Is Our Defense of Florida’s New K-12 Standards Biased? Fordham Institute Should Look in the Mirror

Last week, Amber Northern, a senior vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, penned a rebuttal to the Independent Institute’s evaluation of Florida’s new Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking (B.E.S.T.) standards. As the author of the foreword to that evaluation, I decided to respond to some general statements of Northern’s rebuttal here. I will not address, in any depth, her criticism of the English language arts (ELA) and mathematics reviews themselves—that is left to the authors of those, if they so choose.

Northern describes two of Independent’s evaluation authors as “Common Core opponent” (myself, foreword) and “Common Core critic” (James Milgram, mathematics). This is true, as far as it goes, and is intended to imply that we cannot be objective judges because of that—hence our evaluation and judgment are automatically suspect. Yet, strangely, when Northern describes David Steiner and Ashley Berner, Independent’s ELA reviewers, she “forgets” to mention their PRO Common Core past, which should serve to make their evaluation and judgment doubly authoritative, since they now highly praise Florida’s standards over the Common Core.

Even more strange—one may even call it hypocritical—is the fact that all the reviewers from the Fordham Institute evaluation who found Florida’s standards to be “poor” are long-time supporters and promoters of Common Core. Moreover, the very sponsor of their evaluation, the Fordham Institute, has received over seven million dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation since 2010 to promote Common Core standards. Yet Northern now dares to imply that our evaluation is likely biased.

Speaking of Fordham Institute’s bias, Northern goes on to write:

Fordham has been publishing reviews of state standards for almost twenty-five years. … Our expert reviewers have always developed upfront the comprehensive criteria by which they then assess the content, rigor, clarity, and specificity of state standards. They do that before they lay eyes on the first set of standards, in part to hold themselves accountable to a rigorous external benchmark. That means they don’t grade on a curve relative to the quality of standards in other states.

There are a couple of problems with her statement.

First, although this may have been (somewhat) true between 1998 and 2010, before Common Core existed, Northern conveniently “forgets” to mention that in 2018 Fordham replaced its evaluation criteria to tailor them to Common Core and, at the same time, replaced all of its previous team of reviewers with a new team made up of only Common Core fans. In other words, Fordham’s “objective” and “rigorous” criteria serve to evaluate everything against Common Core, which is held as a reference. This, in fact, was also observed by our evaluators. Naturally, anyone who departs from Common Core—even intentionally, as Florida did—is automatically penalized by Fordham.

Second, if one considers it for a moment, even the notion that one can determine up-front evaluation criteria for sight-unseen standards is ridiculous on its face. How can one determine what should go into each grade? By fiat? By the Bible? Once one reads proposed standards, one can opine about their clarity, coherence, depth, or rigor, but attempting to decide “how clear,” or “how coherent,” or “what content belongs where” the standards are supposed to be before reading them is a fool’s errand. It assumes that there is a single God-given way to write “good” standards. It also shows basic misunderstanding of how educational standards are written and evaluated.

Finally, Northern’s comments on the actual evaluations of ELA and math are nit-picky, and she seems unable to see the forest for the trees. She also seems to misunderstand Independent’s ELA review when it comes to its rejection of disciplinary literacy, as well as math problem-solving. But I’ll leave it to others to respond to all of that.

Ze'ev Wurman is Chief Software Architect with MonolithIC 3D Inc. and former senior policy adviser with the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education.
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