The Common Core: How Bill Gates Changed America

James Joyner points us to a Washington Post article on how Bill Gates somewhat single-handedly pulled off a dramatic restructuring of American public education, via promoting the Common Core standards. There is much that is fascinating here, including the fact that a billionaire with a plan can get things done in our fractured Republic a lot more easily than our actual governments (plural because education is still largely a local matter) ever could. Apparently, Gates got a pitch in 2008 from a pair of education reformers who wanted to see uniform standards for US schools. Gates thought about it, then jumped in with two feet (and a vast philanthropic and lobbying apparatus). Within two years, 45 states and the District of Columbia had fully adopted the Common Core Standards. The idea enjoyed bipartisan support; only quite recently, when members of the Tea Party realized that all this happened under Obama’s watch, have Republicans taken up the fight against it.

Personally, I’m completely in favor of national curricula and standards. Indeed, I’d like to go much further, and nationalize the schools, so that public spending on students in rural Louisiana is just as high as that in wealthy suburbs in the Northeast. I’m also not dead set against swift action by small groups of people who are willing to get things done, rather than sit around for decades trading white papers and town hall meetings. (I even helped a bit with such non-democratic action myself, and suffered the attendant abuse with stoic calm.)

What I don’t know, since I simply am completely unfamiliar with the details, is whether the actual Common Core initiative (as opposed to the general idea of a common curriculum) is a good idea. I know that some people are very much against it — so much so that it’s difficult to find actual information about it, since emotions run very high, and you are more likely to find either rampant boosterism or strident criticism. Of course you can look up what the standards are, both in English Language Arts and in Mathematics (there don’t seem to be standards for science, history, or social studies). But what you read is so vague as to be pretty useless. For example, the winningly-named “CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1” standard reads

Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

That sounds like a good idea! But doesn’t translate unambiguously into something teachable. The devil is in the implementation.

So — anyone have any informed ideas about how it works in practice, and whether it’s helpful and realistic? (Early results seem to be mildly promising.) I worry from skimming some of the information that there seems to be an enormous emphasis on “assessment,” which presumably translates into standardized testing. I recognize the value of such testing in the right context, but also have the feeling that it’s already way overdone (in part because of No Child Left Behind), and the Common Core just adds another layer of requirements. I’d rather have students and schools spend more time on teaching and less time on testing, all else being equal.

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54 Responses to The Common Core: How Bill Gates Changed America

  1. Ben Goren says:

    The biggest problem with American education is captured by that bumper sticker that longs for the day when the schools have all the money they can dream of and the Navy has to hold a bake sale to buy another aircraft carrier.

    Nationalization of the schools is tempting on the one hand…but it would also politicize curriculum even further. Do you really want Congress debating whether the standards should include Inelegant Design or exclude climate change?



  2. sjw says:

    Yes, I know a huge amount about this, more than I’d like to post in a comment here. Is there a good way to get in touch with you directly? I agree that the current discourse about CCSS is either boosterism or strident criticism. (From the right, it’s accusations of Obamacore, from the left it’s about corporatization without much cogent discussion of curriculum issues.) PS: I was at your WSF writer’s event at Cooper Union, and met you briefly at TAM two years ago.

  3. ascanius says:

    off topic, but craig is still trying to win the debate. he uses a conveniently timed/planted reader question to do it. is there anything worthwhile there? i have trouble making it through his intentionally obscurantist style. he needs to read pinker’s new book on academic writing.

  4. James Collins says:

    I taught for over 35 years in New York City public schools.
    1. CC, regardless of its merits on paper, does not at all address the real problems in USA education–which are largely economic and social. Well-financed, (mostly)-suburban, (mostly)-white schools are doing just fine. They can compete with Finland or South Korea etc. The problem is that we have a huge number of (mostly)-minority and immigrant children who fail to receive a decent education. It is vastly easier and cheaper to come up with new education initiatives every decade or so than it is to put forth the gigantic effort it would take to eliminate deep, persistent economic inequality and racism.
    2. Each new education reform is like some new, magic diet. We appear to be addressing the problem, make some initial small success. fall back to business-as-usual, and finally start the whole process all over. In fact, we have no education “theory” in spite of what is said. I’d love to hear what Feynman would have said about the scientific pretensions of the whole reform movement. Money is a key motive in all of this. I strongly recommend Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error, for a scathing and well-documented attach on charters etc.

