Over four years ago I cautioned critics of the Common Core to take a deep breath, not because their criticisms weren’t valid, but because the Common Core, like almost all educational reforms, was doomed to failure.
It had all the earmarks of an educational “fad” that sweeps over our learning horizons, a storm that excites reformers and shipwrecks students. Educational reform in this country evinces no signs of “progress,” if by that we mean constant improvement. It’s much more cyclical: the articulation of a dream, the sad realization of its failure, and the rearticulation in a new dream.
The dreamer, however, is never chastened.
And so Bill Gates has let it be known that his great philanthropic enterprise to remake American education—to leverage his enormous resources to bend government to his will—has not gone exactly the way he wanted, but the failure can best be attributed to not trying hard enough.
Gates and his foundation is now doubling-down on its Common Core project by making it about more than just “benchmarks” and making it about “content” – the very thing critics feared all along.
The original Common Core plan emerged from legitimate concerns, as do most reforms: worry that students aren’t learning what they ought. But under the fig-leaf of “measurable outcomes” and “benchmarking” was erected a whole system of learning that emphasized “economic competition,” STEM success, “skills to succeed in the workplace,” and facility in “technology.”
These were exactly the sorts of “performance metrics” one would expect from someone who runs the largest tech company in the world.
Despite the fact that Gates in his latest speech acknowledges failure to achieve most of these objectives, and disingenuously fails to acknowledge that everything he has tried heretofore were unproven innovations, he adapts the largely risible language of “best practices” to suggest implementation of a new set of programs that will be “transformative” and secure “the economic future and competitiveness of the United States.”
On the plus side, Gates realizes that the large-scale transformation he envisions will require greater attentiveness to “locally-driven solutions identified by networks of schools.”
The statement evinces some realization that what might work well in some places might not work well in others. But the new-found sensitivity to locale is more than offset by the insistence on “data-driven continuous learning” (and who will store, manage, and mine this data, one wonders, if not large-scale tech companies, such as the one owned by Bill Gates?), “evidence-based interventions,” and the insistence on using “data to drive continuous improvement.” This data will provide us with shocking revelations, such as the data in Chicago that revealed students who attend class, complete courses, accumulate credits, and receive higher grades are more likely to graduate.
If this is not a tautology, it’s damned close.
Gates’ new investments will focus primarily on developing curricula, the nub of the debate four years ago when the defenders of the Common Core studiously insisted that it was about benchmarking and not content. It was a spurious argument then, because one cannot talk seriously about measures without talking about what is being measured. Even though the original Common Core had no pilot programs, as Gates disingenuously denies, Gates now touts their ability to go “from pilot to wide-scale usage.”
Local autonomy will be a stopgap at best.
Gates is tellingly coy about the new curricula. He singles out Louisiana for having created a “marketplace of preferred professional development service providers,” but anyone who has been involved with such “providers” is well aware of the money grab they are engaged in, as well as providing products that are designed to bypass teacher expertise and skill rather than enhance it.
I experienced this first-hand when dealing with the Department of Education’s “Teaching American History” program.
While teachers and students receive short shrift in Gates’ educational vision, parents receive none at all. Judging by his latest speech, parents have no role to play in the education of children, and no say over what students are to be taught. This is consistent with Gates view that the purpose of education is economic competitiveness and technological savvy. In one telling passage Gates mentions there are “promising developments in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics” but neglects the overwhelming evidence that technology of the sort he provides is rewiring our brains, and not to the better.
No wonder parents are absent in his world. They might insist on things such as reading for pleasure, the formation of character, the defense of civilization, immersion in classics, piety within a tradition, and learning for the joy of it – the very things that have no cash value in Gates’ educational universe.
Parents who care about those things have opted out of the school system being leveraged and controlled by persons like Gates. They have decided there is a rich heritage they should pass on to their children, that a life well-lived is more important than economic productivity, and that enriching character matters more than economic wealth. Pity that children in our public schools won’t get the same care; rather, they will be exploited in an “evolving” system that serves entrenched interests but not the students.
 Although he does offer some specious data suggesting “progress.”