Why Bill Gates Defends the Common Core

Photo by Kristian Niemi, Creative Commons
At the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, Bill Gates came to the rescue of the Common Core State Standards.  In an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Gates said he was concerned with people who oppose the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, an initiative begun in 2009 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and people from the states, and Achieve, Inc.  

Although the Common Core was adopted by 45 states three years ago, there is a ground swell of anti-Common Core sentiment today. Some of the sentiment comes from groups that have questioned and been opposed to any intrusion into local schools on the basis of their own values.  In most of these cases, conservative fundamentalist religious groups oppose the teaching of scientific ideas that show that evolution is the best explanation science has for the development of life on the planet.

These groups also are furious that schools who adopt national standards, especially the Next Generation Science Standards, teach climate science as fact.  Wyoming added a footnote to a bill that passed which prevents any school district in the state from using the NGSS in its present form.  We can clump many groups into this category who will oppose any set of standards or assessments that were developed nationally.  The idea here is that they oppose the Common Standards and future standards that may come along especially in science and social studies.

But there are also people who oppose the Common Standards for other reasons.  There is a growing body of evidence that the Common Standards are not the solution to make America more competitive, to make kids smarter in math, reading and science, and any of the other ills that have been cast upon the education system.  I’ve reported on this blog that independent research questions the efficacy of a standard-based approach to education as it is now conceived.  The standards-based system is a top-down authoritarian system that disregards the professional decision-making ability of classroom teachers.  I’ve reported research by Wallace that shows that this authoritarian accountability system is a barrier to teaching and learning.

Perhaps the most powerful force in opposition to the Common Standards, and corporate led reform of education is the Network for Public Education, which is a new organization that held its first annual meeting recently in Austin, TX.  At that meeting, “educators” from around America met and exchanged ideas about reform, and spoke out against the corporate led effort to standardize American education.   The existence of this group is a powerful step forward for American teachers who are well represented in the NPE, and include some of America’s most activist bloggers and educators.  It’s time for teachers to push back and over the past year we’ve seen examples of this happening in Seattle, and Chicago.

Why is Bill Gates so concerned about those that have taken on Achieve’s Common Core State Standards?

The answer is that the Gates Foundation has invested about $2.3 billion into the Common Standards and related efforts.  Please read ahead.

In public speeches, Gates has called out those who try to interfere with the implementation of the Common Standards.   When Gates first used his billions to reach out to eduction, there was some glimmer of hope.  The Gates Foundation idea of funding smaller high schools appeared to be a plausible conception.  But things changed, and as we’ve seen, someone with a lot of money can influence organizations in ways that ordinary classroom educators can not.

Soon the Gates Foundation began to fund efforts that, in my view, undermined the work of professional teachers.  Gates own simple conception of “measuring” student learning, has been accepted by many politicians and state education bureaucrats.  Test the students when they come into your class.  Test them when they go out to summer play.  Subtract the scores, and there you have it.  A measure of what student learned.

Figure 1. Awarded Grants at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for College-Ready Grants 2009 - 2014

Figure 1. Awarded Grants at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for College-Ready Grants 2009 – 2014

Common Core Awards

The Gates Foundation has poured millions of dollars into supporting efforts to develop and carry out the Common Standards.  To find out just how much has been poured into the Common Standards by Gates, I searched the Gates Foundation Grantmaking section of their website.  There you can search and find out about programs that were awarded grants by Gates.

As you can see in Figure 1, there were 1817 awards in the group of College-Ready.  College-Ready programs are those that designed to improve teacher effectiveness (Hillsborough County, FL–$100 million), improve data-driven decision-making (Council of Chief State School Officers–$25 million), support work with charter management organizations New Schools Fund–$27.6 million), implementation of Common Standards, (Kentucky Department of Education–$9.8 million), and 1,813 more.

I did a search of the College-Ready grants for 2009 – 2013 using the terms Common Core, and the search returned 161 results.  The largest grant was awarded to the Kentucky Department of Education for $9,800,877, and the smallest grant was awarded to Benchmark Education Company for $25,000.  Using an Excel spreadsheet of the 161 programs that focused on the Common Core, I found out that the Gates Foundation has awarded grants totaling $204,350,462.  That’s $269 million for 161 programs.  The average grant was for $1,269,258.

Within this grouping of 161 grants, some organization received awards in multiple years.  For example, Achieve, the developer of the Common Standards, received grants totaling more than $16 million.

Figure 2. Screen Shot of Excel file of Gates Awards for Common Core implementation.

Figure 2. Screen Shot of Excel file of Gates Awards for Common Core implementation.

College-Ready Grants: $2.3 Billion

But the truth is that the Gates Foundation has provided much more money than the $204,350,462.  This figure is based on only 161 of the grants from the College-Ready category of grants.  The Gates Foundation awarded more than 1800 projects in the group of College-Ready grants, which is one of the main goals of the Common Core.  I’ve not downloaded the data from the 1800 grants into Excel. You might want to go to the Gates website and take a look at the data for these grants. But we can do a rough estimate based on the 161 grants that were analyzed.

If we use the average grant of $1,269,258., then the estimated amount funded to support Common Standards and related education programs by Gates is $2,306,241,786 (that $2.3 billion).

Is Gates and his Foundation’s influence what will improve education in the American democracy?  Or has the influence of power and money brokers been accepted, with little criticism, by the general public?  Is the unrest about the Common Standards in the interests of the future of education, or is it just a few people complaining?  What are your ideas?

Photo by Kristian Niemi, Creative Commons

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University