Op-ed by Bill Gates commends the Common Core

The Maryland State Department of Education tweeted (@MdPublicSchools) on Feb 12 that “@BillGates understands why our schools need standards that prepare students for college or career. From @USATODAY: usat.ly/1boEmyo.”

The state department was referring to an op-ed of a little under 700 words in USA Today, with an online time stamp of 6:47 AM that day. Mr Gates uses the op-ed piece to dispel what he refers to as three “myths” about the Common Core.

It’s not easy to believe that myths remain about what the Common Core is: we’ve been using it for a few years now and discussing it ad infinitum in online forums, statehouses, and teachers’ offices. We’ve had community forums, some of which have not been friendly to people whose opinions differ from those held by state boards of education, and so on. It’s just amazing that any myths remain to be dispelled, but Mr Gates gave it his best effort.

Myth #1: Common Core was created without involving parents, teachers or state and local governments.

This is not a myth at all but a statement that is largely true. The “10,000 members of the general public” who submitted comments during the public comment phase is less than the number of students in many school districts. But given the suppression of public comment during Common Core information sessions, which involved police action in Maryland and school officials bailing out on American citizens in New York, I suspect not even the comments submitted by the 10,000 members of the public during the review phase were read.

In any case, the Common Core was “backwards mapped” in private by a team of special interest representatives, not teachers, based on ideas of college and career readiness put forth by corporate interests, not by teachers. Teachers may have commented on the standards during the development process, but again, if the behavior of school leaders at public forums is any indication, their comments were filed and never looked at again.

The few lead educators who were asked to validate the standards refused to sign off on them because they had strong professional concerns about the overall standards but not about specific details. Child development experts came out in strong opposition to the Common Core as well, and they made their objections known before the standards were submitted to states for consideration.

Local governments all rubber-stamped the standards anyway, but many government officials today have serious reservations about that blind acceptance almost four years ago. In most cases, states accepted the standards sight unseen and only because the federal government made their adoption a condition of federal grant money as part of Race to the Top.

Myth #2: Common Core State Standards means students will have to take even more high-stakes tests.

The standards are closely tied to the tests, and there’s no getting around this one. Because the high stakes for teachers are based on test scores, not on any other measure related to the standards in the Common Core, the only way the Common Core will play a role in teacher evaluations is through scores on high-stakes tests.

There are many alternatives to this summative (end-of-course) testing model that PARCC and SBAC will use for Common Core testing. We could have formative testing, which would provide teachers with instant feedback and allow for many different ideas to be developed in testing as well as instruction. This would be a field day for innovative thinking in the classroom, but the current approach with PARCC and SBAC just about bans that.

Instead of high-stakes tests, I have envisioned, with my initial strong support of the math standards in grades 3–8, multi-state conferences where real teachers get together and have breakout groups like, “Different approaches to Standard 3.OA.D.5” or “… RL.11-12.1.” But this will not happen, because it would imply that the standards need to be revised.

The standards do need revision, but once test development starts, we can’t go moving the target of those test questions. That means the standards have to remain exactly as they are, and the only reason we can’t change the several standards that don’t work in terms of progression, in terms of the cognitive development of 5-year-olds, or for whatever cause, is that the tests have to be written for a stationary target in order to be reliable from year to year.

So much for that idea.

In addition, more testing must be required, at least more online testing. If the standards won’t require any more testing, as Mr Gates says, then why is the Maryland General Assembly at this time considering the need for $100 million in capital funding? It’s earmarked for upgrading computers and bandwidth in the state’s public schools just for the sake of these tests. The tests, according to practice tests released by PARCC, don’t even need to be given online, but PARCC is insisting on it.

I said to a co-worker in 2003, “If you want to know if a kid understands what a hypothesis is, give him a pencil and ask him to write one.” It was a different world, wasn’t it?

Myth #3: Common Core standards will limit teachers’ creativity and flexibility.

That someone as successful as Mr Gates honestly believes standardization won’t limit creativity and flexibility on the part of teachers, or even students, is staggering. I can only assume that, because he is so creative and flexible himself, that being creative is second nature to him, and he really doesn’t understand the creative process in students or teachers in our schools.

Furthermore, standardization is what factories need to do to manufacture multiple copies of an identical robot, for instance, not what they need to do in order to innovate.

“The result of such manufacturing is students who are being robbed of individuality,” writes one high school girl in a “break-up letter” with the Common Core, in homage, of course, to Taylor Swift. Individuality “is one of the most important aspects of education. Individuality must be present in school because it allows for an exchange of ideas and a great diversity of perspectives—the very things that I believe make education so valuable.”

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.