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NY Common Core Debate: Dissecting Pro-CC Petrilli and Martin

September 16, 2014

On September 9, 2014, Intelligence Squared hosted a debate on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which it entitled, Embrace the Common CoreThe title is based upon the position that the organization assumes on the issue.

In this post, I consider CCSS support connected to the Intelligence Squared debate as well as address given statements by both pro-CCSS debaters. The post is long, yet I cannot address all without going on at book-chapter length, so I address some.

First, for some perplexing CCSS support results connected to this debate.

CCSS Support in the Studio Audience: Who Were Those People?

Since Gates funding is behind at least one of the Intelligence Squared sponsors (NPR)– to the tune of approximately $18 million in the form of 11 grants— the pro-CCSS position of the Intelligence Squared program was no surprise. However, in contrast to the declared Intelligence Squared position, the public survey on the Intelligence Squared site has held steady for weeks at 89 percent opposed to CCSS (43,800 responses to date).

Nevertheless, the studio audience began the debate at 50 percent in favor of CCSS.

I have not been in any room in which half of the hundreds present favored CCSS, so this passing of the Pro-CCSS Halley’s Comet I found to be rather curious in its occurring.

As it turns out, there was some question that came my way via email about whether pro-CCSS debater and Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli purchased blocks of seats and distributed tickets to Educators for Excellence teachers, also a Gates-funded group, for $4 million in the form of two grants, and also a group represented en masse at the Intelligence Squared CCSS debate.

On September 12, 2014, I emailed Petrilli and asked him,

Mike, I have read that you purchased blocks of seating at the Intelligence Squared CC debate and handed out the tickets to ED4E teachers.

Would you care to comment?

Thank you.

–Mercedes Schneider (

He responded:

Hi, Mercedes. It’s nice to hear from you.

Nope, I didn’t.

So, for those who are wondering about the issue, Petrilli says he did not pad the audience with Educators for Excellence teachers.

In the end, the pro-CCSS side “won” the debate, as based upon a second, post-debate vote in which the higher percentage of changed votes to a particular side was declared the winner.

The pro-CCSS side gained 17 percent of the vote, and the anti-CCSS side gained 14 percent. I do not know the total number of individuals voting; however, the location seats 449 people.

On to the debate itself.

Petrilli: I Sell CCSS for a Living

I caught only the last 25 minutes of the live debate and have since read the debate transcript. I would like to offer some comments on debate specifics emanating from pro-CCSS debaters Petrilli and former assistant secretary of education and current executive VP of the $5.5-million, Gates-funded Center for American Progress, Carmel Martin.

Let’s start with this Petrilli statement:

Now, what you won’t hear us (Petrilli and Martin) argue is, first of all, that Common Core is going to solve all of our nation’s educational problems because, of course, it won’t. You’re not going to hear us say that the Common Core are perfect. They were not handed down from Mount Sinai, they are not set in stone. [Emphasis added.]

Actually, CCSS is being promoted as The Solution according to the CCSS website:

The standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live. [Emphasis added.]

There you have it: CCSS will “ensure that all students” have the “skills and knowledge necessary to succeed.” All.

Sure sounds like that “100 percent proficiency” promise from the failed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that has yet to officially die.

As for Petrilli’s “not set in stone” comment: also misleading.  CCSS is a licensed product owned by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and according to language in their CCSS MOU (memorandum of understanding), it is NGA and CCSSO that will decide upon specifics associated with any CCSS revision.

Another Petrilli statement:

States did have standards before the Common Core, but, by and large, they were set at a very, very low level. And so what that meant is that students could meet those standards, they could pass the standardized tests connected to those standards, but it didn’t mean that they were ready for success later on. [Emphasis added.]

Behind Petrilli’s “by and large” is the Fordham Institute’s 2010 rating of all state standards and CCSS– and their reporting that CCSS was not superior to the standards in all states. So, if CCSS is supposed to make “all students” college and career ready, how is it that states (and DC) with standards that Fordham Institute rates as equal to or superior to CCSS (Alabama, California, DC, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma) did not manage such a feat as of yet?

Are we still selling the highly unrealistic goal of “all college and career ready” if only CCSS is “properly implemented”?

