Big Data, the Common Core, and the Global Governance of Education, Part 1: Who is Sir Michael Barber?

The Common Core Standards Initiative Flow Chart

In this series, I explore the connection between the Common Core Standards Initiative (CCSI), Big Data and the role these two pillars of current education policy play in governing education beyond the confines of sovereign nation states and their publics.

I begin the series by exploring the role of Sir Michael Barber in imposing the Common Core assessment regime and how this relates to the global governance of education.[1]

I have three aims for the series:

  1. To focus attention on the agenda driving CCSI and “Career and College Ready” policies;
  2. To elaborate the CCSI agenda as an effort to restructure both the purpose and governance of education across once well-established political geographies, both inside the United States and across the globe. 
  3. To elaborate the thesis that the Core standards were developed in particular to institutionalize national, “life-long,” high-stakes testing, data tracking regimes. These regimes are a means for directing the development and surveillance of labor and the extraction of discrete skills from  human populations. These regimes institutionalize anti-public forms for governing the human populations from which this skill is to be extracted, whose publics have been rendered infamous by those now usurping power.


As resistance to high stakes testing grows following the predicted CCSI imposed mass failure, there is a need to analyze the purposes Core aligned tests serve. If I were asked to quickly convey what the CCSI and “college and career ready” agenda is really about, I’d say: Big Data for regulating labor and populations for the narrow benefit of the super rich. If pressed to say even less, I’d say it is about imposing a high-tech form of slavery.

I am well aware that many will bulk at this analysis as extreme and paranoid. But what is really interesting is how even the mildest critiques of the CCSI are met with demonstrations of religious-like, unshakable support for and confidence in the initiative. For a reform credited with promoting critical thinking to evidence so little of that trait in its own promotion and defense is quite striking. Ironically, this patten has caused me to analyze more carefully the significance of not only the CCSI itself, but the manner in which it is being implemented and defended in the wake of criticism.

There is in the present moment a strange genuflection to the Core, even and possibly especially among some who criticize high stakes tests. Who has not heard during a faculty meeting or public presentation the view that there are “some good things in the Common Core standards.” It seems almost mandatory that someone express such a sentiment during meetings of educators and parents. And in these circumstances even critics of the CCSI find themselves offering the conditioned nod in agreement with that sentiment, as if to do otherwise would violate some deep, unspoken norm and admit to being “unreasonable.”

It seems to be lost on many that this is not a proper way to evaluate something. One does not evaluate something by examining its parts in isolation from one other, highlighting only the elements they like. Nor does one offer serious counter critique by indicating they like what they read on page 54; as if the Core’s ostensible support for an emphasis on mathematical understanding and not just the ability to calculate were enough to render judgment about the entire initiative and dismiss the serious concerns with what those who control the CCSI are up to.

One should instead work to understand the parts and their interrelationships, and the relationship of this whole with its social context. This method enables one to render an overall evaluation. It keeps one from getting lost in the forest by directing one to not fixate only on his or her favorite tree.

To make the point more explicitly, the irrationality of “there are some good things” method of argument can be seen in the following example:

  • It is good that trains run on time. Or, it is good that students explain how and why they arrived at a conclusion.
  • Under Mussolini, the trains ran on time.[2] Under the Gates-Duncan regime, students are asked to explain their answers.[3]
  • Fascism should be supported. The dictate of the super rich and the feds over democratically elected forms of governance should be accepted.

I am not saying that everyone who defends the Core or even high stakes testing is a fascist. I am saying that there is a serious problem with the degree to which the above “logic” prevails and serves to block serious discussion of the political significance of the Core regime and the agenda it serves.

The method of the above “logic” is to cull out and separate one feature of a whole so as to hide and/or justify the essence of that whole. This is disinformation.

All this means that it is vital that we continue to examine not only the tools of the current reforms — standards, tests and data — but that we must also work to discern the aim for which these tools were developed.