  5. Ben Goren says:

    ascanius, Craig is a troll. Probably best not to feed him further.

    Much of his “counter-argument” boils down to a different use of the term, “Aristotelian.” For Sean, the difference is between Aristotle’s teleological purpose-driven universe and Newton’s mechanical clockwork universe. For Craig, the difference is between some philosophical formulation of teleology propounded by Aristotle and some other indistinguishable philosophical formulation of teleology propounded by somebody who wasn’t Aristotle.

    Once you get that cleared up, everything else remains as it is, and Craig is left bloviating to Sean about ancient Mediterranean superstitions (Pagan and Christian both) while Sean was busy giving the audience a first-day-of-class introductory lecture on modern cosmology.



  6. 5JxXbfyE says:

    With regard to implementation, the aim of the illustrative Mathematics Project seems to be to write example problems for each one of the math standards:

  7. Steve Ruis says:

    Imagine if an outside group leapt into your field and changed all of the rules for, say, getting research grants or getting published in a peer review journal. This is what happened the public education under an alliance of Bill Gates money and DOEd clout. The only reason that 45 states signed on to the Common Core (the word “State” was added to create the illusion these were generated by the states; they were not) was to get some of the billions of NCLB/RTTT dollars dangled by the DOEd. If it had not been coerced, do you think anyone would have adopted an untested system of education developed by non-educators, one that requires a great deal of implementation funding? Upon what reasoning would you have based that decision?

    Careful analysis of the standards have shown that many of the early grade standards are far from being grade appropriate. Further analysis . . . but wait, why should we doing all of this analysis when there was no peer review? Talk about a distraction, spinning our wheels! I am in favor of national standards, but to get there we need to get buy-in, not an imposed from the top system from people with a financial stake in the enterprise (the drafting committee had education test and textbook publishers on it … but no educators). The only way you get buy-in is through participation.

    Oh, and the standards have been copyrighted and you are not allowed to change them (at all), but you can add to them as long as those additions do not exceed 10% of the total.

    Are you starting to get the picture? This is not an “experiment” but a high jacking of the education system . . . without review, without amendment, and blank check funded by a single individual and illegally implemented by a federal government not allowed to dabble in curricula.

  8. Richard Olson says:

    My opinion is rather superficially informed, although I have read about education issues for decades. It think it is completely unrealistic to expect higher than mediocre academic performance, at best, from almost any student who arrives at school suffering from negative environmental situations, meaning within both their homes and the neighborhoods those homes are located in. I do not expect the most optimum curriculum and teaching/administrative cadre to overcome the effect of indifference or terror within households and on the streets around those, or diets insufficient in both nutrition and calories, particularly when those least economically advantaged children are obliged to attend the most overcrowded and inadequately funded schools. It is evasion of societal responsibility, and pure loathesome political scapegoating, when sub-optimal outcomes from such environments result in blame placed upon teachers. It is a tribute to all involved when students subjected to this deliberate public policy plague succeed. I would add that James Collins makes excellent points above.

  9. Gordon Munro says:

    In a parallel universe where all is identical to this one at the Planck limit except that in that United States of America no person cares about and/or worships the Confederate Battle flag, all American children already have genuine educational equality. We live in the wrong Universe.

  10. Truck Captain Stumpy says:

    James Collins presents a strong argument, and I would like to add another small part to it that is mostly IMHO and from dealing with my Grandchildren in school around me: when there is a common core etc and the teachers are graded (and funded) upon the ability of a student to regurgitate information at will then the teachers tend to teach the test, and not teach the ability to think or find information.

    That is not to say that all teachers are like this. I’ve met some wonderful teachers in the recent past dealing with my Grand-kids, but I’ve also met some doozies who’s political and religious ideology bleeds over into the classroom and negates the children’s ability to learn.

    Throwing in a common core with standardized tests that affects funding to the school only forces some of the good teachers to abandon the teaching of ability and lean more towards the regurgitation of information, which does little to show the child how that information is relevant to society or reality.

