A Coalition, Not an Individual, Pulled off the Common Core Revolution
June 08, 2014 04:39 pm
I was dismayed, but not surprised, to see the headline on today’s front page of the Washington Post: “How Bill Gates pulled off the Common Core revolution.” Not surprising: for years, critics have charged that the Common Core State Standards was a conspiracy led by the former chairman of Microsoft. But dismaying, because it isn’t true.
Yes, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided some $200 million to organizations, including mine, the Alliance for Excellent Education, to develop the standards and work toward their adoption and implementation. But research I conducted for my book, Something in Common, convinced me that this funding did not create the Common Core movement. Rather, Gates money greased the wheels of a machine that was designed and built by a broad coalition of educators and policy makers who believed—quite independently from any funding they received—that it was the right thing to do.
Consider the situation in the early 2000s:
- Under the No Child Left Behind Act, each state created its own standards and tests and definition of “proficiency,” and each state administered the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In a number of states, the proportion of students proficient on state tests far exceeded the proportion of students proficient on NAEP, and these states had disproportionately high populations of low-income students and students of color. Thus some states appeared to expect less from their students than others.
- International tests showed that U.S. students performed well below the level of students from other industrialized nations, at a time when globalization was accelerating, meaning that U.S. students would be competing for jobs with students from countries that were educating their children at higher levels.
- About a third of all college students, and more in two-year colleges, were required to take remedial courses before becoming eligible to take credit-bearing courses, meaning that large numbers of students who graduated from high school were ill-prepared for higher education.
Faced with these problems, a number of individuals and organizations agreed that the solution needed to start with a common set of standards for all states that would set the expectation that all students should graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace. A few examples: in 2005, the Center for American Progress issued a report calling for national standards, Diane Ravitch wrote an editorial in the New York Times calling for them, and Education Week held an online chat on the topic. The following year, Education Sector sponsored a debate on the issue and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report that outlined four scenarios for the creation of national standards.
Also in 2006, former Governor James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina convened a meeting to discuss the issue of common standards, and former Governor Bob Wise of West Virginia, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, convened a similar meeting in Washington.
Mind you, all of this took place years before the infamous summer 2008 meeting Gene Wilhoit and David Coleman held with Bill Gates that the Washington Post would have you believe launched the Common Core.
Did funding from Gates and, later, the federal government, “pull off” the Common Core? Did the promise of money persuade states to adopt and implement standards they might not have adopted without the funding? I wish people who make these accusations actually talked to officials in states. Here’s Eric Smith, the former commissioner of education in Florida:
As the standards emerged, we came to understand the benefits of signing on and the value of having our students compete with others around the nation and around the world. And, because of bi-partisan state support, an understanding of the connection between education and our economic future, and the rigor of the Common Core standards, there was not much state opposition to adoption.
Similarly, in Tennessee, former U.S. Senator Bill Frist, who headed an education reform support organization known as the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), said the state had been publicly embarrassed by national reports published in 2007 that showed that its standards were too low. In response, he said, Governor Phil Bredesen built a bipartisan coalition in the legislature in favor of higher standards, and SCORE held more than eighty town hall meetings across the state over a two-year period to discuss the need for reform. “So when the time came in July 2010 to decide whether or not to adopt the Common Core standards, the State Board of Education’s decision was easy,” Frist said.
Since 2010, of course, the Common Core State Standards have become increasingly controversial. Debate over what students should learn is healthy, but unfortunately the debate in this case has been too often clouded by misconceptions and outright falsehoods. Worst of all, teachers and principals are caught in the middle, trying do what polls show they believe is right for students but worried that political struggles might pull the rug out from under them and push them in another direction.
It’s time for the debate to focus on what really matters: what all students need to learn to succeed in the future, and what it will take to make sure all students develop those competencies. That’s what the broad coalition of individuals and organizations who pushed for and fought for the Common Core State Standards wanted and continue to want.
Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education.