The Common Core Standards are the culmination of the wave of accountability-based school reform that has swept the country since the A Nation At Risk report in 1983. Like the other test-and-punish reforms, the Common Core Standards fail to address the deep and seemingly intractable problems in American public schooling—inequality—shocking and immoral opportunity gaps in a society that supposedly believes in equality of opportunity—high dropout rates among the poorest and most vulnerable adolescents. This blog focuses on these deeper issues, and you can read recent posts here on opportunity gaps, and here on reducing the dropout rate.
But Lindsey Layton’s recent blockbuster piece in the Washington Post, How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution, is a Common Core story that relates to all the deeper issues, because Layton addresses the issue of power and money in policy-making these days. How is it that the school “reformers” can get programs established that lack a research base? And how can it be done in a way that skirts the checks and balances of our democratic system and that even rearranges the prescribed roles of the federal government and the states in school policy? What is the role of today’s mega-philanthropy, especially these days when, ironically, relatively low taxes for the wealthiest Americans allow them to amass fortunes they can spend to impact policy in an underfunded public sector.
Diane Ravitch answers these questions theoretically in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. “It is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations. There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people…. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office… If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)
In her blockbuster article this past weekend, Layton provides an example of the power of venture philanthropy—the real-life story of how Bill Gates, the most powerful member of Ravitch’s Billionaire Boys Club, accomplished the adoption of the Common Core. While many of us have known parts of this story, Layton pulls together all the characters, adds a timeline and tracks a bit of a plot. It all began in the summer of 2008 when Gene Wilhoit, director of the national organization of chief state school officers, and David Coleman, a primary supporter of common standards and now head of the College Board, approached Bill Gates with an idea they had hatched. Layton describes the pitch they made based on their theory of the problems of our public schools today: “Coleman and Wilhoit told the Gateses that academic standards varied so wildly between states that high school diplomas had lost all meaning…. The pair also argued that a fragmented education system stifled innovation because textbook publishers and software developers were catering to a large number of small markets instead of exploring breakthrough products.”
Then, because of Gates’ power to shape research, market ideas, and influence those making policy, “What followed was one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn’t just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards. With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes. 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 interest….”
According to Layton, Gates Foundation money was invested in work by the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce and on the politically liberal side, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. Gates invested in work to support the standards by the Democrat-leaning Center for American Progress and the very conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). “The result was astounding. Within just two years of the 2008 Seattle meeting, 45 states and the District of Columbia had fully adopted the Common Core State Standards.” “And yet, because of the way education policy is generally decided, the Common Core was instituted in many states without a single vote taken by an elected lawmaker.” “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.”
Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education also helped. “Several top players in Obama’s Education Department who shaped the administration’s policies either came straight from the Gates Foundation in 2009 or from organizations that received heavy funding from the Foundation.” Margot Rogers, direct from Gates, was Arne Duncan’s first chief of staff. Jim Shelton, a Gates program officer, came to Washington to head up education innovation. Today he is deputy secretary. Joanne Weiss, who led the development of Race to the Top was previously head of the NewSchools Venture fund, a Gates-backed effort. The Race to the Top competition rewarded states with points if their applications emphasized college and career-ready standards (Today to qualify for No Child Left Behind Waivers states also have to adopt college and career-ready standards.) “Applications for the first round of Race to the Top were due in January 2010, even though the final draft of the Common Core wasn’t released until six months later. To get around this, the U.S. Department of Education told states they could apply as long as they promised they would officially adopt standards by August.”
According to Layton, Gates “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… ‘This is about giving money away. This is philanthropy. This is trying to make sure students have the kind of opportunity I had… and it’s almost outrageous to say otherwise, in my view.'” A serious challenge, of course, is that sometimes the neat, technocratic solution may entirely miss issues like poverty, racial segregation, and the political morass of unequal school funding that a mass of social science research identifies as causes of achievement gaps.
Layton’s piece is so comprehensive, it dwarfs one other important piece of investigative journalism published last week on the subject of Bill Gates’ wielding of influence and power. In Revealed: Gates Foundation Financed PBS Education Programming Which Promoted Microsoft’s Interests, David Sirota reports that the Gates Foundation actively promoted the Common Core Standards by paying for extensive programming by the Public Broadcasting System via the Teaching Channel. Sirota points out that “the agenda being promoted also happens to dovetail with Microsoft’s commercial interests in the Common Core.” According to Sirota, “In February (2014), Microsoft joined up with education publisher and technology firm Pearson on a joint Common Core venture. According to a Pearson press release, the project aims ‘to create new applications and advance a digital education model’… combining ‘Pearson’s Common Core System of Courses with the groundbreaking capabilities of the Windows 8 touchscreen environment.'” Sirota lists Teaching Channel board members who are also affiliated with the Gates Foundation, including Ted Mitchell, who recently left the Gates-funded NewSchool Venture Fund to become an under-secretary in the U.S. Department of Education and Vicki Phillips who directs education work at the Gates Foundation.