Editorial: Vilification of Gates is misguided
Last Sunday, the Monitor ran a front-page article by Washington Post reporter Lyndsey Layton titled “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution.” Once sold on the need for a single set of education standards, it took the billionaire just two years to convince 46 states, including New Hampshire, to adopt Common Core standards, which emphasize the importance of acquiring critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Gates spent about $200 million to fund efforts by educators, universities and think tanks on the right and left to identify core competencies in reading and math, create standards and fund state efforts to apply for federal money under President Obama’s Race to the Top education program.
It’s easy to say Gates and his wife bought their way around obstacles to making a fundamental change in American education and many critics, primarily those on the right, have done just that. Common Core has been called Obamacore, a subversion of states’ rights, an effort to indoctrinate the nation’s children with a single philosophy, a scheme for Gates’s company, Microsoft, to profit from controlling education, a socialist plot and much more.
Common Core is none of those. In fact, though the change probably would not have happened without Gates’s money, and certainly would not have happened quickly, his millions played a secondary role in the adoption of the standards. The change occurred because the need for a single national standard to measure educational achievement was an idea whose time had come.
Traditionally, each state set its own educational standards, and they varied wildly.
George W. Bush, with his No Child Left Behind testing program, tried to change that by using testing to measure success. It was a well-meaning but failed experiment. Remember what happened? Some states, most notoriously Texas, dumbed down standards so much that kids who could barely read or write were deemed to have been competently educated. Many, if not most, schools taught to the test, which allowed students to score decently even if they didn’t understand the principles necessary to arrive at the right answer. Educators in other states flat-out cheated by giving students the answers or blatantly erasing wrong answers and filling in correct ones.
Less than two years ago, this paper’s editors met with the leaders of New Hampshire’s community college system. We were shocked to learn that 65 percent of the freshmen entering the system needed remedial classes in at least one fundamental area. The same, it turns out, was true in Massachusetts and other states. High school students were graduating without the skills, or the ability to acquire them, that are required to succeed in college.
Recognizing that problem, in 2007 more than 40 members of the National Governors Association, with input from teachers and educators, developed what became the Common Core standards. Their product won the backing of Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as businesses, because the need was obvious. If America’s students are going to compete in a global company, they can’t continue to fall far below their peers in other nations when their skills are tested.
Common Core standards are not, as some claim, a federal takeover of education. They are minimum standards. States are free to adopt tougher ones; school districts and teachers are free to use any curriculum, method or textbooks they want. Success requires recognizing that poverty is a barrier to learning that requires resources to surmount. What it takes to meet Common Core standards will differ from district to district, school to school, and student to student. The path there is for states and communities to find.
Having a common set of minimum standards won’t fix what ails American education. But without them, any effort to educate American students well enough to compete with their peers across the planet would be doomed.