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Topic: How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution
Posted: Jul 17, 2014 1:30 PM
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From The Washington Post, Saturday, June 7, 2014. See

How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution

By Lyndsey Layton

SIDEBAR VIDEO: "Five questions with Bill Gates" (2:58) Microsoft
billionaire Bill Gates is taking heat from education groups, which
say the Gates Foundation's philanthropic support comes with strings
attached. Here, he responds to his critics in an interview with The
Washington Post's Lyndsey Layton. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington
Post) SEE video at
SIDEBAR VIDEO: See Full interview "Bill Gates on the Common Core"
(27:53) in March, 2014 at
The pair of education advocates had a big idea, a new approach to
transform every public-school classroom in America. By early 2008,
many of the nation's top politicians and education leaders had lined
up in support.

But that wasn't enough. The duo needed money - tens of millions of
dollars, at least - and they needed a champion who could overcome the
politics that had thwarted every previous attempt to institute
national standards.

So they turned to the richest man in the world.

On a summer day in 2008, Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group
of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, an emerging evangelist for
the standards movement, spent hours in Bill Gates's sleek
headquarters near Seattle, trying to persuade him and his wife,
Melinda, to turn their idea into reality.

Coleman and Wilhoit told the Gateses that academic standards varied
so wildly between states that high school diplomas had lost all
meaning, that as many as 40 percent of college freshmen needed
remedial classes and that U.S. students were falling behind their
foreign competitors.

The pair also argued that a fragmented education system stifled
innovation because textbook publishers and software developers were
catering to a large number of small markets instead of exploring
breakthrough products. That seemed to resonate with the man who led
the creation of the world's dominant computer operating system.

"Can you do this?" Wilhoit recalled being asked. "Is there any proof
that states are serious about this, because they haven't been in the

Wilhoit responded that he and Coleman could make no guarantees but
that "we were going to give it the best shot we could."

After the meeting, weeks passed with no word. Then Wilhoit got a
call: Gates was in.
What followed was one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in
education policy in U.S. history.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn't just bankroll the
development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards.
With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political
support across the country, persuading state governments to make
systemic and costly changes.

Bill Gates was de facto organizer, providing the money and structure
for states to work together on common standards in a way that avoided
the usual collision between states' rights and national interests
that had undercut every previous effort, dating from the Eisenhower
The Gates Foundation spread money across the political spectrum, to
entities including the big teachers unions, the American Federation
of Teachers and the National Education Association, and business
organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce - groups that have
clashed in the past but became vocal backers of the standards.

Money flowed to policy groups on the right and left, funding research
by scholars of varying political persuasions who promoted the idea of
common standards. Liberals at the Center for American Progress and
conservatives affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange
Council who routinely disagree on nearly every issue accepted Gates
money and found common ground on the Common Core.

One 2009 study, conducted by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham
Institute with a $959,116 Gates grant, described the proposed
standards as being "very, very strong" and "clearly superior" to many
existing state standards.

Gates money went to state and local groups, as well, to help
influence policymakers and civic leaders. And the idea found a major
booster in President Obama, whose new administration was populated by
former Gates Foundation staffers and associates. The administration
designed a special contest using economic stimulus funds to reward
states that accepted the standards.
The result was astounding: Within just two years of the 2008 Seattle
meeting, 45 states and the District of Columbia had fully adopted the
Common Core State Standards.

The math standards require students to learn multiple ways to solve
problems and explain how they got their answers, while the English
standards emphasize nonfiction and expect students to use evidence to
back up oral and written arguments. The standards are not a
curriculum but skills that students should acquire at each grade. How
they are taught and materials used are decisions left to states and
school districts.

The standards have become so pervasive that they also quickly spread
through private Catholic schools. About 100 of 176 Catholic dioceses
have adopted the standards because it is increasingly difficult to
buy classroom materials and send teachers to professional development
programs that are not influenced by the Common Core, Catholic
educators said.

And yet, because of the way education policy is generally decided,
the Common Core was instituted in many states without a single vote
taken by an elected lawmaker. Kentucky even adopted the standards
before the final draft had been made public.

States were responding to a "common belief system supported by
widespread investments," according to one former Gates employee who
spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing the

The movement grew so quickly and with so little public notice that
opposition was initially almost nonexistent. That started to change
last summer, when local tea party groups began protesting what they
viewed as the latest intrusion by an overreaching federal government
- even though the impetus had come from the states. In some circles,
Common Core became known derisively as "Obamacore."

