Bill Gates, Bankroller of the Common Core
The multinational software giant Microsoft once bundled its Explorer search engine with Windows and refused, for a time, to have Windows run WordPerfect, a competitor to Microsoft Word. As head of Microsoft, Bill Gates wanted everyone to use the same program. As funder of the Common Core, I believe he wants to do the same with our children.
The Common Core is one of the most effective educational reform movements in U.S. history. Gates is a financial backer of this movement. Looking at this connection enables us to see why the United States should be wary of letting any one person or group acquire too much control over education policy.
Launched in 2009 and now adopted by forty-five states, the Common Core articulates a single set of educational standards in language arts and mathematics. Although the Common Core claims not to tell teachers what or how to teach, school districts must prove to state legislatures or the federal government (via the Race to the Top program) that they are complying with the Common Core. The simplest and most cost-effective way for a school district to do that is to purchase an approved reading or math program.
On the Common Core website, Gates applauds this development, stating that the initiative brings the nation closer to “supporting effective teaching in every classroom.” Here, I believe, one sees a link between Gates’s business and advocacy sides.
The Common Core may raise standards in some school districts, but one ought to read the literature with a critical eye. The Common Core has not been field-tested anywhere. The Common Core does not address many root causes of underperforming schools, such as hungry students or dangerous neighborhoods. And the Common Core has an opportunity cost, namely, that it forces thriving school districts to adopt programs that may be a worse fit for the student body.
We can learn a lesson from the recent history of the computing industry. Apple and Microsoft have pressed each other to make better applications, phones, notepads, and cameras. Though Gates may have wanted to vanquish Apple, Steve Jobs prompted him to improve his products, which in turn benefited every computer user. Competition brings out the best in people and institutions. The Common Core standardizes curricula and thereby hinders competition among educational philosophies.
Surely, one could say, certain standards are self-evidently good. A Common Core principle of first grade math is that students should “attend to precision” and “look for and make use of structure.” Just as a computer program requires each number, space, and function to be in its right spot to operate, so too the standards emphasize thinking in an orderly fashion and showing each step of the work.
In Letters to a Young Scientist, the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson argues that the demand for precision can hurt the scientific imagination. Wilson celebrates the fanciful nature of innovation by reflecting on how Darwin formulated the idea of descent with modification while sailing on the HMS Beagle and Newton discovered that white light is a mix of colored lights while playing with a prism. Though teachers sometimes need to write orderly equations on a blackboard, real progress comes “amid a litter of doodled paper.” Doodling is a prelude to a eureka moment, the fuel of scientific research.
Would it be wise to nationalize an educational policy that frowns on doodling?
One could argue about the details of the Common Core standards: how to strike the right balance, say, between fiction and nonfiction, humanities and sciences, doodling and straight lines, and so forth. And yet this approach concedes that America ought to have the same approach in every classroom.
America needs many kinds of excellent programs and schools: International Baccalaureate programs, science and technology schools, Montessori schools, religious schools, vocational schools, bilingual schools, outdoor schools, and good public schools. Even within programs and schools, teachers should be encouraged to teach their passions and areas of expertise. Teachers inspire lifelong learning by bringing a class to a nature center, replicating an experiment from Popular Science, taking a field trip to the state or national capital, or assigning a favorite novel. A human being is not a computer, and a good education is not formatted in a linear code.
As a result of the Common Core, teachers in our school district must now open boxes filled with reading materials, workbooks, and tests from a “learning company.” How depressing and unnecessary. As Apple and Google have shown, great work can be done when talented employees are granted power and encouraged to innovate.
In regard to education policy, I’d prefer Bill Gates to have a loud voice in his school district but a quieter one in mine.
In summer 2008, David Coleman changed the course of American education. For decades, reformers had argued that the country needed a national standards-based model of education to ensure economic prosperity. He helped make that a reality by convincing Bill Gates to support the Common Core State Standards Initiative, to the tune of more than $200 million.
In part because of his experience supervising the writing of the standards, Coleman became the head of the College Board, where his philosophy of education shapes how U.S. high schools prepare students for college.
