Fordham and the Use of Passive Voice

By 05/13/2011

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Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli responded 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.

– Jay P. Greene

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