The Washington Post’s exhaustive investigation into how the Gates Foundation’s support of Common Core standards accelerated their spread across the country is well worth reading. For one thing it offers and explanation for why Gates supports the standards in the first place. In 2008, Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, “an emerging evangelist for the standards movement,” went to see Gates to ask for his support.
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. That seemed to resonate with the man who led the creation of the world’s dominant computer operating system.
It is true that many knowledgeable experts say curricular problems begin with textbook publishers. The varying standards from state to state have meant that textbook companies want their products to be used in as many states as possible, so they take a “kitchen sink” approach, putting in every topic under the sun. The results, one school administrator recently told me, are monsters, like one 7th-grade textbook that runs 800 pages. “If your school year is 200 days, that’s four pages a day and let’s hope no one has any questions about the material.”
But Gates, who says he is a big fan of trying new things and examining the results, could just as easily have given a few million dollars to a bunch of textbook companies to fund new approaches to teaching mathematics.
At any rate, two criticisms of Gates have emerged from this story. The one, by folks like Diane Ravitch, is that Gates has some kind of financial interest here. Because Microsoft has been developing some software for Common Core, Gates has a stake in its widespread adoption. This seems, as Gates himself says in a video interview, pretty “outrageous.” That a man worth as much as Gates has to engage in some sleazy backroom dealing to get Microsoft more money just seems silly.
“This is about giving money away,” he said of his support for the standards. “This is philanthropy. This is trying to make sure students have the kind of opportunity I had.”
But the other criticism of Gates, that he has with his money “flooded the zone,” is much more relevant. Common Core was adopted with astonishing speed, thanks in part to Gates’s money. He has not only paid for research, he has also lobbied politicians and unions in order to get Common Core passed. It is strange that a man who is responsible for so much innovation himself seems to support so strongly a model that itself stifles educational innovation.