He has expressed this vision in an essay published by the College Board, “Cultivating Wonder.” With this document and the results of the Common Core, it’s easy to see where his grand plans fall short.
In “Cultivating Wonder,” Coleman unpacks several Common Core standards, shows how students may decipher classic works of literature, and reflects on appropriate questions to ask students, revealing the philosophy of the Common Core and the College Board.
As a professor of political philosophy, I agree that education ought to cultivate wonder. The first book of political philosophy, Plato’s Republic, begins with Socrates experiencing wonder at a remark made by one of his interlocutors. Wonder is what compels us to keep investigating a question using every resource at our disposal.
Yet Coleman’s pedagogical vision stifles this kind of wonder by imposing tight restrictions on what may be thought—or at least what may be expressed to earn teacher approval, high grades, and good test scores. He expects students to answer questions merely by stringing together key words in the text before them. This does not teach philosophy or thinking; it teaches the practice of rote procedures, conformity, and obedience.
The first standard is the foundation of his vision. “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it,” it reads, and “cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” According to Coleman, the first standard teaches a rigorous, deductive approach to reading that compels students to extract as much information from the text as possible.
Throughout the document, he reiterates that students need to identify key words in a text. He analyzes passages from Hamlet, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Gettysburg Address, and an essay by Martha Graham. There is minimal discussion of historical context or outside sources that may make the material come alive. For instance, he suggests that teachers ask students, “What word does Lincoln use most often in the address?” rather than, say, discuss the Civil War. In fact, he disparages this approach. “Great questions make the text the star of the classroom; the most powerful evidence and insight for answering lies within the text or texts being read. Most good questions are text dependent and text specific.”
As a professor, of course I demand that my students provide evidence to support their arguments. Coleman’s pedagogical vision, however, does not prepare students for college. He discourages students from making connections between ideas, texts, or events in the world—in a word, from thinking. Students are not encouraged to construct knowledge and understanding; they must simply be adept at repeating it.
His philosophy of education transfers across disciplines. After analyzing literary passages, he observes, “Similar work could be done for texts . . . in other areas such as social studies, history, science and technical subjects.” Like a chef’s signature flavor, Coleman’s philosophy of education permeates the myriad programs that the College Board runs.
Computers can grade the responses generated from his philosophy of education. Students read a passage and then answer questions using terms from it, regardless of whether the text is about history, literature, physics, or U.S. history. The U.S. Postal Service sorts letters using handwriting-recognition technology, and with a little tinkering, this kind of software could be used to score the SAT or Advanced Placement (AP) exams.
Coleman’s vision will end up harming the U.S. economy and our democratic culture.
The United States should be wary of emulating countries that use a standards-based model of education. In World Class Learners, the scholar Yong Zhao commends America’s tradition of local control of the schools and an educational culture that encourages sports, the arts, internships, and other extracurricular pursuits. In diverse ways, U.S. schools have educated many successful intellectuals, artists, and inventors. By contrast, the Chinese model of education emphasizes rigorous standards and high-stakes tests, preeminently the gaokao college entrance exam. Chinese policy makers rue, however, how this education culture stifles creativity, curiosity, and entrepreneurship. The Common Core will lead us to the same trap. Educators should not discard what has made the United States a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Democracy depends on citizens treating one another with respect. In perhaps his most famous public statement, Coleman told a room of educators not to teach students to write personal narratives, because “as you grow up in this world, you realize that people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.” This statement expresses, albeit more crassly, the same sentiment as his essay on cultivating wonder. He demands that students do what they are told and not offer their own perspectives on things. Ideally in a democracy, by contrast, citizens have a sincere interest in what other citizens have to say. As John Dewey argued in Democracy and Education, the purpose of the schools is to create a democratic culture, not one that replicates the worst features of the market economy.
A recurrent defense of the Common Core is that the standards are good but the implementation has been bad. Even if Coleman’s educational vision is perfectly actualized, it is still profoundly flawed. Under Common Core, from the time they enter kindergarten to the time they graduate from high school, students will have few opportunities to ask their own questions or come up with their own ideas. It’s time for Americans to find alternatives to Coleman’s educational vision.
