Bill Gates needs to drop his Common Core obsession

The billionaire's latest little fixation is catching hell on all sides. Here's why he's better off simply moving on

Published July 7, 2014 11:44AM (EDT)

  (AP/John Minchillo)
(AP/John Minchillo)

It’s hard to envision Bill Gates not getting exactly what he wants, or backing down from anything. However, that was before he became the sugar daddy and primary backer of the Common Core State Standards, which have raised the ire of parents, students and educators in the past year. As Common Core critics began pushing back against adoption of the standards and influencing several state legislatures to cut ties with Common Core, Gates and his foundation found themselves in the unusual position of backpedaling last month.

In a surprising act of damage control, the pro-Core Gates Foundation took to the pages of the New York Times with an open letter calling for a two-year delay in the use of Common Core-linked tests as measures for teacher and student accountability. Gates Foundation director Vickie Philips conceded frustrations with Common Core, writing, “No evaluation system will work unless teachers believe it is fair and reliable. The standards need time to work. Teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests and offer their feedback.”

Of course, educators know those considerations should have been obvious from the beginning, long before states were coerced into adopting the standards, in some cases unseen. For a successful businessman, Gates has been rather negligent in testing, piloting and evaluating an unproven product like Common Core before selling it to an unsuspecting public. Experts in education like Dr. Diane Ravitch know there is a time-honored process to review policies and standards. Bill Gates, however, is far from being an education expert.

He is, instead, a billionaire who believes his wealth and business success qualify him to set education policy.

This isn’t the first time Gates has reversed his position on education after realizing he knows less than he thought he did about how to “fix schools.” Gates poured more than $600 million into his “small schools campaign,” only to later concede he was wrong and the idea was virtually fruitless. While that doesn’t seem to bother a man who can literally waste billions of dollars, it’s more disturbing to hear him admit, “We won’t even know if it will work.” Playing so frivolously with institutions like public education should not be so easy. Clearly, whenever scandal is brewing in politics, it’s always a matter of following the money.  And with Common Core, there’s little doubt about the money trail.

The Gates Foundation’s letter to the New York Times seemed a conveniently timed response to recent investigations into the significant influence Gates has had in promoting the standards. Last month, the Washington Post featured an extensive story and interview by Lyndsey Layton who recounts "How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution." The story exposes how the development, promotion and implementation of “national education standards” became a pet project of Bill Gates after the software mogul and billionaire philanthropist met with private groups who were organizing a national push for common standards. Despite having no educational background or credentials other than having gone to school and dropped out of Harvard, “Bill Gates was de facto organizer, providing the money and structure for states to work together on common standards in a way that avoided the usual collision between states’ rights and national interests.”  Layton’s story also poses questions about the standards’ origins, implying they were “not states-led” but, in fact, “Gates-led.”

Since the publication of Layton’s story and Gates’ letter, Common Core critics have used the information to continue questioning the standards and the process by which they became embedded in school districts across the nation, even as public suspicion and criticism grew. Teacher and education blogger Mercedes Schneider has spent the past year blogging about the surreptitious process the standards took to adoption and implementation. Her work culminated this year with the book "Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of Public Education." In it, Schneider traces what she sees as the excessive and inappropriate corporate influence on public education. Following the publication of Layton’s story, Schneider turned her attention to the curious timing of the interview, asking, “Why Would the WashPost Wait Three Months to Publish a Gates Interview?"  Schneider’s research implies powerful corporate and national forces pushed a project and agenda that should have been far more inclusive of teachers and school communities.

Now, criticism of the excessive influence and manipulation by Gates and his foundation has moved beyond a simple question of supporting and promoting the standards. Again, it’s always about following the money. The underreported story about Common Core is the millions of dollars to be made in developing and selling educational materials and assessments linked to the new standards. Despite claims by Common Core advocates that standards are not curriculum, school districts are realizing they need to spend money on new materials and training to meet the new expectations of the standards, especially if schools are required to use standardized assessments to measure student growth and teacher accountability. Without doubt, the implementation of Common Core will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the U.S. Department of Education has already given $350 million to education companies like Pearson to develop curriculum and assessments. Clearly, the Common Core has been incredibly lucrative for businesses while the benefit to students remains dubious at best.

The economic side to the Common Core debate is what Florida math teacher Joshua Katz decried in his TEDx presentation criticizing companies who hedge the market in a “Toxic Culture of Education.” That criticism is supported by work from David Sirota and Nathaniel Mott, writing for Pando, who investigated the funding Gates provided to PBS programming. Sirota and Mott’s piece recounts the same funding issues previously mentioned. However, they go further in examining how the “Gates foundation financed PBS education programming which promoted Microsoft’s interests.” The implication is that Gates may have been using the movement to sell software and educational materials.

Because of concerns about the federal influence on state control of education, the issue of Gates’ role in Common Core could now reach the White House. Conservative critics of national standards have taken to calling Common Core “Obama-Core,” decrying it as federal overreach. And liberals have condemned the use of standardized tests as a panacea. Thus, as the nation looks toward fall when schools will continue implementation of Common Core and associated tests, the Obama administration faces serious challenges to its approach on education. It's time for Gates to drop this obsession and move on to the next one.

By Michael P. Mazenko

MORE FROM Michael P. Mazenko

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