One last introductory note is required: to dismiss opposition to the Core as a nutty right-wing hissy fit is a sad attempt by “special interests” to derail a growing grassroots movement of parents and educators who are acting on the basis of their own investigation and conviction that they have a right to have a say over the content and form of schooling their children are mandated to attend. These forces have already identified a key problem with the Core and the “college and career ready” agenda: it is undemocratic and those leading it are acting with impunity. This truth is now self-evident to many, especially given the recent experience New Yorkers have had with their state education officials.

Who is Sir Michael Barber?

What has a Knighted British citizen to do with directing national-level education efforts in the United States, let alone the Common Core Standards Initiative (CCSI)?[4] While the roles Bill Gates and Achieve, Inc. have played in designing and imposing the CCSI are relatively well documented, the role of Barber, a Pearson executive, is not. And while Person is the Dark Star to many educators and parents, little has been written about the role it and McKinsey & Company play in the global governance of education. Study of Barber helps us understand the links between all these entities and sheds more light on the real purpose of the CCSI and the “college and career ready” agenda of which it is a part.

Originally a history teacher, Barber became active in the National Union of Teachers in England. He went on to serve as Chief Adviser to the Secretary of State for Education on School Standards during Tony Blair’s first term as British Prime Minister. Tony Blair and his counterpart Bill Clinton lead what has been dubbed the “Third Way” movement. While presented as “left of center,” experience suggests otherwise, with “privatization with a strong state” (or “market fascism”) being its key strategic aim. Barber went on to serve as the Chief Adviser on Delivery, reporting directly to Blair. “As head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU), he was responsible for working with government agencies to ensure successful implementation of the Prime Minister’s priority programs,” including those in health, education, and policing. Destruction of the public sector as “we knew it” was the main objective.

Barber became a Partner at McKinsey & Company, working there from 2005 until 2011 (David Coleman also worked at McKinsey during this time). He served as head of McKinsey’s global education practice. “He co-authored two major McKinsey education reports: How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better (2010) and How the world’s best-performing schools come out on top (2007).” Barbers reports are worth reading, actually, as they provide a broader understanding of what “reformers” are up to.

Barber is now Pearson’s chief education strategist. One area of focus is privatization, what is dubbed “affordable learning.” Pearson renders it this way: “Finding business models for affordable schools and other educational solutions in developing areas of the world, to help meet United Nations goals of universal primary education and to raise achievement.”

The main method to achieve these goals is called “deliverology”.

What is Deliverology?

Deliverology. Haven’t heard of it? Well, even if you haven’t, you have experienced this marvel of modern science, especially if you work in education or healthcare. And as you’ve probably guessed, its “invention” is credited to Sir Michael Barber.

Sometimes it is necessary to mandate the change.Sir Michael Barber

“Deliverology” is a means to systematically demoralize and humiliate people in lieu of not being able to convince them to pursue a course of action. It is based on the fundamentally flawed idea that an organization or institution can be improved by “incentivizing” people to meet “targets” or what Achieve, Inc., insists educators obsess over: “benchmarks”.[5] It is an autocratic, command-and-control management system that redefines public institutions (such as public schools) as factories, and displays an almost single-minded fixation on cost reduction.[6]. Deliverology is a means for transforming the goal of public institutions from meeting public needs to meeting arbitrary “production” “benchmarks” established by the autocrat under the hoax of saving taxpayer’s money.

Since the “Texas Miracle” was exposed as a myth, we have seen so-called target culture decrease the quality of education in the U.S. As another example, see this video of John Seddon’s address to the California Faculty Association. The California State University system has employed “deliverology” since 2010. The link in that context to the dramatic increases in tuition and cuts in service to the adoption of deliverology is unmistakable.

As it is premised on the factory model, deliverology redefines people as products to be consumed. The head of the Business Roundtable (BRT) said as much during a New York Times interview of leading architects of anti-public education. BRT President John Engler said: “All the products of K-12 system are either going to go to the university or they are going to the work force. The military is not here, but they’re not very different.”