    I am going to lean heavily against common core for the reasons James Collins puts forward above, and because I am still fighting an uphill battle at times for the sake of my own grandchildren.

  11. Peter says:

    From an eye bird point of view, Bill Gates as a reputation of having bad taste (you know, that thing called MS Windows), being a philanthropic billionaire won’t change that…

  12. John Call says:

    As one soon to graduate High School and having lived through this nonsense as a student, I feel I can add a different perspective to the discussion.
    Standards are all well and good, but they do nothing about how something is taught. As you said “The devil is in the implementation.” To illustrate, I had one math teacher who was amazing, I learned more about math operation and its elegance from him than from any previous teacher combined. I had another whom I learned next to nothing from. Discussion with my class mates revealed they felt the same. What was the difference? They both had exactly the same standards to meet. But the first taught students to understand math and to appreciate its beauty. The later taught what was needed to meet the standards just as the other, but the concern for her was that the standards were met and the tests were passed, rather than the student actually understanding what they were doing.
    They were both operating under standards that stressed that “rote learning” is bad, yet standards do nothing to change how something is taught. Only what and when. Advocates say that Common Core minimizes rote learning, nonsense! All it does is provide slightly newer material (in a few subjects) to teach. What needs to be changed is teaching attitude, how that is to be done I have no idea.

    I live in a fairly rural area, My High School class has around 100 students, give or take a few. And it is a larger school for the area. It’s a good school, but its math and science departments are mediocre at best. The teachers love what they do, and most are quite good. The problem is with what the District Administration feels should be emphasized, sports rather than science. It is not a lack of money! A town about 23-25 minutes away from me (very close for this area, my school is 20 min. away) has a smaller High School with an excellent science and technology department and a good athletics department. Another school has an awesome information technology emphasis (and a rugby team, which is pretty cool). I would rather go to one of those schools because I’m interested in science, not football, but I can’t because of an arbitrary line drawn on a map. I think a great solution to this would be to set up a voucher system. Everyone can choose where to go, friends of mine looking for Football scholarships could go to the school I’m in, and I could go to school that teaches science and technology well.

  13. @James Collins: You asked what Feynman would have made of education reform. I can’t say, exactly. But Feynman did serve on the California State Curriculum Committee, and he spoke out about the problems he saw with “the New Math”. Here is what he wrote about the subject for “Engineering and Science”.

  14. darrelle says:

    Common Core does not seem to have improved things from my perspective as a parent trying to get my children the best education possible from the public school system. It is frustrating to say the least.

    The school my kids are in has a relatively high rating, it is considered elite, and is the only school in our area that does not have a bad rating. In other words, it is the only real choice. And yet FCATS are everything. The entire school year is structured around FCATS. No changes there with Common Core. Actually seems worse.

    My children are in the schools “gifted” program, which just gives you a couple of more things to be frustrated about. It is the only inspirational learning experience they get, and it is only one day a week. Why couldn’t it be more? Why can’t all children experience what is on offer from the “gifted” program? All children could damn sure benefit from it. The number of children that could be encouraged to bloom given the right kind of environment, like in the “gifted” program, and that are left “untapped” because they don’t meet the highest standards on an evaluation is the most frustrating thing. Just like school funding being inversely proportionate to FCAT scores, providing the empowering learning environment of a “gifted” program to only those with the highest evaluation scores is exactly ass-backwards.

  15. Sean Carroll says:

    I don’t think it’s useful to say “This isn’t useful because it doesn’t address the real problem, which is X” (as several people are doing, in different ways). Unless you think that the Common Core will actually prevent us from solving the real problem (poverty, parenting, or what have you), which seems unlikely to me. It doesn’t make sense to resist a proposed solution to one problem just because it doesn’t address all problems.

    Likewise, I don’t think “Bill Gates is just trying to sell more Microsoft products” is a very useful critique, either. It just sounds like sour grapes, and I honestly don’t care what the underlying motivations are if the program actually works. So the question is, does it?

    Problems with vagueness or difficulty in implementation seem like bigger worries to me. But they are hard to judge in any objective way.

