Many in line to profit from Common Core education standards

Common Core, a set of national academic standards, has become chum for a school of consortia, not-for-profit groups, consultants and textbook sellers, all of whom stand to benefit financially or have already benefited financially by offering products or services “aligned to Common Core.”

That term is the hot new catch-phrase in education circles, and implies that products or services “aligned to Common Core” are a must-have now that most of the country has embraced the new standards.

“Nearly everything submitted from curriculum- and instruction-related vendors these days has some reference to Common Core,” said Sloan Roach, spokesman for Gwinnett County Schools, the state’s largest district.

There’s no single authority, however, to evaluate or certify what Common Core materials are supposed to include.

There is no law against making money from new education initiatives, which often mean more revenue for groups that sell textbooks or other learning materials.

Common Core is bigger and broader than most previous changes. Georgia is one of 45 states that have agreed to the new standards, which are supposed to improve education by forcing students to rely less on memorization and compelling them to do more writing and critical thinking.

The new standards mean different learning materials, new standardized tests, new classes, new teacher training, new curricula.

Millions are being made on Common Core, but it’s not likely parents can figure who’s making that money, or how much a particular school system is spending specifically because of the new standards, since instructional material has always cost plenty and a lot of the “new” stuff isn’t necessarily new.

There is a long list of companies selling what school districts in Georgia and the rest of the country are buying.

Education officials in Georgia say most of the money spent on Common Core would have been spent anyway. Teachers participated in professional development before Common Core, and districts have always spent money on books and other learning materials.

That makes singling out spending on Common Core all but impossible.

“Due to careful planning, costs of implementing Common Core Georgia Performance Standards (CCGPS) in the Cobb County School District have been built into the existing budget,” said Jay Dillon, spokesman for Cobb County Schools.

In November, Gwinnett County Public Schools purchased $7.2 million in English/language arts nonfiction learning materials. In April, the district bought another $6.7 million worth of math learning materials. All of it was tied to Common Core, but the district would have purchased learning materials of some sort anyway, Roach said.

That money is now being spent on things that are “aligned to Common Core,” a term that is, to some degree, defined by its users.

Various companies offer learning materials they say are aligned to Common Core. Education officials in some states have complained that so-called Common Core products and services are no different than products and services offered before the new standards came along.

Critics of Common Core say one of the problems with the new standards is that no one group is in charge of them or the products and services that are supposedly tied to them.

“If there are errors in the Common Core, if there are goals for a particular grade that are wrong, either too hard or too easy, there is no one who can fix them,” said Diane Ravitch, an education policy analyst and research professor at New York University. “They were released as if they were tablets handed down on Mount Sinai. Any publisher may put a sticker on its textbooks and say they are ‘aligned with Common Core.’ Who can stop them, even if they are not?”

Mike Evans, senior vice president of K-12 literacy and math for the publishing giant Pearson, said his company is careful not to give false impressions of what it sells.

“It’s not good for us to slap a label on something and say it’s Common Core-aligned,” Evans said. “Because when someone uses it and finds it’s not different, that just creates a lot of doubt among our customers. We’ve invested millions of dollars across our product offerings.”

A book can be considered “aligned to Common Core” if it is among those recommended by the group of business leaders, educators and higher education officials who wrote the new standards.

Being a Common Core book could mean stronger sales. Lynda Bradley, co-owner of BMI Educational Services, Inc. — a sort of book middleman that allows districts to order large quantities of different books from a single source — noted that sales of one book, “A Boy, A Dog and a Frog” by Mercer Mayer, took off after it was recommended as a Common Core book.

“The publishers look at the list and say, ‘Oh, good, we can charge more,’ ” Bradley said. “A lot of them have done that, and that puts us in a bind. The inventory vanishes, and the price goes up.”

In Georgia, the state Board of Education recommends books and other learning materials for use by school districts, which then make the final choice.

Many of the books recommended for English/language arts, including all 40 offered by American Book Company, had some reference to Common Core.

While districts are using Georgia taxpayer money for professional development and learning materials tied to Common Core, federal and corporate cash has flowed freely as well, putting big money into the pockets of those involved in writing and promoting the standards.

Achieve Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that has been heavily involved in writing the standards, receives funding from corporate titans such as Microsoft, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Chevron and DuPont.

Achieve’s five highest-paid executives received an average annual salary of $198,916 in 2011, tax records show. The company’s president, former Clinton administration official Michael Cohen, had a salary of $263,800 in 2011.

Two national consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and Smarter Balanced, having gotten a combined $346 million in federal education grants to create a pair of new standardized tests tied to Common Core.

“These people all know each other,” said Michael T. Moore, a literacy professor at Georgia Southern University who has written extensively about Common Core. “It is a private club.”