Can GE Help Bring Common Core Standards to Life?

With an $18 million donation, the corporate giant is taking a controversial stand on education reform

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This morning the GE Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the multinational General Electric Company, announced a landmark $18 million investment to support state implementation of the new Common Core standards and train teachers how to use them. It is sure to set off alarm bells among critics of education reform who worry that too many companies are trying to treat school productivity like a business problem. But the truth is the GE gift is a reminder of how rare meaningful corporate involvement actually is.

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Quick background: The Common Core standards are the shared voluntary academic standards for elementary and secondary schools that 46 states have agreed to adopt. Developed in 2009 and 2010 by state leaders and organizations working with states, the standards are intended to be better and more ambitious than the state standards in use today. And because the standards will be shared across states — unlike the state-by-state standards currently in place — they should also help focus efforts to train teachers, support students, and measure student learning.

GE is giving $18 million to Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit consulting organization launched by David Coleman. Coleman, a Rhodes scholar and classicist who built and sold a successful student assessment company before moving into the nonprofit sector, is one of the architects of the Common Core standards. Student Achievement Partners will use GE’s money to create institutes to train teachers, build an online tool for sharing resources and lessons, and help teachers model best practices with the new standards.

Corporate involvement in education is a hot topic these days. Just Google “corporate education reform,” and you’ll see all sorts of conspiracy theories about how company interests are taking over the nation’s public schools. Education historian Diane Ravitch has crusaded against what she sees as corporate efforts to privatize public schools. The issue gets debated regularly in major education publications like Education Week and is a fixture among reporters blogging at mainstream outlets such as the Washington Post. But while plenty of business dollars flow into education, privatization is a sideshow, and, as a rule, corporations are skittish about taking on the really contentious issues in education reform.

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I’ve seen this firsthand in my work in government at the state and federal level, at think tanks, and as a consultant: corporations are loath to antagonize politicians over school policy when they have more immediate concerns before government officials, including tax and regulatory issues. There are some exceptions, of course. But in general companies stick to safe issues (think vague talk about “global competitiveness” and “high standards” or happy talk about educating more engineers) rather than the knotty issues of real school reform (think turning around failing schools, evaluating principals and teachers or overhauling archaic teacher contracts). And sometimes their positions on issues such as taxes work against efforts to improve schools.

Today publicly traded companies focus foremost on making money for shareholders, not making the world a better place. That ethos, along with political calculations and Wall Street’s intense focus on relatively short-term financial performance, makes it easy to see why corporations would be reluctant to create enemies in Washington or state capitals over an issue like education. Education reform pays off over generations; corporations want friends in government right now.

That’s why the GE announcement is noteworthy. In addition to the size of the donation, GE is running toward controversy rather than away from it. The Common Core is not universally popular, and among many conservative (read: business-friendly) state legislators, the shared standards project is an object of great suspicion, if not outright opposition. And there is a determined group of activists and academics trying to bring it down.

I asked Bob Corcoran, the President of the GE foundation, why they were stepping into the breach when there are so many less controversial ways to be involved in education. He described the development of the standards as an incredibly hard-won achievement, but then pointed out that the coming implementation of these new standards would be the real “test of mettle, a test of commitment.”

So forget all the rhetoric about corporate education reform, since no one can really define what it means anyway. And forget, for a moment, whether you agree with the Common Core project. When school reform gets tough, mettle and commitment from companies is pretty rare.

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