  16. Ben Goren says:

    I don’t think it’s useful to say “This isn’t useful because it doesn’t address the real problem, which is X” (as several people are doing, in different ways).

    …except that that’s how Common Core is being billed: as the way to “Prepare America’s students for success.”

    It’s like having a car that stalls at every stop, having your neighbor offer to fix it for you…and then getting the car back with a new transmission that you didn’t ask for and really didn’t need, but the car still keeps stalling. Should we limit our critique of the neighbor to the theoretical validity of how much better fuel economy he says we’ll get with the new transmission?


  17. Heidi Russell says:

    I agree that one of the key issues is that a common core is not equivalent to a common curriculum. NPR recently did an interesting report on the lack of textbooks available that actually address the core, despite the fact that they all seem to have the little gold sticker that says they do address the core:

  18. James Collins says:

    Dr. Carroll– It is precisely because solutions like CC give the illusion of solving or even addressing a problem that they prevent us from trying to implement real solutions to real problems (solutions I don’t pretend to have). The justification for CC is that there is a crisis in American education and that this is the solution. What is the crisis? Can a nationwide curriculum address that problem? If not, the specific content doesn’t matter. There is no crisis in middle class education–so we don’t need a solution. On the other hand, it doesn’t at all address the problems of the underclass.

  19. mark cettie says:

    Competency and comprehension of a topic is the sole purpose to education. Testing is the means to measure this. Because it is important to understand that a person who has passed Algebra 1, for example, has a predictable knowledge base in this topic, we need to develop a standardized curriculum with core elements of competency and then develop testing to ensure these competencies are met.
    I honestly can’t think of a better system.

    What I can do is argue that the person entering into a course of study may have significant challenges working against her that aren’t being appropriately addressed.

    I can also argue that the current system of ‘Grade’ levels, high schools, colleges, etc., as well as lecture formats may be both sub-optimal and confer a false sense of achievement/competency. Also, that the nature and types of testing may fail at measuring competency.
    I agree that it is infuriating that a politician might have some sway in what standardized core competencies and testing procedures, but until we can develop a better way to parse governmental power and regulation than with the aid of politicians, then I guess we’ll have to include them.
    Truthfully, the current system allows a claim of competency where it may not exist. It does this by saying things like, “He passed Geometry 2,” or “She’s in the seventh grade.” – Essentially, these statements assert a false and unpredictable metric.
    Bill Gates seems to understand that the key to developing competencies is by agreeing upon and using the same measuring sticks.

  20. darrelle says:

    James Collins said:

    “There is no crisis in middle class education–so we don’t need a solution.”

    I guess it all comes down to where each of us draws the line over which they classify something as a crisis. But I strongly disagree that there is no crisis in middle class education. There are many, all intertwined to such a degree that trying to figure out how to go about fixing the mess is extremely difficult all by itself without even considering having the political will or ability to pull it off.

  21. Starman says:

    I am afraid we that the common core math could end up being the “New Math” once again.
    In my (small, well-regarded) school district in Los Angeles County, the time-tested math program of Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Trigonometry, Calculus series is changing to some sort of holistic, teach a bit of all math subject in each year sort of curriculum, which is being advertised as Common Core.

    It sounds suspiciously like the New Math of yore. When exactly will students learn what it means to *prove* a theorem? It took my son months to understand how to construct a proof. If he were just given bits and pieces here and there, he would never have learned.

    I think you have it just right: the standards as such are unobjectionable, but reducing them to practice is very problematic.

  22. James Collins says:

    from book review by Diane Ravitch, an education expert: On the latest international test, the Program for International Student Assessment, American schools in which fewer than 10 percent of the students were poor outperformed the schools of Finland, Japan, and Korea. Even when as many as 25 percent of the students were poor, American schools performed as well as the top-scoring nations. As the proportion of poor students rises, the scores of US schools drop.2

    To put the current “crisis” into perspective, it is well to recall that American education was in crisis a century ago, when urban schools were overcrowded, swamped with students from Eastern and Southern Europe who didn’t speak English. The popular press at that time warned that the nation was being overrun by a human tide from inferior cultures, and the very survival of our nation was supposedly at risk.