Since then, anti-Common Core sentiment has intensified, to the extent
that it has become a litmus test in the Republican Party ahead of the
GOP's 2016 presidential nomination process. Former Florida governor
Jeb Bush, whose nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education has
received about $5.2 million from the Gates Foundation since 2010, is
one of the Common Core's most vocal supporters. Indiana Gov. Mike
Pence, who, like Bush, is a potential Republican presidential
candidate, led a repeal of the standards in his state. In the past
week, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R), a former advocate of the
standards, signed a law pulling her state out, days after South
Carolina's Republican governor, Nikki Haley, did the same.

Some liberals are angry, too, with a few teacher groups questioning
Gates's influence and motives. Critics say Microsoft stands to
benefit from the Common Core's embrace of technology and data - a
charge Gates vehemently rejects.

A group calling itself the "Badass Teachers Association," citing
opposition to what it considers market-based education reform, plans
a June 26 protest outside the Gates Foundation's headquarters in

In an interview, Gates said his role is to fund the research and
development of new tools, such as the Common Core, and offer them to
decision-makers who are trying to improve education for millions of
Americans. It's up to the government to decide which tools to use,
but someone has to invest in their creation, he said.

"The country as a whole has a huge problem that low-income kids get
less good education than suburban kids get," Gates said. "And that is
a huge challenge. ._._. Education can get better. Some people may not
believe that. Education can change. We can do better."

"There's a lot of work that's gone into making these [standards]
good," Gates continued. "I wish there was a lot of competition, in
terms of [other] people who put tens of millions of dollars into how
reading and writing could be improved, how math could be improved."

Referring to opinion polls, he noted that most teachers like the
Common Core standards and that those who are most familiar with them
are the most positive.

Gates grew irritated in the interview when the political backlash
against the standards was mentioned.

"These are not political things," he said. "These are where people
are trying to apply expertise to say, 'Is this a way of making
education better?' "

"At the end of the day, I don't think wanting education to be better
is a right-wing or left-wing thing," Gates said. "We fund people to
look into things. We don't fund people to say, 'Okay, we'll pay you
this if you say you like the Common Core.' "

Whether the Common Core will deliver on its promise is an open question.

Tom Loveless, a former Harvard professor who is an education policy
expert at the Brookings Institution, said the Common Core was "built
on a shaky theory." He said he has found no correlation between
quality standards and higher student achievement.

"Everyone who developed standards in the past has had a theory that
standards will raise achievement, and that's not happened," Loveless

Jay P. Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the
University of Arkansas, says the Gates Foundation's overall dominance
in education policy has subtly muffled dissent.
"Really rich guys can come up with ideas that they think are great,
but there is a danger that everyone will tell them they're great,
even if they're not," Greene said.

Common Core's first win

The first victory for Common Core advocates came on a snowy evening
in Kentucky in February 2010, when the state's top education
officials voted unanimously to accept the standards.
"There was no dissent," said Terry Holliday, Kentucky's education
commissioner. "We had punch and cookies to celebrate."

It was not by chance that Kentucky went first.

The state enjoyed a direct connection to the Common Core backers -
Wilhoit, who had made the personal appeal to Bill and Melinda Gates
during that pivotal 2008 meeting, is a former Kentucky education

Kentucky was also in the market for new standards. Alarmed that as
many as 80 percent of community college students were taking remedial
classes, lawmakers had recently passed a bill that required Kentucky
to write new, better K-12 standards and tests.

"All of our consultants and our college professors had reviewed the
Common Core standards, and they really liked them," Holliday said.
"And there was no cost. We didn't have any money to do this work, and
here we were, able to tap into this national work and get the
benefits of the best minds in the country."

"Without the Gates money," Holliday added, "we wouldn't have been
able to do this."
Over time, at least $15 million in Gates money was directed both to
the state - to train teachers in Common Core practices and purchase
classroom materials - and to on-the-ground advocacy and business
groups to help build public support.

Armed with $476,553 from Gates, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce's
foundation produced a seven-minute video about the value and impact
of the Common Core, a tool kit to guide employers in how to talk
about its benefits with their employees, a list of key facts that
could be stuffed into paycheck envelopes, and other promotional
materials written by consultants.

The tool kit provided a sample e-mail that could be sent to workers
describing "some exciting new developments underway in our schools"
that "hold great promise for creating a more highly skilled workforce
and for giving our students, community and state a better foundation
on which to build a strong economic future."

The chamber also recruited a prominent Louisville stockbroker to head
a coalition of 75 company executives across the state who lent their
names to ads placed in business publications that supported the
Common Core.

