Infaming the Public, Part I: Imposed Mass Failure as a Form of Civil Death in the Era of the Common Core Juggernaut

This is the first in a three part series analyzing how the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) and related efforts work to impose infamy, collective amnesia and denial of direct experience on the public in order to block the assertion of public agency, giving rise to civil death and the conditions for tyranny.


Originating in ancient Rome, the concept infame referred to a loss of legal or social standing; infamia was an official exclusion from the legal protections of citizen, thus making them vulnerable to attack. The result of infamy is civil death. While civil death for individuals who are convicted of serious crimes is common in the United States, what I believe is occurring is civil death for the public: public space, public opinion, public will and hence public power receive less and less legal protection from the state.

Civil death is a social transformation organized by insurgents — a section of the elite using financial force and the police powers of the state against framing law and popular (democratic) institutions such as public schools. These agents seek to install a form of class power capable of sustaining what is increasingly an unstable empire against the great possibility for the advance of human civilization.

Underlying efforts to restructure education since Reagan is the assertion that the public itself is the source of educational problems. While deploying the rhetoric of “serving the public good”, insurgents have worked to redefine the notion of public good to refer only to outputs (e.g., test scores), “goods” which can be achieved through “private means”. They deny that the public good includes public governaning mechanisms, such as elected school boards. This transformation has occurred as the role of informed public opinion has been emasculated, where, for example, news produced for the masses is widely mocked as “infotainment.” Working backward the theory of the leading political thinkers of the U.S. system, in proportion as the governing structures deny the force of public opinion, the public does not need to be enlightened. Simply put, the theory envisions no need for education to prepare the people for governing their society.

Thus, not only have insurgents acted to redefine the notion of public good to exclude democratic control through elections, they have, most significantly, acted to block the public itself from acting as a political force and basis for legitimacy: public opinion is increasingly irrelevant for guiding or justifying the use of state power. Most often, it is the object of cynical manipulation through fear and disinformation campaigns. Passing laws that eliminate public control, such as eliminating local school boards or elected legislative bodies with the usurpation of power by “financial managers” explicitly not accountable to the public, are the practical outcomes of the neoliberal theory of state that says government is a “monopoly” that “must be broken up” by force if necessary. Recent uses of this state power against the public include mass school closings in Chicago and the rapid privatization taking place in Tennessee. In other words, public control and the role of public opinion is rendered by insurgents as that which is in need of overthrowing.[1]

Key tools employed by the insurrection are attacks on collective memory and direct experience, in addition to rendering the public infamous through the policy of imposing mass failure, which is presented here, in Part I.[2]. In Part II I outline the significance and role of the CCSSI program in attacking collective memory. In Part III, I present an outline of how current assessment practices work to erase direct experience, offering suggestions for what modern assessment might look like in a society advancing the cause of democracy. In each installments, I argue that assessment has taken on an important role with respect to this form of anti-public authority. It should be understood that by assessment I mean to include so-called standards, data, tests, value added metrics, cut scores, etc. It should also be stated that an argument against assessment for repression is not an argument against assessment, standards, data, per se.

Assisting me in this presentation will be a “field memo” regarding the Common Core Standards Initiative (CCSSI), issued by Ken Slentz, Deputy Commissioner, Office of P-12 Education, New York State Department of Education (NYSED), dated March, 2013. The memo’s clear expression of the anti-thought guiding the CCSSI is very helpful in making a more general account of the political significance of the CCSSI.

Discrediting the Public: The Policy of Imposing Mass Failure

Mandating Failure
Mandating Failure

Beginning with the federal report A Nation at Risk (NAR), public schools have been rendered infamous by the policy of imposing on them designations of mass failure through the manipulation of educational assessment systems and/or the questionable interpretations of the results of those systems.[3]

This policy of imposed mass failure increased under the No Child Left Behind Act and its requirement that all students in the United States be “proficient” in tested subjects by the year 2014, a goal that was widely recognized as impossible and destructive.[4]

Since the laws passing, rendering public schools infamous has become the scripted purpose of major news outlets, big business, think tanks and venture philanthropists, along with their networked politicians in a variety of positions, including ED. Provisions of NCLB ensured record numbers of schools were deemed failing; corporate charters sprang up like never before. Insurgents will simply have it no other way, “no matter what the facts are.”[5] I feel like rendering the 30 plus years of orchestrated claims of public school failure propaganda a gross understatement. Reports and commentary go far, far beyond the bounds of and in many cases are contradictory to available evidence regarding school performance, the link between schools and facets of the economy, etc. Thus we should take the decades long “bipartisan” policy of imposed mass failure to discredit public schools to represent a significant historical shift.

