Thursday, June 12, 2014

Is Common Core about to Become "Gates-gate"?

Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation seem to be doing some quick damage control lately regarding the Foundation's connection to Common Core State Standards. After a year or so of backlash from parents, teachers, education researchers, and conservative pundits, the pro-Common Core Gates Foundation took the surprising position recently of calling for a two-delay in the use of Common Core-linked tests as measures for teacher and student accountability. The Gates Foundation director apparently conceded the frustrations from groups critical and suspicious of "the Common Core" when she wrote in an open letter to the New York Times:

“ … the best new ideas aren’t self-fulfilling; they have to be put into practice wisely.” She added: “No evaluation system will work unless teachers believe it is fair and reliable, and it’s very hard to be fair in a time of transition. 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.”
The timing of the public statement conveniently coincided with a critical Washington Post story by Lindsay Leyton who sought to explain ("expose"?) "How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution." The implication in the title - and, of course, fleshed out in the story - is that the establishment and promotion and adoption of the "national standards" by forty-five states was the brainchild and pet project of Bill Gates, a billionaire computer mogul and philanthropist who has no educational background or credentials other than having gone to school and dropped out of Harvard. The not-so-subtle criticism of the story is that the Common Core standards, contrary to the all-out PR effort of the Gates Foundation and the Obama administration, were not "states-led" but, in fact, "Gates-led.

On a summer day in 2008, Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, an emerging evangelist for the standards movement, spent hours in Bill Gates’s sleek headquarters near Seattle, trying to persuade him and his wife, Melinda, to turn their idea into reality. Coleman and Wilhoit told the Gateses that academic standards varied so wildly between states that high school diplomas had lost all meaning, that as many as 40 percent of college freshmen needed remedial classes and that U.S. students were falling behind their foreign competitors.
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 interests that had undercut every previous effort, dating from the Eisenhower administration.
The story has picked up steam and has been repeated and extrapolated on by many Common Core critics who question the validity of the process by which the standards came to embed themselves in school districts across the nation, even as criticism grew. Teacher and education blogger Mercedes Schneider, who has been tracing the corporate forces that have pushed the agenda, has been critical of Gates' seemingly excessive influence. And, after the WashPost story was published, she asked,
Why Would the WashPost Wait Three Months to Publish a Gates Interview?" There seemed to be more powerful forces at work on a project that by many accounts should have been far more inclusive of teachers and school communities. And the charges of manipulation by Gates and his Foundation extend beyond the simple question of 'backing the standards. In funding PBS programming devoted to promoting the Common Core standards, Gates may have been using the movement to sell software and educational materials. That charge of creating and exploiting a "crisis in education" as a way to hedge the market on materials is the concern of teachers like Joshua Katz who warn of the "Toxic Culture of Education."

Now, the questions about Gates' influence could stretch all the way to the White House, as conservative critics of federal influence on local control of education begin to question whether any laws were broken in the promotion and possible coercion that led to the adoption of the standards across the nation. Stanley Kurtz of the National Review is asking whether it is "Time for Congressional Hearings on Common Core." If the federal government has had any undue influence on establishing learning standards and curriculum for the nation's public schools, then President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan may find themselves in the middle of "Gates-gate," as that action is specifically prohibited by federal law. And, of course, the president and his billionaire buddy will be targets for criticism on a personal level when they have to explain why Common Core standards are necessary for America's children, but not for their own.

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