Deliverology as a method is especially suited for organizing what Barber calls “irreversible transformation”. “Target culture” is really the imposition of behavior management regimes. In the U.S. we call these behavior management regimes “accountability.”

Barber and Vicky Phillips (of the Gates Foundation) explain their theory of change that guides deliverology in the following way:

There is a popular misconception about the process of change. It is often assumed that the key to successful change is “to win hearts and minds.” If this is the starting point then the first steps in the process of change are likely to be consultation and public relations campaigns…The popular conception is wrong. Winning hearts and minds is not the best first step in any process of urgent change. Beliefs do not necessarily change behavior. More usually it is the other way around — behaviors shape beliefs. Only when people have experienced a change do they revise their beliefs accordingly…Sometimes it is necessary to mandate the change, implement it well, consciously challenge the prevailing culture and then have the courage to sustain it until beliefs shift…The driving force at this critical juncture is leadership.[7].

Thus, deliverology appears to be a means for imposing behavior modification techniques that are ultimately aimed at yielding a change in beliefs; irreversible change here seems to be at least in part about people learning to accept product status, that is, as having no rights. Indeed, broad cultural and political shifts are required if that is how social life is to be organized.

In case the point might get lost, it is this: if people do not grasp the larger agenda, they will find themselves agitating for tests that more reliably render the “value of educational products”  — and my guess is reformers will be happy to comply with such demands. This in turn may be mistakenly rendered by some as a victory.

But there is no way to “accurately measure” the “value” of humans-as-products because humans are not products! Humans reject being rendered as things. This is the philosophical basis of the popular slogan that children are more than test scores. It is for this reason, again, that the agenda behind the tests must be carefully discerned. Popularizing the technical shortcomings of the tests absent an analysis of the political context in which they operate will not yield to positive change.

Deliverology is Guiding Common Core Implementation

What few realize is that Barber is driving the implementation of the Common Core, and especially the assessment component, through the U.S. Delivery Institute. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Delivery Institute applies “deliverology” to implement the Core. A review of the “Common Core Implementation Workbook” suggests Barber (Pearson) is directing the way in which New York and other states are handling not only implementation, but “pushback.”[8]

This simple fact challenges the idea that the only problem with the CCSI is how it is being implemented. Barber’s (and thus Pearson’s) role, along with McKinsey and Coleman, show that implementation has been carefully crafted and is consistent with the goals of the CCSI and “career and college ready” agenda.

To be continued


  1. Big Data is introduced by McKinsey Global Institute this way. “The amount of data in our world has been exploding. Companies capture trillions of bytes of information about their customers, suppliers, and operations, and millions of networked sensors are being embedded in the physical world in devices such as mobile phones and automobiles, sensing, creating, and communicating data. Multimedia and individuals with smartphones and on social network sites will continue to fuel exponential growth. Big data—large pools of data that can be captured, communicated, aggregated, stored, and analyzed—is now part of every sector and function of the global economy. Like other essential factors of production such as hard assets and human capital, it is increasingly the case that much of modern economic activity, innovation, and growth simply couldn’t take place without data.”
  2. This was the famous last excuse for Fascism, conveying the idea that while dictatorship might not be very nice, at least it got things done. Of course, it was also not true.
  3. And just as it was actually a lie that the trains ran on time, I believe it is a lie that the Core standards are “higher” and “clearer”, but that presentation must wait for another day.
  4. His name is becoming more known, as parent groups in many states work to inform their communities about the problems with the CCSI and the political and economic forces that drive it. Examples can be found here and here.
  5. Later in the series, I will explore the connection between “incentivizing” and Skinnerian behaviorism and its explicit rejection of free will and human dignity.
  6. According to John Seddon, this not only increases cost, but also reduce quality of service. See his Systems Thinking in the Public Sector, 2008.
  7. From Chitty & Simon, Promoting Comprehensive Education in the 21st Century, 2001, p. 89.
  8. I have only begun reviewing the workbook; it is quite something to slug through it, but I suspect much can be learned about where direction is actually coming from by careful study of it and related documents. On my first inspection, field memos from NYSED appear to match the recommended pattern, tone, and content of communication recommended in the Workbook.