A useful artifact in the rise of the policy of inducing mass failure, one that foreshadows aspects of Slentz’s memo, is found in the Business Roundtable’s (BRT) “Building Support for Tests that Count.” It sought to mobilize leaders of big business to be placed on education “cut score” committees so as to increase failure rates. The BRT recognized the complexity of inducing mass failure as a means of “reform”, and thus recommended the following, back in 1998:

Part of this challenge is to help shape expectations early. Florida Governor Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, and state Education Commissioner Frank Brogan, a Republican, joined with legislators, educators and business leaders at a press conference to warn the public to expect low scores on the FCAT, first administered in spring 1998. They hope early warnings and bipartisan support will help the state ride out any controversy over potentially low results.

Members of the business community have adopted what amounts to a mantra when discussing the FCAT [induced failure]: “Don’t flinch.” Make sure, however, not to take the precautionary messages too far. To ward off the “test backlash” experienced by other states in response to low initial test scores, Colorado adopted a unique public relations strategy to announce the results of the initial round of its new statewide assessment program in November 1997. The commissioner of education boasted, “We’re happy to announce the worst test results in the history of the state.”

Clearly that resolved the issue.

As if I should expect something else, as if one million news reports before had not warned me of the lack luster performance of public schools, I was told yesterday morning by a TV anchor that, as a result of the “increased rigor” of the new “common core standards”, student performance on upcoming state tests will decline. This follows the 2003 Math A Regents fiasco yielding a 65 percent failure rate, NYSED’s 2010 arbitrary change to cut scores for Grade 3-8 Math and English so that fewer students would “reach proficiency”, and last year’s “pineapplegate“!

Seemingly following the BRT play book, Slentz offers this:

Because the new tests are designed to determine whether students are meeting a higher performance standard, we expect that fewer students will perform at or above grade-level Common Core expectations (i.e., proficiency) than was the case with prior year State tests.

In a move that might be responding to the growing opposition across the state to NYSED, Slentz attempts to comfort school officials: “Statistical adjustments” will be made during this “transition” year such that “no new districts will be identified as Focus Districts and no new schools will be identified as Priority Schools based on 2012-13 assessment results.” He continues:

We have consulted with the vendor that developed the State-provided growth model, and we expect that the State-provided growth scores will result in similar proportions of educators earning each rating category (Highly Effective, Effective, Developing, and Ineffective) in 2012-13 compared to 2011-12, despite the anticipated lower percentage of students who score at grade level against a trajectory of college- and career-readiness as measured by tests fully reflective of the Common Core.

While this may comfort some, unofficial reports from the Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) claim 90 percent of teachers in some buildings are being labeled ineffective. While this fire bombing of the BPS will excite Democrats for Education Reform front group Buffalo ReformED, Carl Paladino and the “parent trigger” gangsters, it nonetheless poses serious problems to which neither group has a solution.

But the most important evidence from Slentz’s memo of continuing on with the policy of imposed mass failure is found here:

Statewide assessment results are the only way to provide comprehensive information on whether all students in New York State are achieving equally high standards; identify achievement gaps (students who are excelling or falling behind their peers in other parts of the state); and identify local, regional, and statewide policies that could be expanded, replicated, or adjusted to help ensure that our schools and teachers are as effective as possible in helping students achieve their full potential. (Emphasis in original)

This one Core fits all program — demanding all students achieve the same levels of achievement of the same standards at the same time — guarantees mass failure like the preceding “reforms”. The project is logically, theoretically and practically impossible. Put different, the outcome of forcing everyone to “wear the same size clothes” will be the destruction of “the clothes”, with many children’s basic need for “clothing” unmet. Children might even be physically harmed as they are forced into “clothes too small for them,” or trip and fall on “oversized garb.”  This is why I believe we should oppose “rigor” — which means to be rigid and inflexible, as in a corpse (I do not believe the use of the word is an accident) — which, like some stupid reality TV show, confuses meaningless and humiliating difficulty with meaningful pursuits that give rise to human growth and development. The fact is, even if social inequality were eliminated, variation in aptitude, interest, health, etc., necessitate variation in the manner in which humans develop. It is one thing to call for a common set of experiences for the young, as a means to prepare them for their adult roles in society. It is quite another thing to demand equal outcomes for every student at every grade level on narrow measures of academic achievement.[6]

To sell this wrecking as a show of support and concern for social equality and effective teaching is the most cynical and irrational kind of hucksterism. This is a fools errand, wrapped in mindless feel-good liberal dogma that uses the words “all” and “equal” as if there mere utterance, like an incantation, magically renders serious social problems tractable.

