Gretchen Logue wrote about the Recent op ed piece by Mike Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio, president and vice president for external affairs respectively of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which appeared in the Post Dispatch about the poor performance of our students on the SBAC test given this past spring. The same piece, with minor changes, appeared simultaneously in Connecticut and West Virginia. Not only did the op ed in Missouri contain easily verified factual errors, it continued to spout the unproven promises of Common Core and the associated standardized test. It sounded very much like the pamphlet sent by snake oil salesmen at the turn of the last century to Missouri’s own Mark Twain who railed against their false promises. Today’s guest post is by Dr. Mary Byrne  Ed.D. who compares the work of Petrilli and Pondiscio to the snake oil promises and provides Missouri’s present day response.

Part 1 of 2

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“Snake Oil Salesman.” The phrase conjures up images of seedy profiteers trying to exploit an unsuspecting public by selling it fake cures. Mark Twain had harsh words for a snake oil peddler when enraged by the peddler’s attempt to sell bogus medicine to Twain by way of a letter and leaflet delivered to his home. According to the literature, the peddler’s “Elixir of Life” could cure such ailments as meningitis (which had killed Twain’s daughter in 1896) and diphtheria (which killed his 19-month-old son). A furious Twain dictated a letter of response to his secretary, which he then signed. What is a “snake oil salesman”? Why is peddling snake oil such a terrible thing?

A “snake oil salesman” is somebody that sells an item that claims to have some miraculous powers. This product is usually accompanied by a tremendous amount of hype. In an attempt to help push their products, the “snake oil salesman” will usually utilize planted accomplices who will claim that the product actually works. Snake oil salesmen take advantage of struggling people willing to pay whatever they have to find a cure for their chronic problems. The snake oil peddlers know their promises of relief aren’t supported with well-designed research, but, pilot studies and longitudinal research will interfere with the agenda of salesman’s corporate and foundation sponsors. The “suckers” are not only cheated out of their money, but they forgo opportunities for authentic, locally developed solutions to their schools’ specific ailments. In other words, parents and taxpayers pay “opportunity cost” as well as financial costs. Hucksters hock hope. Twain lashed out at the peddler because he was grieved by genuine pain that the snake oil salesman disingenuously promised to relieve.

Mark Twain’s letter of fury unleashed on a snake oil salesman for fraudulent advertising conjures up similar images when thinking about Mike Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio’s “Missouri: Don’t shoot the messenger.” Petrilli and Pondiscio are the president and vice president for external affairs respectively of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a non-governmental organization frequently referred to as a conservative think tank. Why are Petrilli and Pondiscio likened to snake oil salesmen? Because they are using earned media to generate a tremendous amount of hype and push their untested, never-been-validated products – the Common Core State Standards and tests aligned to them. The Common Core peddlers repackaged a product discredited decades ago  (slides 35- 44) with some new-fangled, untested software still under development; and banked (figuratively and literally) on the naiveté of a new generation of parents. Wanting relief from the fear that their children are being handicapped (a golf term) in a global race to the top (the top of what has not been clearly established), parents and other taxpayers are seduced into exchanging their hard earned dollars for Petrilli and Pondiscio’s “Elixir of Life” for American education.

Petrilli and Pondiscio wrote the template for their ad, I mean article, when discussing the poor test results of students in West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette, and then, about a week later, minimally altered it with a few changes of the statistics for Connecticut and Missouri publications – tailoring their “pitch” for the standards and tests to parents and taxpayers in those states. Petrilli even billed himself with the “Missouri’s native son” spin in the author description of the STL Post Dispatch. He and Pondiscio used their parent status to identify themselves with readers in West Virginia and Connecticut. Clever, huh? What’s worse, like the classic snake oil scam, accomplices were on standby in the audience to claim that the products actually work. The West Virginia article was reviewed on the Common Core Fact Checker website on August 24, 2015,  the day after Petrilli and Pondiscio’s article was published in West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mail. Here are the Common Core Fact Checker logo (note the underlining under honest in the logo) and excerpts of the article review:


 Fact Checker

Because parents, policymakers, and our kids deserve an honest debate.

News You Can Use:

Charleston Gazette-Mail, “Don’t Shoot the Test Score Messenger”: The Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio write that states have “reached a critical milestone” following the first year of student assessments aligned to higher education standards. In West Virginia, …Common Core should help to boost college readiness – and college completion – by significantly raising expectations… Mountain State parents, in other words, are finally learning the truth.”

What It Means: Petrilli and Pondiscio make a strong case that high-quality student assessments are a necessary step to ensure parents get an honest evaluation of how well their child is developing the skills and knowledge to succeed at high levels of learning, and ultimately to graduate high school college- and career-ready. For a long time, states systematically lowered the bar instead of adequately helping students to levels of college- and career-readiness. By holding students to higher expectations, states are taking the difficult step of improving student preparedness. ... [italics added]

Honest in my world means full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. Honest in my world also means test materials are demonstrated to be valid and reliable by independent external reviewers who present validity and reliability data before a test is administered as operational and cut scores are determined. My world has been shaped by the standards of ethical conduct of research writers published in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association and the APA’s Code of Fair Testing Practices in Education. Clearly, full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest and validity and reliability data published by independent external reviewers are not what you get when fact checking the Common Core Fact Checker website and Petrilli and Pondiscio’s article.

