Education Next, the Fordham Institute, and Common Core

In years of observing the behavior of staff at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Institute I haven’t noticed much of the “open-mindedness and humility” claimed on its website.[1] More common has been a proclivity to suppress dissent, shun or ridicule those who disagree, and promote their in-group as the only legitimate spokespersons for “education reform” along a wide range of education policy issues.

Fordham’s founder, Chester A. “Checker” Finn, waxes nostalgic about the early days of Fordham’s predecessor, the Education Excellence Network, and Diane Ravitch’s key, co-founding role in both.[2] But, now that she openly disagrees with them on some issues, Fordham President Michael Petrilli insults her as a “kook,”[3], and her long-standing relationship with the Brookings Institution is revoked on an absurd technicality.[4] An Education Next essay insults her personally and generally ridicules as an inferior intellect.[5]

Robert Pondiscio is “Senior Fellow and Vice President for External Affairs” at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. His Education Next essay, “Lessons on Common Core: Critical books offer more folly than wisdom,” typifies Fordham’s “humble” approach.[6] Pondiscio “reviews” six books written in opposition to the Common Core Initiative. Throughout the essay, he liberally portrays himself as a cool, measured, reasonable fellow, with the public—”parents and taxpayers alike who simply want a decent education for their kids”—on his side. The Common Core-critical book authors, meanwhile, are “carping”, “spleen venting,” “fear mongering”, and “conspiratorially minded” “excitable enemies.”

Pondiscio’s essay is short on substance and long on selective and colorful prejudicial quotations, adjectives and adverbs.[7] He characterizes Mercedes Schneider’s exhaustively researched Common Core Dilemma, for example, as “riddled with scare quotes and sarcasm.” Other descriptors employed for Common Core opponents include “bombast”, “overreach”, “dark mutterings”, “hyperbole”, “obsession”, “paranoia”, “folly”, “frets”, “paranoid conspiracy theories”, and “overreach”

Individuals Pondiscio agrees with, however, are “thoughtful”, “serious”, “sober”, and “principled.”

“Lessons on Common Core” effortlessly contradicts.[8] For example, Pondiscio supports the Common Core Standards for the “desperately needed” direction they provide teachers,

At a time when the nation’s 3.7 million teachers desperately needed help, when ‘What should we teach?’ was at long last being asked in earnest…

At the same time, he argues that standards really don’t matter much and good teachers ignore them completely,

Far more compelling arguments can be made not about how much Common Core matters, but how little.

To be upset by academic standards is to invest them with a power they neither have nor deserve. In my five years of teaching fifth graders, I never—not even once—reached for English language arts standards when deciding what to teach. … First things first: What is it you want to teach?

Pondiscio eases up a bit on his own “overheated” rhetoric for one book—the Pioneer Institute’s Drilling Through the Core. Perhaps not surprisingly, Drilling happens to be the only one among the six books written by authors one might legitimately characterize as elite—people Pondiscio might suppose he may need to work with sometime in the future—including a few individuals sometimes found inside his education reform tent, such as Stanford’s Williamson Evers.

Early on in his Education Next essay, and frequently in other venues, Pondiscio prominently brandishes his classroom teaching experience to establish his bona fides as a front-line educator. Moreover, on its website, the Fordham organizations proclaim.[9]

… we see much wisdom in “subsidiarity”— the doctrine that important matters ought to be handled by the competent authority that’s closest to the action, which in education usually means parents, teachers, and schools.

But teachers wrote the other five books Pondiscio reviewed, and he ridicules them mercilessly as ignorant rubes lacking the understanding that might qualify them to engage in a debate he believes to be beyond their intellectual reach.

Also unfortunately typical of Fordham essays on causes it is richly paid to promote: never once does Pondiscio mention his conflict of interest, nor those of Fordham.

As Joy Pullman, Managing Editor of The Federalist, describes the general problem.[10]

Common Core’s supporters are typically rich elites using their excess money to manipulate public opinion.

First, we have an obvious conflict of interest problem here. People deserve to know when a prominent official or self-proclaimed “expert” who is testifying before state legislatures or writing op-eds is making money from their persuasive efforts. It means their judgment is not entirely independent, even if they feel it so. Basic ethics requires someone with a financial or personal stake in the outcome of a public decision to recuse himself from participating in that decision. That has not been happening.

Second, it indicates rampant cronyism, which is a form of political and social corruption. We see that Common Core is infested with essentially the same set of people rewarding each other with taxpayer dollars and huge private grants, decades before there can be any proof that all this money laundering produced a genuine public good. Common Core is a giant experiment, remember. Bill Gates says he won’t know if his “education stuff” worked for “probably a decade.”[11] Former public officials (or semi-public officials, which is what I label the Common Core coauthors, because while we did not elect them we all must live with their decisions) are amply rewarded for doing what the rich and powerful wanted with sweet compensation packages following their “public service.”

Arguably, the Fordham organizations are the country’s most influential in education reform. Moreover, they have spun (or, purchased, depending on your point of view) a large, elaborate web of institutional and individual partnerships. A “common core” of people moves in, out, and across the groups. People inside the web know each other well, they share friends and enemies, and they owe each other favors. They are less likely to criticize others inside the network and, perhaps, more likely to criticize those outside the network.

Moreover, the network is replicating itself through such training vehicles as Fordham’s Emerging Education Policy Scholars Program.[12] If the graduates of these programs turn out to be just as censorial and clannish as some of those training them, our country can look forward to more narrow-mindedly conceived and hugely expensive white elephants like the Common Core Initiative.



[2] Finn, C.E. (December 1996). Farewell—And Hello Again. Network News & Views.

[3] The Education Gadfly. (March 29, 2011). “Fordham Dancetitute: Mike Petrilli takes the Fordham Institute in new directions,” YouTube.

[4] Ravitch, D. (June 11, 2012). “The day I was terminated.” Diane Ravitch’s Blog.

[5] Greene, Jay P. (Spring 2014). “Historian Ravitch Trades Fact for Fiction: Latest book indifferent to the standards of social science,” Education Next, 14(2).

[6] Pondiscio, R. (January 5, 2017). “Lessons on Common Core: Critical books offer more folly than wisdom,” Education Next.

[7] See also, Phelps, R.P. (July 2019). “Common Core’s Language Arts,” Missouri Education Watchdog.

[8] See also, Gass, J. (June 4, 2014). “To Be a National Curriculum, or Not to Be a National Curriculum: More Fordham-Finn Flip Flopping,” Pioneer Institute Blog.


[10] Pullman, J. (January 5, 2015). “Ten Common Core Promoters Laughing All The Way To The Bank,” The Federalist.



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