    Then there was the crisis of the 1950s: influential authors such as Rudolf Flesch and Arthur Bestor bemoaned the sorry state of the schools in the early 1950s, and other critics such as Admiral Hyman Rickover blamed them when the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit in 1957. Since then, the schools have been in nearly constant crisis. In the 1960s, civil rights leaders condemned the public schools for institutionalized racism. In the 1970s, critics like Charles Silberman discerned a “crisis in the classroom” and flayed the schools for “mindlessness.” In 1983, a national commission convened by US Secretary of Education Terrell Bell declared that “a rising tide of mediocrity” in the public schools put the nation at risk. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush convened the nation’s governors to agree on national goals for education. Since then, political leaders have agreed that what is needed to improve education is greater accountability, based on standardized tests.

  23. David Park says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the better and interested students, instead of cramming for standardized tests, could spend time writing SHORT free style, literate essays using something like the medium of Mathematica notebooks. Doing this on technical topics of their own choice and at their own level, or perhaps suggested to them. They would have to learn how to write clearly and explain what they were doing. They would have to provide supporting calculations and present them in a convincing way. They would have to solve all the little problems of doing this.

    Of course, these would be difficult to assess, with many subjective factors. I doubt if this could fit into our existing school systems. Perhaps those with teaching experience could give some feedback.

    Then the students could always do it outside of the school system.

  24. John Call says:

    “I don’t think it’s useful to say “This isn’t useful because it doesn’t address the real problem, which is X” (as several people are doing, in different ways). Unless you think that the Common Core will actually prevent us from solving the real problem”

    As Ben Goren said, Common Core is being billed as a miraculous fix, when in fact it does very little. I don’t believe that Common Core will directly prevent us from solving the “real” problems. But I do think it distracts from them. Many people I know feel that they don’t need to worry because Common Core is going to fix many of the issues in education. These people are on school boards and local governments. All the teachers I’ve had in the past four years of high school have had the exact opposite opinion.

    “It doesn’t make sense to resist a proposed solution to one problem just because it doesn’t address all problems.”

    No, that doesn’t make sense. But I don’t believe Common Core addresses any of the problems in any meaningful way, mostly because vagueness. I like the idea of homogenizing education throughout the country, I think it’s a great idea to some degree. But CC doesn’t do a good job of that. They say they want to do that, but they are also very clear that each State can use CC to build on what the State already has. If every state does that, then we aren’t all going to end up on the same level. When I moved to a new state a number of years ago, I found that most of the courses were stepped back a year. So I ended up retaking many classes I had passed. This happens to a lot of people. And it causes students in different areas to have (in theory) different levels of understanding when they get out of High School. Common Core sounds like it addresses this by making the standards common, but it does not make them common. It could if it were implemented the same way from state to state, instead of having each state use it to build on existing standards.
    I agree that it places to much emphasis on assessment, most standards do. We need standardized tests because of the enormity of the school system. In an ideal world small groups of students would be assessed qualitatively by a mentor. A student’s conceptual understanding is pretty much impossible to put into numbers. This is especially true of the sciences. At least scientific thinking. Most of the standardized tests I have taken don’t address scientific thinking, but rather test if students can read a graph (except the SAT subject test on Physics, and a particularly fun physics problem on the ACT). I believe CC could help here if it had science standards that focus on exploration and thinking. Of course that is largely up to how a teachers teaches.
    But when dealing with hundreds of thousands of students standardized tests becomes a necessary evil. Not to the extreme that it is taken to now, but at least somewhat needed.

    So to answer your questions succinctly, more is needed than CC to even begin to fix the largest problems in education. Common Core could fix some issues very well if it were implemented evenly across those states using it, instead it has turned into a list of vague recommendations. As it stands now, it doesn’t work well.
    (Excuse the length, the comment got away from me a bit.)

  25. Jim in IA says:

    The science common core standards are completed and published. I worked with them at my previous job. Because they are so new, they haven’t been incorporated into curriculum the way reading and math have been.

    I thought the science standards were quite well thought out and comprehensive. They won’t be easily incorporated, tho. Teacher training and expertise is needed to do them justice.