). Words unique to each article are identified in black font. Do you see all the red? Petrelli and Pondiscio use a “cookie cutter/one-size-fits all” approach to standardize their articles about standardizing student performance on common core aligned tests. Why am I not surprised? Below are some points of interest as you contrast the content of the articles in the table:
- Note the inconsistency in the language referring to state performance standards. Petrelli and Pondicio describe CT and WV as having set a low bar, but, not MO. That’s because Missouri had the 2nd highest performance standards in the country. In fact, Missouri’s original ESEA Flexibility Waiver application stated that MO was adopting the CC standards because our standards were the top three in the country, but, “it was confusing that many of Missouri’s schools were already labeled as failing when schools of similar quality in other states were not due to differences in standards and the rigor of the assessments used from one state to the next,” (p. 18). (in other words, Missouri was making itself look bad by having such high performance standards.)
- Note similarity of poor math performance scores – all three states report over 60% students in various grade groups not proficient in math, but nowhere is there a discussion about the lack of standardized testing conditions, instructional practices, or common core implementation across the states. In other words, the test score numbers are meaningless unless it can be proven that all of the conditions were standardized across the comparison states. Further, there is no discussion about the lack of rigor with which the math standards themselves were developed. Nor is there any discussion about the questionable practices used to determine cut scores on the SBAC tests. Petrelli and Pondiscio are accusing states of lying to parents, when they themselves are omitting very important information about the integrity and interpretation of the scores they use to argue their case for ignoring critics of the common core standards and the SBAC tests aligned to them.
- Note the statement about students leaving community colleges without a degree or any kind of credential. What is not discussed are the reasons students leave formal postsecondary education, which includes starting a business. Petrelli should talk to Bill Gates about his college dropout experience the next time he picks up a check from Bill to cover Fordham’s operating costs.
- Note that Petrelli and Pondoscio implicitly insist on privatization of education in through state’s “voluntary” adoption of copyrighted standards owned by non-governmental organizations rather than roll back NCLB’s 100% proficiency mandate or recommend model state standards in public domain.
Missouri – Sept 1
September 01, 2015 12:00 am
Missouri: Don’t shoot the messenger
By Michael J. Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio
Five long years ago, Missouri and more than 40 other states adopted the Common Core standards in reading and math, setting dramatically higher expectations for students in our elementary and secondary schools. Now we’ve reached a critical milestone in this effort. Missouri parents just received for the first time their children’s scores on new tests aligned to the standards, and taxpayers got a look at results statewide. The news was sobering, and surely came as a shock for many.
Middle school math, in particular, was a disappointment, with less than 40 percent of students scoring at the proficient level. English language arts wasn’t much better. Let us explain why parents and taxpayers shouldn’t shoot the messenger.
First, it’s important to remember why so many states started down this path in the first place. Under federal law, every state must test children every year in grades 3-8 to ensure they are making progress. That’s a good idea. Parents deserve to know if their kids are learning, and taxpayers are entitled to know if the money we spend on schools is being used wisely.
But it is left to states to define what it means to be “proficient” in math and reading. Unfortunately, most states set a very low bar. They juked the stats.
The result was a comforting illusion that most children were on track to succeed in college, carve out satisfying careers, and stand on their own two feet. To put it plainly, it was a lie. Imagine being told year after year that you’re doing just fine, only to find out when you apply for college or a job, that you’re simply not as prepared as you need to be.
Connecticut – Aug. 31
Posted: 08/31/15, 6:17 PM EDT
Forum: Don’t shoot the test-score messenger, Connecticut
By Michael J. Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio
Five long years ago, Connecticut and more than 40 other states adopted the Common Core standards in reading and math, setting dramatically higher expectations for students in elementary and secondary schools. Now we’ve reached a critical milestone in this effort, as parents and taxpayers just got to see for the first time the scores on the new tests aligned to the standards. The news was sobering.
Fewer than 40 percent of Connecticut’s students are on track in math; the results weren’t much better in reading and writing. Though the scores may come as a shock to many, let us explain why people shouldn’t shoot the messenger.
First, it’s important to remember why so many states started down this path in the first place. Under federal law, every state must test children every year in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school to ensure they are making progress. That’s a good idea. Parents deserve to know if their kids are learning, and taxpayers are entitled to know if the money we spend on schools is being used wisely.