Michael Barber, Pearson Deliverologist
Who stands to gain from education reforms such as the controversial Common Core standards?
One big winner is the British publishing company Pearson, which delivered 9 million high-stakes tests to students across the United States in 2014, including the PARCC Common Core assessments. Pearson has an especially tight hold on New York’s education system, which one critic has compared to the grip of an octopus. Pearson runs the edTPA program, which certifies New York teachers, and the company has a $32 million contract to administer the state’s end-of-year tests. And it offers a wide variety of services to implement the Common Core, including curriculum models and tools to measure student understanding.
The company is expanding its brand into the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, South Africa, Brazil, India, and Saudi Arabia. Pearson earns more than $8 billion in annual global sales, with much more to come if countries continue to use standardized tests to rate students, teachers, and schools.
We can learn more about Pearson and its sweeping vision for the future by turning to a book by the company’s chief academic officer, Michael Barber. In Deliverology 101: A Field Guide for Educational Leaders, he lays out his philosophy and, unintentionally, reveals why parents, teachers, and politicians must do everything they can to break Pearson’s stranglehold on education policy around the world.
Barber has worked on education policy for British prime minister Tony Blair as well as for McKinsey and Company. Deliverology, written with assistance from two other McKinsey experts, is clearly inflected by the worldview of management consulting.
The authors define deliverology as “the emerging science of getting things done” and “a systematic process for driving progress and delivering results in government and the public sector.” The book targets systems leaders, politicians who support education reform, and delivery leaders, employees responsible for the day-to-day implementation of structural change.
Deliverology alternates between painting a big picture of what needs to be done and offering maxims such as “To aspire means to lead from the front” and “Endless public debate will create problems that could potentially derail your delivery effort.”
Pearson just happens to be one of the world’s largest vendors of the products Barber recommends for building education systems.
Barber believes in the “alchemy of relationships,” or the power of a small group of people working together to enact structural change. For example, Barber applauds Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program for providing a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform public education in America,” including through the Common Core. Barber’s book offers leaders advice on how to implement the Common Core standards that Pearson employees helped write.
Taking inspiration from Margaret Thatcher’s motto “Don’t tell me what, tell me how,” Barber rarely discusses what schools should teach or cites scholarship on pedagogy. Instead, the book emphasizes again and again that leaders need metrics—for example, standardized test scores—to measure whether reforms are helping children become literate and numerate.
This spring, a prominent anti–Common Core activist tweeted, “I don’t think the Ed reformers understand the sheer fury of marginalized parents.” Barber understands this fury but thinks the “laggards” will come around once enough people see the positive results.
Deliverology even instructs leaders how to respond to common excuses from people who object to education reform.
The changes you’re asking for will have unintended consequences.
We will have mechanisms for ensuring potential consequences aren’t realized (e.g., monitoring indicators of unintended consequences).
The changes you’re asking for are risky.
The risks of inaction are greater.
The target is wrong.
The changes were chosen from fact-based analysis and make sense when viewed as part of the trajectory.
Deliverology is a field guide—or a battle plan—showing education reformers how to push ahead through all resistance and never have second thoughts. As Barber quotes Robert F. Kennedy, “only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Parents and teachers who do not want to adapt to the new state of affairs are branded “defenders of the status quo.” Barber ends the book by telling reformers to stick with their plans but acknowledge the emotional argument of opponents: “I understand why you might be angry; I would not enjoy this if it were happening to me either.”
But Pearson’s investment in the Common Core has become a lightning rod for criticism. Professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Lesley University contributed to a report identifying problems with the Common Core standards, including the one that requires kindergartners to “read emergent texts with purpose and understanding.” According to the report, there is no scholarly basis for setting this bar for kindergartners. In fact, the evidence suggests, expecting children to read too early can have adverse consequences. Early-childhood researchers have shown the benefits of play-based kindergarten for cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. “Children learn through playful, hands-on experiences with materials, the natural world and engaging, caring adults.” The report calls for the Common Core kindergarten standards to be withdrawn.
