WASHINGTON, D.C. – Microsoft founder Bill Gates appeared on a Sunday talk show to respond to criticism of Common Core, the one-size-fits-all math and English learning standards that are being used in schools in 45 states.
In a softball interview with ABC “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos, Gates addressed concerns that Common Core will undermine local and state control over public education.
“The Common Core is not a curriculum. It doesn’t tell you how to teach. It’s not a federal takeover. Nobody’s pushing for that,” Gates said.
Gates – whose personal foundation has reportedly spent nearly $200 million to get the Common Core experiment off the ground – said the nationalized learning standards are better than states’ previous learning expectations because they emphasize genuine understanding of the material, instead of rote memorization.
“I believe 10 years from now, kids’ competence in math, kids’ scores in math, can be improved a lot,” Gates predicted.
“I think this is going to be a big win for education.”
There are a couple of major problems with Gates’ answers. We’ll start with his predictions that Common Core will help America compete in the global marketplace.
The Common Core standards were not piloted on actual students before they were adopted and implemented back in 2010 and 2011. The fact is no one can say with certainty if Common Core’s approach to math – which emphasizes “critical thinking” over memorizing basic information – is going to produce a generation of more and better mathematicians.
In fact, there are a number of thoughtful scholars who expect Common Core will have a disastrous effect on the national goal of preparing students for a career in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
That same uncertainty applies to Common Core’s English standards which focus on non-fiction, “informational texts” at the expense of classic literature.
Gates and company believe more practical reading assignments will better prepare students for the ever-changing economy. Critics say the standards will produce an ignorant citizenry that won’t be prepared to think seriously about history, culture and politics.
This means Gates’ prediction that the “higher standards” will yield great academic fruit is just a wild guess. The opposite could just as easily turn out to be true.
But Gates’ biggest misstatement was his assertion that Common Core doesn’t represent a “federal takeover” of America’s public education system.
While we agree that Common Core isn’t an outright takeover of the nation’s public schools, we believe it does give D.C. bureaucrats backdoor access to the nation’s classrooms.
This view is based on the fact that Common Core is really a package deal of new learning standards and new student assessments (or standardized tests). As Joy Pullmann of the Heartland Institute has pointed out, the standards and assessments have always gone hand-in-hand.
This matters because the Common Core-aligned standardized tests are being developed by two organizations – PARCC and Smarter Balanced – that receive both federal funding and oversight. Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute has reported that federal officials are overseeing the test creation process to ensure the questions are effective.
In other words, the federal government is actively involved in creating these Common Core-aligned tests. That matters because those tests are going to strongly influence what teachers do in the classroom.
How do we know this?
It’s simple: The Obama administration has used its No Child Left Behind waivers and its Race to the Top initiative to strong-arm states into partially basing each teacher’s evaluation on how well his or her students perform on the Common Core-aligned standardized tests.
So if a PARCC or Smarter Balanced test asks students – year after year – to answer questions based on a certain “informational text” – such as a memo from the Environmental Protection Agency – teachers are going to make sure their students are familiarized with that document before they take the test.
That’s not a conspiracy theory; that’s just a basic understanding of human nature.
The end result is that whoever controls the tests has at least a degree of control over what gets taught in the classroom. That’s why Common Core critics say the nationalized standards and assessments will pose a threat to the long-held American principle of locally controlled schools.
Gates is a very smart man and must have heard all of these concerns before. But the fact that he doesn’t address them suggests that he can’t. And that means there is merit in the critics’ arguments.
If Gates is really serious about addressing the concerns of Common Core critics, he should agree to do an interview with someone who really understands the issue, instead of with a member of the shallow, drive-by media.