For starters, read the fine print in the lower left corner of the Common Core Fact Checker webpage to identify it as a project of The Collaborative for Student Success (CSS). Then, when you visit the CSS partners webpage, who should appear but the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (that is, the home organization of Petrilli and Pondiscio) along with other high profile Common Core developers and supporters such as Common Core architect, David Coleman’s Student Achievement Partners, the workforce planners at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and The Bill and Melinda Gates funded PTA. So, it appears that Petrilli and Pondiscio are rounding up insiders and accomplices to affirm their claims about the wonders of common core standards and tests. Conflict of interest abounds. I think I smell a funny odor, like essence of snake oil.

While Petrilli and Pondicio scrutinize student scores in three states and pronounce that the percentage who have reached a proficient level of performance is woefully unacceptable, they warn readers to “. . . resist the siren song of those who want to use this moment of truth to attack the Common Core or the associated tests.” They fail to sound the alarm against critics who might be holding the standards and tests to standards of professional review. As it turns out, the tests from which the scores are gathered, the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBAC), fail to meet even the most basic level of scrutiny for test selection and use – that is, scrutiny by independent external reviewers which holds the test developers accountable to professional standards of test construction. Even the U.S. Department of Education, which awarded the grant to develop the SBAC, required such basic criteria and stipulated in the April 9, 2010 Federal Register that,

An eligible applicant awarded a grant under this category must—

  1. Evaluate the validity, reliability, and fairness of the summative assessment components of the assessment system, and make available through formal mechanisms (e.g., peer-reviewed journals) and informal mechanisms (e.g., newsletters), and in print and electronically, the results of any evaluations it conducts;

Ideally, the data should have been available before the assessments were administered as “operational” so that states exercising due diligence, could determine whether the assessments should be administered. The Smarter Balanced Consortium published year 1, 2, and 3 reports to the U.S. Department of Education to demonstrate accountability for funds awarded throughout a four year grant period. The purpose of the reports was to describe the accomplishments and challenges of developing a new generation of tests that meet expectations for valid and reliable assessments. The federal funds supporting the consortium expired in September of 2014, and since that time the number of states that are governing members has reduced. To date, a year 4 or final report has not been published on the Department of Education website.

Implicitly acknowledging the external validity data were not available prior to administering what was pitched as the operational test , a September 11, 2014 memo from SBAC to state leaders stated, “Once the Smarter Balanced assessments are administered operationally in spring 2015, it will be possible to determine “external validity,” which is the degree to which test results correspond to external indicators (consistent with expectations). It’s now over three months after the administration of the “operational” tests. To date – no external validity and reliability data have been published for public review. Without independent external evaluation of the SBAC, Petrilli and Pondiscio’s article is akin to peddling a product of unknown quality that can only yield useless numbers promoted as student scores, but, that doesn’t stop them from pitching promises to unsuspecting readers.

Not only do the SBAC assessments lack independent external validation, the common core standards to which they are aligned are of questionable validity as well. According to Ze’ev Wurman, the standards were not validated before they were published. The Common Core State Standards were released on June 2, 2010; the validation committee report was published in the same month. According to Sandra Stotsky, a member of the ELA validation committee, “Any tests based on these invalid standards are also invalid, by definition.”

In 2013, Bill Gates, the largest private funder of the Common Core State Standards Initiative said, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.” So, without having evidence that the Common Core State Standards and tests aligned to them are valid, where did Petrelli and Pondiscio get the idea that Common Core Standards and tests set “dramatically higher expectations” for students? From the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s wish list, that’s where.

In May 2002, the foundation’s five year report listed six essential elements of its credo that guides all its work in education reform. The first and fifth of the six elements is “dramatically higher academic standards” and “a solid core curriculum taught by knowledgeable, expert instructors.”[italics added]. The third element is “verifiable outcomes and accountability.”

Petrilli and Fordham’s President Emeritus, Chester Finn, have worked really hard for decades to make the Fordham wish list come true. The problem is, the motive to effect real change requires grounding in real processes that control for conflict of interest. It was the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that published the 2010 State of the State Standards, the document, partially funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, that was used to recommended states abandon their state-generated standards in the public domain, and adopt the privately copyrighted Common Core State Standards. According to Jamie Gass at the Pioneer Institute,

“A closer look [at the report] reveals the tortured path Fordham took to arrive at its conclusions. In previous Fordham reviews, English standards had to be presented either for every grade or for a two-year span to receive full credit for ‘organization.’ This time, that definition conveniently disappeared. Massachusetts was marked down for a few two-year spans, but Common Core was not.”

Fordham gave the Common Core mathematics standards an “A-” despite the failure to organize the high school standards by grade level, grade span, or course. Instead, they are listed in five unordered categories of mathematical constructs leaving it unclear which standards belong to algebra and which to geometry.

What is interesting, but not disclosed in the document’s content, is that the lead author and primary examiner of the 2010 State of the State Standards, Sheila Byrd Carmichael, was a member of the Common Core English Language Arts feedback team. Additionally, what is not disclosed is that she enjoyed an ongoing relationship with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, including having been employed as a paid consultant in 2007  and having collaborated with Fordham on previous publications  (and this.)  Also not disclosed is that Byrd Carmichael launched the American Diploma Program, the forerunner of the Common Core State Standards, under the sponsorship of Achieve Inc.  In sum, Byrd Carmichael hardly qualifies as an independent external reviewer of the standards.

Also not disclosed, is that promotion of the common core standards and general operating costs of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute are supported by the wealthiest private funder of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, Bill Gates. Funny thing though, a 2015 grant from the Gates Foundation to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute is not mentioned on the Fordham Institute’s list of recent funders webpage. Perhaps it’s my imagination working overtime, or perhaps Petrelli is avoiding disclosure of his institute’s financial relationship with Gates.


Tomorrow we will publish Part 2 of Dr. Byrne’s comparison of the multiple op ed pieces and Missouri’s response.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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