Politicians are listening to informed dissent against the Common Core and its corporate sponsors. In New York, state senator Terry Gipson (D-Rhinebeck) introduced legislation to sever the state’s connections to Pearson. After identifying problems with the company’s Common Core exams, Gipson said, “This is a for-profit corporation funded with taxpayer money, so we have more than enough reason to ask the state Education Department to cease and desist all relations.”
Expect such resistance to grow—and for good reason. Parents, educators, and politicians no longer buy what Pearson is selling.
How Democratic Party Elites Educate Their Own Kids
For years, U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan’s children attended public school in Virginia. Now, they go to the University of Chicago Laboratory School, the private school where Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel sends his kids and where Barack Obama sent his daughters when he lived in Chicago. The annual tuition is approximately $30,000.
During the Common Core rollout, New York education commissioner John King sent his daughters to a private Montessori school near Albany; New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s daughters, on their part, attended an elite boarding school in Massachusetts.
There is nothing wrong with private school. The problem here, though, is that too many Democratic elites advocate education reforms, such as the Common Core standards, charter schools, and high-stakes testing, with minimal firsthand knowledge of how the reforms affect schools or children. In sending their children to private schools, Democratic elites exempt themselves from policies that they might oppose if they saw their own children being harmed by them.
In 2008, many Democrats hoped that Barack Obama would send his children to public school as Jimmy Carter did before him. In their book President Obama and Education Reform, Robert Maranto and Michael Q. McShane explain why that was not likely to happen.
The key to understanding Obama’s education policy, according to Maranto and McShane, is his biography. Obama attended the prestigious Punahou School in Hawaii, an experience that prepared him for college and law school. Obama also observed from a distance a Hawaiian public school system rife with ethnic violence, low academic standards, and an unresponsive bureaucracy. These experiences influenced Obama’s decision to send his daughters to Sidwell Friends, the elite Washington, D.C., institution whose alumni include the younger Albert Gore and Chelsea Clinton.
As president, Obama advocated reforms to the public education system that include upping merit pay, weakening tenure rules, and evaluating teachers by student test scores. Obama’s most controversial education policy, however, was the Race to the Top program that gave states additional incentives to adopt the Common Core standards.
The Common Core, according to one critic, is “the product of a push by private foundations acting in the interest of multinational corporations to colonize public education in the United States.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and corporations such as IBM and Exxon have backed the Common Core. Still, politicians are essential to generate sufficient support for effective market-based education reform.
Maranto and McShane applaud Obama’s efforts to recast education reform in the language of equity, justice, and civil rights. Just as President Richard Nixon was able to convince Republicans to make peace with China, Obama has been able to convince Democrats to support market-based education reforms.
The question remains, though: are these reforms making public schools better? Or are they widening the gap between the kinds of education offered at public and elite private schools?
According to education scholar Diane Ravitch, most educated parents believe that good schools have full curricula, experienced staffs, arts programs, well-staffed libraries, beautiful campuses, and small classes. All of these things are par for the course at America’s finest private schools.
But it costs a lot of money to offer students this kind of education. In response, education reformers favor economies of scale, where students across the country take the same standardized tests, as well as reforms that tend to favor corporations rather than teachers. For example, the Race to the Top program awarded Pearson almost $200 million to develop the PARCC Common Core tests.
However, many parents resent the way in which children’s education now consists of little more than preparing for and taking standardized tests. One blogger in Chicago, for example, notes that the Lab School offers a rich arts curriculum, small classes, a unionized workforce, and a policy of not giving students a standardized test until they are at least 14 years old. Meanwhile, children in the local public schools must take a steady stream of standardized tests and have little exposure to history, science, art, or music. The blogger wryly observes that Arne Duncan has chosen for his own children a school that has been minimally affected by the reforms that he advocated as education secretary.
Since at least the 1990s, education reformers have argued that schools should be run like businesses focused on the bottom line—in this case, test scores. Parents and educators from across the spectrum reply that our society should strive to offer all children the kind of opportunities provided at the finest private schools.
Unfortunately, too many Democratic elites have joined the side of market-based economic reform. They may do so with a clear conscience, perhaps, because their own children do not suffer the consequences.