But such assumes that CCSS is supposedly “the best”– which i is not, according to Petrilli, who is trying to peddle it.

Moreover, compared to the English Language Arts (ELA) standards of California, Indiana, and DC, based upon Fordham Institute’s 2010 ratings, it appears that CCSS is–dare I write– “lowering the bar.”

Uh, oh…. Is America settling for Less Than the Best? How ever will we become a sustainable world power?

Moving on.

As to the “passing of standardized tests,” Petrilli’s reference here is to state tests; however, the Fordham Institute 2010 rating of state standards is not even at all related to the scores of states on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)– which is reputedly more stable than state tests. In other words, some states with standards that Fordham Institute rates as “very, very low” demonstrated high NAEP scores, and states with standards that Fordham rated as being superior to CCSS had low NAEP scores.

If standards can be high and national test scores low, and standards can be low and national test scores high, then what outcome evidence is there that CCSS will even modestly deliver even on the B-plus, A-minus that Fordham Institute was kind enough to give it?

Answer: None. Just think-tank opinion.

And how about the implication that CCSS– even though it isn’t “perfect”– will somehow deliver on the “ready for success later on” issue?

More think-tank talk. But it sure does sound good and might even be turned into another cheesy Petrilli video.

And here comes yet more, again from Petrilli:

So, to embrace the Common Core is to say, “Let’s embrace standards that are set at this college and career ready level.” It’s also to say that we should embrace the idea of moving to next generation assessments, right, tests that measure these standards, that are worlds better than the tests that we’ve been living with for the past two decades.

Do they want us to stick with the — still the standardized tests, these rinky-dink standardized tests that we’ve lived with for 20 years?

As to CCSS being “set at this college and career level,” it seems problematic then to demand that higher education “get ready” for CCSS. Are we to assume that even American colleges and universities are not themselves set at “college and career ready level”?

Are colleges and universities being expected to adjust to whatever it is that CCSS is– that even higher education that must become “CCSS centered”?


All of education– including the higher ed that CCSS was supposed to make “all” students ready for– is itself expected to bow to CCSS.

And what of those “worlds better” so-called “next generation” assessments?

If all previous standardized tests have been “rinky dink”– then by what standard are edupreneurs and educationists declaring that American Education Is Failing, or, as Petrilli states at one point in the debate, is “mediocre?”

By those lame, “rinky dink” tests that are sure to be inferior to the tests that have yet to appear? And does Petrilli include NAEP in the “rinky dink” category? After all, NAEP is not “next generation”….

Petrilli declares “next generation” superior, yet the infamous 2014-15 debut of the federally funded CCSS “next generation” assessments has not even occurred.

“Next generation” tests: The “next can o’ psychometric worms.”

Moreover, what of the scoring of these “next generation” assessments? It is easier to score traditional, multiple-choice standardized tests, and even on this mega-testing company Pearson has managed to commit 24 major blunders since 2011, many involving scoring errors that resulted in serious consequences affecting student promotion, graduation, awarding of scholarships, and admission into programs.

“Rinky dink” consequences? Hardly.

It just so happens that bumbling Pearson is the sole vendor (American Institutes for Research is appealing this decision) of the PARCC assessment, currently comprised of 13 states. That ought to be an interesting study in unprecedented, “next generation” ineptness.

As to the use of robo-grading of student essays: A computer can determine neither factual accuracy of student statements nor the presence of coherent meaning to what is written. In short, computerized grading is a system easily gamed.

And if a testing company uses human beings for grading, such can be very expensive– thus the temptation for testing companies to cut corners on quality and seek cheap graders.

So much more opportunity for Pearson to botch its high-stakes assessments “next generation” style.

Based on the above, it is clear that Petrilli’s arguments in favor of CCSS could strain pasta.

Moving on to his Intelligence Squared pro-CCSS debate partner, Carmel Martin.

Martin: I Obviously Prepared for This Debate Twenty Minutes Ago

Martin begins with the “CCSS aren’t perfect but will perfectly deliver” error:

…The Common Core is not a silver bullet for all that ails our education system….

And for students like Janelle who, for generations, have been shortchanged by the old, failed system, new standards will help ensure they are never left behind again[Emphasis added.]