4 Comments Big Data, the Common Core, and the Global Governance of Education, Part 1: Who is Sir Michael Barber?

  1. Salvatore D'Amato October 21, 2013 at 11:25 am

    A response to Mark Garrison’s post about CCSS:

    As always, Mark, you have eloquently established and supported your argument. I would I were so talentedly loquacious. Nonetheless, I garner your point and foresee the direction of your discourse. Here’s my colloquial response to the bulleted points of Achieve’s PowerPoint presentation, “Understanding the Common Core State Standards–Why the CCSS Are Important”:

    •“Ensure consistent expectations regardless of a student’s zip code.”
    –This precludes addressing the unique dimensions of students’ homes and local communities.
    –Not all neighborhoods have the same needs or resources.
     –Consistent expectations are not necessarily by any means fair expectations.
    •“Provide educators, parents and students with clear, focused guideposts. Clearer standards help students (and parents and teachers) understand what is expected of them.”
    –We’ve had clear standards in NYS for decades; this is nothing new. The CCSS are not so far estranged from those that existed before.
     –In other words, “Ignore our students’ interests and needs; work toward what we tell you is best for everyone. Do as we say. Do not develop standards of your own. We know best. We know what’s best for you. We know what’s best for your students. We wrote and own the standards; we own you as well. We will tell you whether you are worthy or not based on our own judgments, scales and measurements. Don’t question our authority or our agenda.”
    •“Offer economies of scale and sharing of best practices.”
    –Teacher educators have been training teachers in best practice strategies for decades.
    –Research (in educational psychology, classroom and behavior management, instruction, language acquisition, etc.) has been growing and influencing how teachers set students up to learn without the interposition of CCSS.
    •The standards create a foundation to work collaboratively across states and districts…to create curricular tools, professional development, common assessments and other materials.
    –“We’ll supply everything you need.
    –You just have to buy our products.
    –Our textbooks will be your bibles.
    –Our tests will always be designed to accurately measure your students’ abilities and your teachers’ effectiveness (and to ensure we stay in business).
    –(We will profit despite your best efforts. You = $$$$$. Ka-ching!)
    –Keep trying—we promise someday you’ll reach our clear and lofty standards.
    –(Please ignore that we set the benchmarks after we score your students’ examinations and that every test includes questions above and beyond the developmental levels of performance for that particular grade.)”

  2. Mark Garrison October 21, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Thanks Sam, useful response! It’s in itself significant that you are responding to Achieve, and not an elected form of governance!

    There’s one thing you mention that I, along with one of my students, are going to examine: “The CCSS are not so far estranged from those that existed before.” First, we’ll examine the degree to which this is true. Second, we’ll analyze relationship between say the “Compact for Learning” and the authorities that established it, and compare it to the CCSI and its political form. Behind this question is the theoretical assumption that standards reflect the aims and values of those who establish them. Different powers establish different standards.

    A related point is this: to what degree do the CCSI presume thinking to be a skill? I do not think thinking is a skill.

    I’ll be writing about that soon, so I hope you’ll comment.

  3. Deborah October 25, 2013 at 10:00 am

    I am very active in educational issues on Long Island. I found your site quite
    by accident — my apologies for not knowing of you! I love the flow chart.
    BUT… Morna McDermott left out a few crucial items. First, Joel Klein and Amplify.
    Second Core Knowledge — the folks (if I am not mistaken and I don’t think I
    am) who created the K-2 ELA curriculum for Third, Amplify’s partnership with Core Knowledge. These are biggies and should be added in! Happy to be of help!

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