But it is left to states to define what it means to be “proficient” in math and reading. Unfortunately, most states, including Connecticut, set a very low bar. They “juked the stats.”
The result was a comforting illusion that most children were on track to succeed in college, carve out satisfying careers and stand on their own two feet. To put it plainly, it was a lie. Imagine being told year after year that you’re doing just fine, only to find out when you apply for college or a job, that you’re simply not as prepared as you need to be.
West Virginia – Aug. 23 and Aug. 31
Sunday, August 23, 2015
Michael J. Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio: Don’t shoot the test score messenger, W.Va.
By Michael J. Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio
Five long years ago, West Virginia and more than 40 other states adopted the Common Core standards in reading and math, setting dramatically higher expectations for students in elementary and secondary schools. Now we’ve reached a critical milestone in this effort. Mountain State parents just received for the first time their children’s scores on new tests aligned to the standards, and taxpayers got a look at results statewide. The news was sobering.
Only about a quarter of middle school children are on track in math, and less than half are proficient in reading. The results were even worse for high school students. Though the scores may come as a shock to many, let us explain why parents and taxpayers shouldn’t shoot the messenger.
First it’s important to remember why so many states started down this path in the first place. Under federal law, every state must test children every year in grades three through eight and once in high school to ensure they are making progress. That’s a good idea. Parents deserve to know if their kids are learning, and taxpayers are entitled to know if the money we spend on schools is being used wisely.
But it is left to states to define what it means to be “proficient” in math and reading. Unfortunately, most states, including West Virginia, set a very low bar. They “juked the stats.”
The result was a comforting illusion that most West Virginia children were on track to succeed in college, carve out satisfying careers, and stand on their own two feet.
Had Fordham, a Washington DC-based, private non-governmental organization, sought to maintain the accountability of public school education to the public rather than use its position to sell snake oil, it would have recommended high quality standards in public domain as a model for all states, such as those developed by Massachusetts, which for a decade led the country in NAEP test scores. Instead, Fordham generated a report to launch a publicity campaign for its much wished for national standards and tests using money from its sister foundation and Bill Gates. Along with other Washington insiders such as Marc Tucker of the National Center for Education and the Economy and Lou Gerstner of Achieve Inc, Fordham Institute’s leadership has been working since the 1990s to seduce states to adopt a national set of standards designed for development of human capital rather than education of independent, self-governing and self-supporting citizens.
Petrelli and Pondiscio call out states for “juking the stats” which was actually an attempt by many states to meet the unattainable goal in the No Child Left Behind Act for all students score as 100% proficient in math and English in order to get Title I funding. Using student test scores derived from tests, which themselves have not been demonstrated to be worth the effort to complete them, to convince the parents and public that their children are not adequately prepared for college or career is the ultimate “juking” of “the stats.” Worse, it’s fear mongering to “nudge” the public into accepting the privately copyrighted standards to achieve another agenda – the transformation of the purpose of public schools to the development of human capital for the workforce.
Implicit in Petrelli and Pondiscio’s lament that students leave community college without a degree or a credential lies the dirty little secret. The real agenda behind the Common Core State Standards is not to raise the standards of education, but, to standardize data collected on children in school. Labor, that is, individual members of the workforce, will be tagged by government-tracked credentialing after a student is demonstrated to be fit for work via test and behavioral data collected throughout his or her education years. It is despicable that Petrelli and Pondiscio accuse states of lying to parents, when they themselves have been hiding the truth. Their “Don’t shoot the messenger” advertisement for the Common Core State Standards and tests aligned to them is indeed an example of snake oil marketing. As a demonstration of “dramatically higher expectations” of behavior, Missourians, who like Mark Twain, are furious with snake oil salemen will not shoot the messengers, but, will brusquely usher them to the exit doors. Below is a parody of the Mark Twain letter to Mr. Todd that summarizes our sentiments to Mr. Petrelli and Mr. Pondiscio perfectly:
Sept. 9, 2015
Michael Petrelli and Robert Pondicio
Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The persons who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant persons now alive on the planet; also without doubt they are idiots, idiots of the 33rd degree, and scions of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the persons who have puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.
Adieu, adieu, adieu!