That sure sounds “silver-bulletish,” Martin– but it is in keeping with the CCSS website’s unrealistic promise of “ensuring that all students graduate college and career ready.”

And now, for a Martin dig on one of her anti-CCSS opponents, New York high school principal, Carol Burris– a sentiment repeated in closing by (of all people) the moderator, John Donovan:

Some schools, like the one that Carol runs, have adopted International Baccalaureate programs or advanced placement courses to supplement the old state standards, but we can’t rely on visionary principles like Carol — or a patchwork of programs to close our nation’s gaping achievement gaps or prepare future generations to compete with China.[Emphasis added.]

Both Martin and Donovan try to hammer home the point that “surely not all principals are like Carol” (Donovan’s exact words prior to closing comments).

I’m sorry, but aren’t classroom teachers and school administrators nationwide being required to prove that they are *effective* based on test scores in order to keep their jobs, and isn’t test-driven reform demanding that teachers *prove* that they are indeed exceptional?

Why imply that one who is obviously “effective” (Carol Burris) cannot be “relied upon”?

In her corporate-reform-favoring bubble, it seems that Martin has decided that Burris’ effective leadership must be rare because Martin declares as much to be true.

Indeed, even as she declares Burris to be an exception and therefore too unusual to notice, she discounts the very reason she called Burris “visionary” in the first place: for her adopting supplemental programs at her school. Suddenly Burris’ “visionary” move is reduced to “patchwork.”

In Martin’s view, even though CCSS is “not the silver bullet,” it really is, for it will replace the “patchwork,” and it will enable “non-visionary” principals to “ensure all students are college and career ready,” and it will work.

And how will we know?

According to Martin, future competition with China– the same China that in October 2013 decided to reduce standardized testing and homework, and to refrain from “artificially imposing higher academic expectations.”

Wow. Sounds like we really should “compete with China” and forsake some “artificially imposed higher academic expectations” of our own.

And where has China’s “raising the bar” taken it in the recent past?

To cheating that is so prevalent, when officials intervened to stop the cheating on China’s very high stakes “gaokao” exams in Hubei province, it caused a riot that involved both students and parents.

In 2013-14, I taught a student from Hubei province in China, and he contributed to this November 2013 post in which he compares his experience as an American student to that as a Chinese student. He also discusses the cheating that has become prevalent in high-pressure Chinese education.

Call the US education system “mediocre” all that you like, Petrilli, and worship China to your fill, Martin. We don’t have parents and students so desperate to pass an exam that they riot when forced to stop cheating– yet.

Keep force-feeding assessment-focused “reform” on the American classroom, and we just might.

Next, Martin pretends that she understands CCSS well enough to set the audience straight on its development. Though she offers quite a bit of verbiage, Martin omits one crucial detail– which individuals actually wrote CCSS.

Martin predominately speaks of CCSS in the passive voice, and she states who did “not develop” CCSS.

But on specifics of who actually did develop CCSS– those responsible for actual writing– the handful of decision makers– on that Martin has nothing to offer.

She says nothing of the final decision makers and simply refers to them as “the authors”:

Now, I’d like to cut — clear up a couple misconceptions about the Common Core that had been promoted by the Glenn Becks of the world. First the Common Core was not developed in secret and was not developed by the federal government. This was an initiative led by Democratic Governor Markell of Delaware and Republican Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia. Back in 2008, virtually all of the governors, with the exception of Rick Perry and Sarah Palin, were strongly supportive of it. Unlike the previous patchwork of standards, the Common Core was developed with significant input from educators and content experts, like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The authors consulted teacher unions, the civil rights community, college leaders, and business leaders. The standards were revised based on over 10,000 comments from the general public. And contrary to the assertion of the opposition, most teachers are not opposed to the standards, and indeed strongly support them. [Emphasis added]

CCSS has five identified lead writers: David Coleman and Susan Pimentel for ELA, and Jason Zimba, William McCallum and Phil Daro for math (more info also here).

Not one was a K12 classroom teacher.

Martin does not mention them.


On the point of “strong support” for CCSS, Martin alludes to “a Winston poll”:

…a Winston poll in early August revealed that two out of three teachers approved of the adoption… [Emphasis added.]