There is another important thesis revealed by the last sentence quoted from the memo: Slentz and company think the privately developed tests capture students’ “full potential”. The adjective “full” is meaningless as it can neither be defined nor defended. Who knows what the full potential of a human being is? Thus, it appears the Core is actually about setting limits on development, both in terms of quantity and quality. Making the “standard” higher (harder) can serve to lower the quality of education and reduce the number of students who actually succeed.

And, if reformers gave a damn about even “half” of student potential, they would stop denying the 14 ocean tankers full of research, and the centuries of educational practitioner experience, documenting that the key and most pressing issues facing the “lowest performing schools” are those related to poverty and associated social problems. (I think the flat earth society is more in touch with reality than our “education reformers”.)

Thus, it is almost certain that the results of the Core assessments will be used to bring about more privatization, more school closings, more teacher firings. Public institutions will increasingly be rendered infamous by state policy.

Of course, maybe readers think I’m over reacting; too often, the debate is “polarized” and we need to find “middle ground.” For your information, here are just three, third grade Common Core vocabulary words that might appear on the state assessments this spring:

  1. caftans
  2. hoarfrost
  3. threshing-floor

I’m going to suggest three more:

  1. malfeasance
  2. procrustean
  3. fascist

I’ll conclude here noting that the NCLB “drop dead” date of 2014 has not changed with the NCLB waivers and adoption of the CCSSI. NYSED articulates the same policy timeline as the now waived NCLB law, only with more force and urgency. (Slentz: “Reform cannot be delayed.”) Why 2014 is so important to the insurgents, I fear we will soon find out.

So, we should not be comforted by NYSED’s “transition” year. We should reject the policy of imposed mass failure, and the arbitrary authority embodied in God-like judgments regarding the worth of public institutions and the students, teachers and staff who inhabit them. It may not be an accident that one of NYSED’s (or their “vendor’s”) favored vocabulary words, threshing-floor, signifies in the Bible the judgment of God, and his wrath in the separation of the Wheat from the Chaff: “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” One gets the distinct feeling that public schools are, in the mind of insurgents, the chaff.

(To be continued)


  1. An important and forthright expression of this argument comes form the now classic justification for charter schools presented by Chubb and Moe, where they argued in Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools that representative democracy is itself the problem and removal of democratic governance of schools the solution. Recent examples suggestive of civil death include the forced mass displacement of mostly African American residents of New Orleans in the wake of the not-so-natural disaster following Hurricane Katrina (including state support for vigilante murder) and the subsequent dismantling of the public school system there, the disenfranchisement of the publics of numerous other cities via the removal of elected school boards, as well as the systematic restriction of free speech rights via the imposition of so-called “free speech zones” and local police and the CIA spying on civilian populations in the U.S.
  2. I believe these forms to be violent in nature, and so, I stick with the notion of insurrection, not really for shock value, but rather, because it is not accurate to call those pushing the CCSSI “reformers”, since the general proposal is decades old and already proven ineffective for improving schools. In the past I had settled for “deformers” which is suggestive of the wrecking that results, but that concept lacks the connection to forcibly putting in place forms of governance that call for civil death.
  3. It is worth noting that the U.S. Department of Education became a cabinet level department right before Ronald Reagan assumed control over the White House, publicly marking the neoliberal offensive. NAR marks one of its first major endeavors and has, in many respects, set the general tone and temper for the direction of ED (its more recently adopted moniker). That is, education rose in status to a cabinet level position, as an important national concern, yet that very department increasingly facilitates the dismantling of a historic democratic experiment in public education.
  4. My analysis here is premised on evidence that shows key agents of education “reform” are and never were interested in an objective summation of the level and quality of education in the United States (see the last two chapters of my book, A Measure of Failure for key examples). Thus, aside from college attendance patterns, noted in Part II, I do not believe it is germane to delve into debates regarding whether or not there was or is an “achievement crisis” except to say that I believe public education has to be redesigned, even if the bulk of evidence yields to the conclusion that public schooling has been quite successful.
  5. Increasingly, even officials seem to be so caught up in the excitement of failure, they can’t get the facts straight. Note, despite these efforts, more than 60 percent of American’s still report being satisfied with public schools with which they have direct experience.
  6. See my comment to this post for a discussion of the role of this approach to assessment in social ranking.

2 Comments Infaming the Public, Part I: Imposed Mass Failure as a Form of Civil Death in the Era of the Common Core Juggernaut

  1. Ro Avila May 28, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    This would be a wonderful piece to use with students for close text reading. I think a piece like this could really get high school students thinking critically and make them more college and career ready. Let them digest what the message is, and let them think about how they may want to respond.

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