What Presidential Candidates Can Learn From Spaghetti Sauce
The Presidential campaign is proving that Common Core is an issue that is not going to go away. Every candidate, in all political parties, is going to be asked, at some point, where they stand on Common Core. They should know that at least one segment of the public will then do all sorts of investigating of their own to vet their responses. Woe to those who try to cloak their true position with double speak, platitudes or outright lies.
The candidates will hopefully give their reasons for objecting to Common Core, but somewhere in this process it should be put down for the historical record why Americans are opposing the Common Core standards. We know there is a prohibition against national standards in the General Education Protection Act. We know that previous congresses failed to pass national standards even for one subject (history 1993 99:1 fail in the Senate). What we don’t have is a good record of is why these concepts have not met with broad public approval before. This would be a good sign post for the next time someone or some group tries to push for a single set of national standards.
If you ask a cross section of Americans their reasons for opposing Common Core, you will get a variety of answers. For some it’s the quality. For others it’s the one size fits all approach. For others it’s the associated testing or data collection. Still others object to the re-purposing of education in general or the businessification of the local school house. The reasons don’t fit neatly into a single political framework so folks are finding themselves in bed with very strange bedfellows for the first time when it comes to opposing Common Core. These differences make it very difficult for candidates to state their opposition to Common Core in a way that can gather broad support.
That education is being turned wholesale into a business that requires quarterly statistics, economies of scale and worker accountability is clear. That it is being redirected towards workforce planning is also clear. Given that new focus, and the business support for the standards that is nudging candidates away from rejecting them outright, it is hard to understand why better business principles were not applied to the development of Common Core. Though the ELA CCSSI Work Group had a marketing expert on it, she was not able to see the problem with Common Core standards in the first place. Any marketing of the standards, and there was a ton, ended up being grossly misdirected at trying to presell the education delivery system on their worth, as defined by the base that was pushing them. The problem was that base was not the ones who would end up using them day to day. There was a serious disconnect from the very beginning.
Policy experts should perhaps have approached psychophycisit Howard Moskowitz when they were in the planning phases of Common Core. They might have noticed this glaring marketing flaw from the beginning and saved us all a lot of time.
Moskowitz’s work was ground breaking and changed the world of spaghettis sauce (and mustard and pickles) forever. You can listen here to Malcom Gladwell talk about Moskowitz’s work for the makers of Prego spaghetti sauce.
The short version of the story is that the spaghetti sauce industry had a model sauce that was thin and watery with various spices, based on a sauce made in Italy. What they had might have been authentic Italian, but it had limited appeal. The manufacturer wanted to expand their market and hired Moskowitz to tell them which way to go. But instead of assuming that people liked their sauce this way and only tweaking it with different spices, Moskowitz decided to try all kinds of sauce differences including some that no one had ever thought of before, like sauces that were chunky. In taste tests it turned out that people liked chunky sauce, even though they didn’t know that when they first got on the testing panels. No one put on the pre-survey that they wanted sauce with pieces in it. But almost a third of them, it turns out, did like that. Thus Prego extra chunky was born.
What was also born was an expansion of the catalog of choices in sauce: zesty, vodka, alfredo, basil, tomato and cream, mushroom. What Moskowitz discovered was that Americans were a very diverse crowd. No matter the subject: colas, pickles, salad dressings, there was no ONE perfect product. The only perfect market solution is a line of products that appeal to the various different tastes. Companies needed a diversified product offering in order to grow the market, garner new customers and have more overall customer satisfaction. That last point is key if you want people to spend a lot of money on spaghetti sauce. They have to really like it.
That which is true of our pasta toppings is also true of our education. There is no single perfect education to deliver or delivery system. Bill Gates was gobsmacking wrong in his vision of a uniform customer base. What Americans are reacting to with Common Core is the notion that we will have to go forward with only one definition of K-12 education. The only customization that will be done will be done to things that we either already really liked the way they were or things we just don’t care about.
The bone that the public was thrown to the public was that schools will have complete control of the curriculum. They can do all the customization they want there. But that is the same as telling spaghetti sauce companies that they can do all the tinkering they want with the proportion of 6 approved spices to put in their sauce. Even those who say we are only forcing schools to have a specific recipe for Language Arts and Math, they can do whatever they want to spice things up with history, science, art classes or shop classes, ignore the fact that at the end of the day the test of the sauce is whether it passes through the sieve, whether the scores on ELA and Math are good. Those other courses are going to have to get mushed up in order to fit through the sieve. At the end of the process, you still have a single kind of product that does not address the diversity of the customer base.
Where the governors and Gates got it wrong, was asking the wrong people the wrong questions in the first place. They chose to identify the business community as the customer, because politicians are very interested in keeping the business community happy. The business community noted that they needed good workers. To be fair there is evidence that the first time they polled the business community they actually mentioned other factors like a reasonable tax and regulatory system as being top of their wish list, but some magic occurred and the second poll said they wanted better trained workers. Then they asked education supply companies how they thought they could help give companies better trained workers.
That’s a bit like asking the existing makers of spaghetti sauce what they thought was good sauce, to which they gave their canned response (ba dum dum) and then wondering why the customers weren’t all rushing to grab it off the shelf. Businesses who are used to supplying something, who have production lines set up to produce a particular product, are not going to think too far outside their own box when considering changes. Who knows what innovations they are now systematically eliminating?
Moskowitz was a lover of opera and medieval history, with dual degrees in math and psychology, not marketing. Imagine how different his research might have been if he had only applied marketing principles he learned in school to the problem at hand. The governors wanted to know how they could all have comparable spaghetti sauce in their states which meant that all students had to look essentially alike. They missed the fact that good workers also have demands and one of them is a school system that they can be happy sending their kids to. Common Core actually takes the benefit of a good public school system off the table for companies to attract top talent. For all intents and purposes, every school is aiming for the exact same goal. Like getting all good spaghetti sauce to pass through a sieve, the goodness of schools will only be measured by their ability to meet this same goal and pass the test to prove it.
Americans are reacting to the clamps we feel being put on the process to turn education into Bill Gates’ uniform product. Regardless of your reason for not liking it, parents are being told, “Go away. You will buy this sauce and you will like it.”
That doesn’t work in a country has come to expect diverse product lines. That’s why people like Linda Darling Hammond are absolutely the wrong voice to be leading education. She wants equity which is defined as making sure everyone gets the exact same sauce, whether they want it or not. She wants all classrooms to be equally diverse. At a recent talk sponsored by the Show Me Institute, Sen. Jabar Shumate,(OK-D) said folks in the inner city wanted teachers who looked like their kids. They wanted teachers to have a relationship with the students. That sounds like a customer base who doesn’t want the thin sauce Darling Hammond is offering. Even if it is proved to be healthier for them, they don’t want that for their children.
This is a major problem for Common Core and one that the candidates should really be asked to respond to because it applies to so many issues. Does the government have the right to force people to do and pay for things “for their own good” or so they don’t “fail?” If the answer is a broad unqualified yes, then things like Common Core, carbon emissions taxes, vehicle tracking modules and healthy lunches are easy to get behind. Just asking the candidates whether they support Common Core will not tell you enough about the candidate to know whether they will fall for the rebranding of the standards, the dropping of aspects of a nationalized curriculum while keeping the tests (the sieve), or forcing the standards and tests into other education delivery systems like charters and private schools in the name of uniform accountability. We must ask them why they oppose (or support) the standards. Those answers will tell us if we can look forward to shelves full of thin watery sauce, or true choices to make our diverse customer base happy.