It’s funny you should ask, since it looks like no one else did: In last Sunday’s Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton offered a 3700-word report about the way Bill Gates has spread his billions around to create and promote the Common Core.
Has he really spent billions on Common Core? We’re not sure.
Amazingly, Layton reports that the Gates Foundation has spent $3.4 billion since 1999 to advance Gates’ views on education. About $650 million of that went to a project, long abandoned, to create smaller high schools.
That leaves $2.7 billion going somewhere else—and the Common Core has been Gates’ big project over the past six years.
Near the end of her report, Layton considers the possibility that Gates will exploit the Common Core to create new profits for Microsoft. We have no idea if that is the case, but the passage is worth reviewing.
Putting motive to the side, let’s consider a more primal question: Do “higher standards” necessarily produce more learning? That’s the whole theory of Common Core. At one point, Layton writes this:
LAYTON (6/8/14): Whether the Common Core will deliver on its promise is an open question.As a general matter, Loveless is the educational expert we would listen to first. In this case, it isn’t entirely clear what he’s saying—but it doesn’t sound good.
Tom Loveless, a former Harvard professor who is an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said the Common Core was “built on a shaky theory.” He said he has found no correlation between quality standards and higher student achievement.
“Everyone who developed standards in the past has had a theory that standards will raise achievement, and that’s not happened,” Loveless said.
Offering a paraphrase, Layton has Loveless talking about quality standards rather than “higher” standards. When she quotes him, he seems to say that no one has ever produced more learning by “developing standards.”
We don’t know that Loveless means by that. Presumably, this is Layton’s fault (or her editor’s), not the fault of Loveless.
Later, a somewhat similar objection is made. In this passage, Layton cites an objection to the Common Core which has gained prominence in the last year or so:
LAYTON: The speed of adoption by the states was staggering by normal standards. A process that typically can take five years was collapsed into a matter of months.Reckhow complains about the lack of a pilot project, in which the Common Core would have been tried on a smaller scale. In a bit of comic relief, Hess, who took $4 million from Gates, complains that everyone else who took Gates money rushed ahead to adoption.
“You had dozens of states adopting before the standards even existed, with little or no discussion, coverage or controversy,” said Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, which has received $4 million from the Gates Foundation since 2007 to study education policy, including the Common Core. “People weren’t paying attention. We were in the middle of an economic meltdown and the health-care fight, and states saw a chance to have a crack at a couple of million bucks if they made some promises.”
The decision by the Gates Foundation to simultaneously pay for the standards and their promotion is a departure from the way philanthropies typically operate, said Sarah Reckhow, an expert in philanthropy and education policy at Michigan State University.
“Usually, there’s a pilot test—something is tried on a small scale, outside researchers see if it works, and then it’s promoted on a broader scale,” Reckhow said. “That didn’t happen with the Common Core. Instead, they aligned the research with the advocacy. . . . At the end of the day, it’s going to be the states and local districts that pay for this.”
Suppose a pilot test had been conducted, perhaps with several school districts. Would adoption of the Common Core “standards” have resulted in higher academic performance?
We don’t have the slightest idea. For us, it’s the theory of this program which doesn’t parse, as we once again note down below.
At any rate, Diane Ravitch came out against the Core early last year, specifically citing the lack of a pilot program. Here’s a key part of her post:
RAVITCH (2/26/13): For the past two years, I have steadfastly insisted that I was neither for nor against the Common Core standards. I was agnostic. I wanted to see how they worked in practice. I wanted to know, based on evidence, whether or not they improve education and whether they reduce or increase the achievement gaps among different racial and ethnic groups.Oddly, Layton didn’t mention Ravitch in her report, even when she listed influential players who oppose the Common Core. Regarding Ravitch’s reasoning, we’ll make one complaint of our own:
After much deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that I can’t wait five or ten years to find out whether test scores go up or down, whether or not schools improve, and whether the kids now far behind are worse off than they are today.
I have come to the conclusion that the Common Core standards effort is fundamentally flawed by the process with which they have been foisted upon the nation.
The Common Core standards have been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia without any field test. They are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.
Maybe the standards will be great. Maybe they will be a disaster. Maybe they will improve achievement. Maybe they will widen the achievement gaps between haves and have-nots. Maybe they will cause the children who now struggle to give up altogether. Would the Federal Drug Administration approve the use of a drug with no trials, no concern for possible harm or unintended consequences?
We don’t see how the new “standards” could possibly be “great.” If they define a good course of study for one set of kids in a given grade, they will almost surely be inappropriate for others kids in that grade.
Our achievement gaps are very large. We don’t know how any single set of “standards” could work for all kids in a grade. If they define a challenging course of study for kids at the top end of the gap, they will surely be much too hard for the kids at the bottom end.
Final point about the lack of a pilot program. In her report, Layton cites the lack of such a test. Oddly, though, near the end of her piece, she quotes Gates saying this:
LAYTON: Now six years into his quest, Gates finds himself in an uncomfortable place—countering critics on the left and right who question whether the Common Core will have any impact or negative effects...Given his rhetoric about the need for careful research, what did Gates say about the lack of a pilot program? There is no sign that Layton ever asked him.
Gates is disdainful of the rhetoric from opponents. He sees himself as a technocrat trying to foster solutions to a profound social problem—gaping inequalities in U.S. public education—by investing in promising new ideas.
Education lacks research and development, compared with other areas such as medicine and computer science. As a result, there is a paucity of information about methods of instruction that work.
“The guys who search for oil, they spend a lot of money researching new tools,” Gates said. “Medicine—they spend a lot of money finding new tools. Software is a very R and D-oriented industry. The funding, in general, of what works in education . . . is tiny. It’s the lowest in this field than any field of human endeavor. Yet you could argue it should be the highest.”
Gates is devoting some of his fortune to correct that. Since 1999, the Gates Foundation has spent approximately $3.4 billion on an array of measures to try to improve K-12 public education, with mixed results.
Her long report is very informative. But it does have a few holes.