The June 8 Washington Post article on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's role in supporting the adoption of the Common Core State Standards was like watching someone recalling a piece of classical music: they hum a few bars of memorable music, but miss the overall symphony. The Post account missed most of the concert by ignoring the basic issue: why are new standards necessary?
Back in 2006, I was present at the first meeting of state organizations and educators to discuss the possibility of states developing a common set of education standards that were more rigorous than what states were currently using. The meeting was not convened in Seattle by Bill Gates; it was held in North Carolina at the invitation of that state's former governor, Jim Hunt. It was an eclectic group -- Republicans and Democrats, strict accountability hawks and diehard opponents -- who held wide-ranging views on the federal-state-school district relationship in education.
Attendees were motivated by the desire to see more students graduate ready for college and a career and the recognition that most states' K-12 education standards were inadequate to prepare students for today's modern society. And while many disagreed with much of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the law's annual reporting requirements spotlighted great disparities between the percentages of students deemed "proficient" by individual state tests compared to the only common test administered in each state, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Indeed, states reported student proficiency rates that were, on average, 30 percentage points higher than NAEP in reading and math.
What followed were numerous meetings over a period of years among state education leaders to hammer out what would be the best process for states -- not the federal government -- to work jointly to develop a common set of standards. For any individual state, determining what a quality education requires in this modern economy is expensive and time consuming. And in the midst of a recession in which state and district leaders were preoccupied with keeping teachers in classrooms and school busses on the road, spending millions on a new standards setting initiative could not be a priority. What the state-led common core initiative offered was the unique opportunity for states to pool resources to develop truly world-class standards in English language arts and mathematics that were accepted nationwide by higher education institutions and the business community.
Many policy and advocacy groups, such as my organization, the Alliance for Excellent Education, encouraged and applauded these efforts as well as the efforts of hundreds of teachers and content experts who developed the standards.
Based on its financial support, it seems clear that the Gates Foundation and other philanthropic and corporate education funders also saw this work by the states as moving in the right direction.
Yes, the Alliance for Excellent Education was, and is, a Gates Foundation grantee. We have been awarded and accepted money from the Foundation for one very simple reason: they support our mission that every child should graduate from high school ready to succeed in college, a career, and life.
I have never spoken to Bill Gates about what prompted his interest in the Common Core, but I know what drove mine. Until schools, districts, and states have a common definition of what a twenty-first-century education requires, valiant educators, questioning parents, alarmed business leaders, and concerned policymakers will constantly be fighting in the dark for minimal improvement.
Carnegie philanthropy brought libraries and education together; Rockefeller funding enabled the "Green Revolution." Arguably, a successful joint effort by states to create world-class education standards that will benefit every student, regardless of demographic status, may be one of the most positive transformational moments in U.S. education. I am appreciative of the education philanthropists who have contributed to bringing us to this transformational moment. In this still-playing education concert, the individual music notes matter far less than the overall symphony.