How Obama and Congress Cemented the Common Core
The country’s main education law is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA authorizes the federal government to provide funds to states if they agree to certain conditions. ESSA is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and one of the signature achievements of the Obama administration.
ESSA states that the secretary of education “shall not attempt to influence, incentivize or coerce” states to adopt the controversial Common Core education standards in math and ELA and that the federal government should not determine how much student test scores factor into teacher evaluations. It would appear that the era of high-stakes Common Core testing has ended.
Unfortunately, Congress remains firmly committed to test-based education reform. The Every Student Succeeds Act and Obama’s Testing Action Plan simply offer new ways to force states to administer tests that have sparked a rebellion among parents and educators across the country against overtesting and the narrowing of the curriculum to test subjects.
In a press statement, the Department of Education offered an apology, of sorts, for the “unnecessary testing” that is “consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students.” Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said that the Every Student Succeeds Act is “the most significant step towards local control in 25 years.”
Yet ESSA, according to Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), includes “strong federal guardrails to ensure all students have access to a quality education.” As it turns out, these guardrails provide as much freedom to the states as a passenger has on a roller coaster.
The states have to continue the testing regimen established with the No Child Left Behind Act under President George W. Bush, administering math and English language assessments to students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.
In fact, the ESSA requires states to test an even larger percentage of students than under No Child Left Behind. Under ESSA, states would be permitted to provide alternate assessments to no more than 1 percent of the students on the grounds that they possess “significant cognitive disabilities.” Consequently, a much higher percentage of students in special education have to take the tests. The law also increases the pressure on states to administer tests and use English language learners’ and minorities’ test scores for accountability purposes.
The law technically allows states to create their own provisions for students who opt out of tests, but it also requires states to measure at least 95 percent of all students annually. Students could refuse to take the tests, but if enough of them do, then their state would risk losing federal education aid. According to education scholar Mercedes Schneider, “the federal government is trying to force the testing without taking responsibility for forcing the testing.”
How can people say that ESSA is a U-turn from the education policies of the recent past? Under ESSA, the federal government may not tell states what academic standards to adopt or how student test scores should be used in teacher evaluations. Nonetheless, states have to submit accountability plans to the Department of Education for approval, and these accountability plans have to weigh test scores more than any other factor. Furthermore, under the act, states have to use “evidence-based interventions” in the bottom 5 percent of schools, determined, again, by test scores.
In short, states are free to choose test-based accountability policies approved by the secretary of education or lose access to federal Title I funds that sustain schools in low-income communities across the country. In a move that belies Alexander’s claim about local control, the Department of Education provides “office hours” for states or districts that wish to meet its “policy objectives and requirements under the law.”
Does the law at least permit states to escape the Common Core? It is hard to see how. According to ESSA, each state has to adopt “challenging state academic standards.” The Obama administration’s Testing Action Plan stipulates that assessment systems should measure student knowledge and skills against “state-developed college- and career-ready standards”—which has long been code for the Common Core. So, yes, states could invest hundreds of millions of dollars into writing new academic standards and making aligned tests, but there is no guarantee that the secretary of education would approve the standards or tests.
Advocates of high-stakes Common Core testing have applauded ESSA. Catherine Brown, the director of education policy at the Center for American Progress, said the law “appears to allow the department to set parameters in key areas and enforce statutory requirements.” John Engler of the Business Roundtable likewise applauded the law for keeping test scores “a central feature” of state accountability systems. Lanea Erickson at Third Way praised the law for throwing “some much-needed water on the political firestorm around testing.”
These advocates have not changed their minds about the Common Core or testing. They are just happy to shift the responsibility for administering it to the states rather than the federal government if that would help defuse parent and educator animosity. They misunderstand the justified anger that fuels the test-refusal movement.
Parents are in an uproar about the Common Core not because they have been brainwashed by the unions or want school to be easy for their children. Rather, they object to federal education policies that have narrowed the curriculum to standardized test prep in two academic subjects or, more precisely, peculiar interpretations of math and ELA. Until that changes, parents of all backgrounds and means will still clamor for the same kind of education that wealthy, connected people demand for their children.