That sounds great– CCSS teacher “approval”– but Martin does not offer the detailed Winston poll story:

While teachers’ outlook on Common Core continues to be positive, there are some challenges emerging on the horizon that need to be addressed. By a 2:1 margin (62% approve-31% disapprove) teachers approve of adoption of Common Core State Standards. However, this support is soft as 17% said they strongly approve and 44% said somewhat approve. [Emphasis added.]

Same story, different day. Both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) tried to manufacture solid teacher support for CCSS from a predominantly “somewhat support” result.

As Winston acknowledges, “soft” support.

Time to return to test worship. As Martin continues:

Because the Common Core requires children become problem solvers and good communicators, the new tests aligned to them will measure complex thinking, reading, writing, communications, and problem solving kids’ skills. As a result, teachers will no longer be driven to narrow the curriculum or teach to a bad test. There have always been standards and always will be standards. There have always been tests and there always will be tests.

And we heard just today from a group of teachers that we talked to, that under the new assessments, they can’t teach to the tests anymore, because the tests are no longer about rote memorization. [Emphasis added.]

Martin has no proof for what CCSS “will” accomplish. As for “teaching to a bad test,” what is her proposed alternative– teaching to a “good” test?? Martin is naive if she believes that the worst is “teaching to a test.”

Let’s take it higher.

High-stakes outcomes will overshadow low-stakes outcomes. That’s just how it works. And if critical school funding is on the line, or administrator and teacher jobs, or the very existence of the school, then energy and resources will be redirected from programs and people and courses that are deemed low stakes and poured into that which is high-stakes: CCSS assessments.

But there’s more:

Pearson knows this and is planning to “embed” itself into CCSS, test-driven education by offering curriculum, and professional development, and materials– and, of course, assessments. And they will garner obscene profits because districts and states that are afraid of the Pearson-developed, high-stakes PARCC tests will spend precious public school funding on the Pearson materials in hopes of increasing the opportunity for job-saving, school-saving, high test scores.

And, given the intense pressure on schools, administrators, and teachers to survive, avenues other than those legal and ethical will become increasingly appealing.

High stakes testing brings with it the high-stakes incentive to devise means for succeeding– and this means opening a door for new ways to cheat. Of course, some of the old ways will work, including not testing all students, or feeding students answers, or having some other person on the “inside” who is willing to cheat (one of those cheaply-paid Craigslist scorers, perhaps?) But there are more creative ways to beat the “new generation” tests, such as student shuffling of test takers in order to conceal higher-performing students testing in place of lower-performers; orchestrated power outages or planned computer “glitches” during testing times, or training students how to game a computerized essay grading program.

Why, high stakes testing can even birth a black market for cheat-friendly spyware.

“Teaching to the test?”

Small potatoes that appear large to the naive.

One more Martin issue from the CCSS debate: She erroneously asserted that CCSS is not copyrighted. Her words in response to the question, “Are these standards copyrighted?”

They are not copyrighted. They’re open. 

Dead wrong, yet spoken as though she knew. Burris set the record straight in rebuttal.

In my brief email exchange with Petrilli on September 12, 2014, I asked him this question:

Do you acknowledge that CC is copyrighted to NGA (National Governors Association) and CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers)?

His response:

Yes. Carmel got that wrong. I assume because she didn’t know. (She hasn’t been as in the weeds on this debate as some of us!)

She “didn’t know”? Not good enough. Carmel Martin is executive VP of Center for American Progress, an organization that in October 2013 accepted $550,000 from the Gates Foundation expressly “to support Common Core implementation.” Moreover, on the day that Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed legislation repealing CCSS, June 5, 2014, Martin offered this judgmental press release:

Gov. Fallin once supported the ambitious Common Core State Standards because she knew they were necessary to put Oklahoma’s children on a path to a better future. Students, parents, and teachers should be disappointed that today she chose to retreat from her public support and force the state to revert to an outdated, lower set of standards for Oklahoma’s children. Her decision today represents yet another example of tea party tactics aimed at scoring political points on the backs of our nation’s kids prevailing over a practical bipartisan coalition made up of business organizations, the civil rights community, military leaders, teachers, and parents.