"The notion that the business community was behind this, those seeds
were planted across the state, and that reaped a nice harvest in
terms of public opinion," said David Adkisson, president and chief
executive of the Kentucky chamber.

The foundation run by the National Education Association received
$501,580 in 2013 to help put the Common Core in place in Kentucky.

Gates-backed groups built such strong support for the Common Core
that critics, few and far between, were overwhelmed.

"They have so much money to throw around, they can impact the
Kentucky Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Education,
they can impact both the AFT and the NEA," said Brent McKim,
president of the teachers union in Jefferson County, Ky., whose early
complaint that the standards were too numerous to be taught well
earned him a rebuke by Holliday.

The foundation's backing was crucial in other states, as well.
Starting in 2009, it had begun ramping up its grant-giving to local
nonprofit organizations and other Common Core advocates.
The foundation, for instance, gave more than $5 million to the
University of North Carolina-affiliated Hunt Institute, led by the
state's former four-term Democratic governor, Jim Hunt, to advocate
for the Common Core in statehouses around the country.

The grant was the institute's largest source of income in 2009, more
than 10 times the size of its next largest donation.
SIDEBAR VIDEO: Full interview: Bill Gates on the Common Core (27:53)
Bill Gates sat down with The Post's Lyndsey Layton in March to defend
the Gates Foundation's pervasive presence in education and its
support of the Common Core. Here is the full, sometimes tense,
interview. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
With the Gates money, the Hunt Institute coordinated more than a
dozen organizations - many of them also Gates grantees - including
the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, National Council of La Raza, the
Council of Chief State School Officers, National Governors
Association, Achieve and the two national teachers unions.

The Hunt Institute held weekly conference calls between the players
that were directed by Stefanie Sanford, who was in charge of policy
and advocacy at the Gates Foundation. They talked about which states
needed shoring up, the best person to respond to questions or
criticisms and who needed to travel to which state capital to
testify, according to those familiar with the conversations.

The Hunt Institute spent $437,000 to hire GMMB, a strategic
communications firm owned by Jim Margolis, a top Democratic
strategist and veteran of both of Obama's presidential campaigns.
GMMB conducted polling around standards, developed fact sheets,
identified language that would be effective in winning support and
prepared talking points, among other efforts.

The groups organized by Hunt developed a "messaging tool kit" that
included sample letters to the editor, op-ed pieces that could be
tailored to individuals depending on whether they were teachers,
parents, business executives or civil rights leaders.

Later in the process, Gates and other foundations would pay for mock
legislative hearings for classroom teachers, training educators on
how to respond to questions from lawmakers.
The speed of adoption by the states was staggering by normal
standards. A process that typically can take five years was collapsed
into a matter of months.

"You had dozens of states adopting before the standards even existed,
with little or no discussion, coverage or controversy," said
Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, which has
received $4 million from the Gates Foundation since 2007 to study
education policy, including the Common Core. "People weren't paying
attention. We were in the middle of an economic meltdown and the
health-care fight, and states saw a chance to have a crack at a
couple of million bucks if they made some promises."

The decision by the Gates Foundation to simultaneously pay for the
standards and their promotion is a departure from the way
philanthropies typically operate, said Sarah Reckhow, an expert in
philanthropy and education policy at Michigan State University.

"Usually, there's a pilot test - something is tried on a small scale,
outside researchers see if it works, and then it's promoted on a
broader scale," Reckhow said. "That didn't happen with the Common
Core. Instead, they aligned the research with the advocacy ... At the
end of the day, it's going to be the states and local districts that
pay for this."

Working hand in hand

While the Gates Foundation created the burst of momentum behind the
Common Core, the Obama administration picked up the cause and helped
push states to act quickly.

There was so much cross-pollination between the foundation and the
administration, it is difficult to determine the degree to which one
may have influenced the other.

Several top players in Obama's Education Department who shaped the
administration's policies came either straight from the Gates
Foundation in 2009 or from organizations that received heavy funding
from the foundation.

Before becoming education secretary in 2009, Arne Duncan was chief
executive of the Chicago Public Schools, which received $20 million
from Gates to break up several large high schools and create smaller
versions, a move aimed at stemming the dropout rate.

As secretary, Duncan named as his chief of staff Margot Rogers, a top
Gates official he got to know through that grant. He also hired James
Shelton, a program officer at the foundation, to serve first as his
head of innovation and most recently as the deputy secretary,
responsible for a wide array of federal policy decisions.