So, Martin was “in the weeds” enough to serve as a VP for an organization that accepted $550,000 from Gates to “implement” CCSS, and she was “in” those same “weeds” enough to publicly chastise the governor of a state  with a legislature that “chose” to be “state led” away from CCSS– and a state with standards that Fordham Institute graded as “equal to” CCSS in 2010– for forsaking CCSS and dodging some ill-defined “better future.”

There is no excuse for Martin not to have her facts straight regarding CCSS ownership.

I think she might have prepared for this debate reading only bullet points on the car ride to the event.

Embrace the Common Core: Hug Unprecedented Test-driven Foolishness

But enough of the Petrilli-Martin, phyllo-dough defense of CCSS. In their Intelligence Squared presentation, there is more that I could examine (including Martin’s statement that since all four debaters– Petrilli, Burris, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, and Martin– thought CCSS was fine in 2012 that all should be fine with it in 2014, and Martin’s stumbling over the “Where is the evidence?” question on CCSS.)

However, based upon what I have written above, it is easy to see that the holes in the pro-CCSS argument are both numerous and large.

Petrilli and Martin might have won the Intelligence Squared debate by a three percent margin, but that does not save them from a logic that melts like soft-serve on a Louisiana August sidewalk.

melting ice cream



Like my writing? Read my newly-released ed “reform” whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education


  1. That Petrilli is one cool guy. He and his college-ready friends do in truth bring back memories of my college-ready days filled with fraternity parties that looked much like that in which he is wearing the fairy wings. Who needs Common Core standards when Petrilli’s bunch sets such a high bar?

  2. Thanks for writing this post, Mercedes. Your critiques of Michael Petrilli and Carmen Martin are spot on, and lots of us in the audience jumped out of our seat when Carmen said the standards are not copyrighted. Fortunately, Rick Hess and Carol Burris did an outstanding job rebutting empty cliches with principled arguments and reports of facts on the ground.

    I would like to say, though, that IQ2 gave both sides equal time to talk, and the moderator John Donvan asked good follow up questions. On Diane Ravitch’s blog, I shared an observation about the composition of the crowd, but I don’t blame IQ2 for that. In fact, I’m grateful that IQ2 provided a stage for Common Core opponents to voice their perspective. We’ll win the battle if we’re given equal air time.

  3. Laura chapman permalink

    Excellent. Images, especially the last one, are great punch line supports.

  4. “Mike, I have read that you purchased blocks of seating at the Intelligence Squared CC debate and handed out the tickets to ED4E teachers.”

    I think, Mercedes, the problem is there are too many variables in your question. If someone other than Petrilli bought the tickets, he can answer nope. If someone else handed out the tickets, he can answer nope. If the tickets purchased went to other supporters than just ED4E teachers he can answer nope.

    I taught middle and high school for a long time and raised three kids of my own through their teen age years and long ago learned by experience that “truth” is fungible. We have seen Petrilli’s sophomoric behavior before (e.g., The Gadfly), so I find his response both unremarkable and false.

    • Christine, I asked specifically what came to me via email. I realize there is room to lie, but decided not to pursue.

  5. cmzirkelbach permalink

    I attended the debate, and, besides it being discussed among the “Against the Motion” attendees that I had the pleasure to meet, it seemed pretty clear that the audience was stacked with Pro-CC people regardless of whose credit card paid for the tickets.

    After I attended this debate, and read various discussions of it, I have come to what I believe to be a very important conclusion. We have to stop caring about what Petrilli says. The only reason he has any credibility in the education reform movement is because we allow it. I realize this is easier said then done, but the questions we should ask every time he speaks should be “What his is experience in the classroom?, “What is his education background?” Every reform movement that he has supported has failed, or is failing.

    He should be relegated to the status of “She Who Shall Not Be Named” per Peter Greene.

  6. Linda bassett permalink

    This group was just at our school talking to teachers at lunch time. Im not sure of their ultimate goal. Recruiting? To gain members to take over the union? When I asked where do they get their funding; They replied they only accept small donations from many funders in amounts of approximately 10% of their total budget. They disclosed accepting Gates money, but stated they did not represent Gates. Is that true?

  7. Michele permalink

    Another excellent piece, Mercedes! I watched the debate after the fact and couldn’t believe much of what the pro side had to say. Incredible! And to watch the Petrilli video you linked. I don’t get it. How does one respect the position of one who stoops to that level?

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