Duncan and his team leveraged stimulus money to reward states that
adopted common standards.
They created Race to the Top, a $4.3 billion contest for education
grants. Under the contest rules, states that adopted high standards
stood the best chance of winning. It was a clever way around federal
laws that prohibit Washington from interfering in what takes place in
classrooms. It was also a tantalizing incentive for cash-strapped

Heading the effort for Duncan was Joanne Weiss, previously the chief
operating officer of the Gates-backed NewSchools Venture Fund.

As Race to the Top was being drafted, the administration and the
Gates-led effort were in close coordination.

An early version highlighted the Common Core standards by name,
saying that states that embraced those specific standards would be
better positioned to win federal money. That worried Wilhoit, who
feared that some states would consider that unwanted - and possibly
illegal - interference from Washington. He took up the matter with

"I told her to take it out, that we didn't want the federal
government involvement," said Wilhoit, who was executive director of
the Council of Chief State School Officers. "Those kinds of things
cause people to be real suspicious."

The words "Common Core" were deleted.

The administration said states could develop their own "college and
career ready" standards, as long as their public universities
verified that those standards would prepare high school graduates for
college-level work.

Still, most states eyeing Race to the Top money opted for the easiest
route and signed onto the Common Core.

The Gates Foundation gave $2.7 million to help 24 states write their
Race to the Top application, which ran an average of 300 pages, with
as much as 500 pages for an appendix that included Gates-funded

Applications for the first round of Race to the Top were due in
January 2010, even though the final draft of the Common Core wasn't
released until six months later. To get around this, the U.S.
Department of Education told states they could apply as long as they
promised they would officially adopt standards by August.

On the defensive

Now six years into his quest, Gates finds himself in an uncomfortable
place - countering critics on the left and right who question whether
the Common Core will have any impact or negative effects, whether it
represents government intrusion, and whether the new policy will
benefit technology firms such as Microsoft.

Gates is disdainful of the rhetoric from opponents. He sees himself
as a technocrat trying to foster solutions to a profound social
problem - gaping inequalities in U.S. public education - by investing
in promising new ideas.

Education lacks research and development, compared with other areas
such as medicine and computer science. As a result, there is a
paucity of information about methods of instruction that work.

"The guys who search for oil, they spend a lot of money researching
new tools," Gates said. "Medicine - they spend a lot of money finding
new tools. Software is a very R and D-oriented industry. The funding,
in general, of what works in education ._._. is tiny. It's the lowest
in this field than any field of human endeavor. Yet you could argue
it should be the highest."

Gates is devoting some of his fortune to correct that. Since 1999,
the Gates Foundation has spent approximately $3.4 billion on an array
of measures to try to improve K-12 public education, with mixed

It spent about $650 million on a program to replace large urban high
schools with smaller schools, on the theory that students at risk of
dropping out would be more likely to stay in schools where they
forged closer bonds with teachers and other students. That led to a
modest increase in graduation rates, an outcome that underwhelmed
Gates and prompted the foundation to pull the plug.

Gates has said that one of the benefits of common standards would be
to open the classroom to digital learning, making it easier for
software developers - including Microsoft - to develop new products
for the country's 15,000 school districts.

In February, Microsoft announced that it was joining Pearson, the
world's largest educational publisher, to load Pearson's Common Core
classroom materials on Microsoft's tablet, the Surface. That product
allows Microsoft to compete for school district spending with Apple,
whose iPad is the dominant tablet in classrooms.

Gates dismissed any suggestion that he is motivated by self-interest.

"I believe in the Common Core because of its substance and what it
will do to improve education," he said. "And that's the only reason I
believe in the Common Core."

Bill and Melinda Gates, Obama and Arne Duncan are parents of
school-age children, although none of those children attend schools
that use the Common Core standards. The Gates and Obama children
attend private schools, while Duncan's children go to public school
in Virginia, one of four states that never adopted the Common Core.

Still, Gates said he wants his children to know a "superset" of the
Common Core standards - everything in the standards and beyond.

"This is about giving money away," he said of his support for the
standards. "This is philanthropy. This is trying to make sure
students have the kind of opportunity I had ._._. and it's almost
outrageous to say otherwise, in my view."

Read more:
Graphic: Pushing Common Core --

Common standards for nation's schools a longtime goal --

Five things you might not know about Bill Gates --

The people behind the Common Core standards --

Quiz: Can you solve these Common Core math questions? --
Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011,
writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty's impact
on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
SEE table of "Gates foundation grants: $233 million for Common Core"
and "The spread of Common Core standards", by states, in the body of
the article.


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