June 9, 2014

Wash Post On Gates & Common Core, 5 Reactions – Updated w/ Pushback From Gene Wilhoit

By Bellwether

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If my email is any indication, the one story people are most interested in today is Lyndsey Layton’s long look at the Gates Foundation and Common Core in yesterday’s Washington Post. Reactions range from, ‘see, this is being forced on schools by corporate interests,’ from a Common Core foe, to ‘I’ve seen some dancing at the 10-yard line in my day, but man, does the Gates WaPo piece ever take the cake’ from a Common Core supporter and Democratic politico.

Seems to me a good and important story – and a solid unpacking of events to date. But, a couple of reactions:

1) There is money on all sides of this. Pro-and con.  The opposition did start out pretty diffuse and unorganized but that’s not the case now. I doubt there is parity between the pro-and anti-Common Core factions but this isn’t David and Goliath either.

2) In education there is very little change absent an infusion of marginal dollars and outside pressure. It’s not for nothing that we call them “Carnegie” units. That’s not a pro-Gates point or an anti-Gates point, it’s merely context about change in education. Related, Gates has spent a great deal on Common Core, but some context on all the other philanthropic dollars flowing into education would be useful, too.  The lion’s share, mostly from much smaller and localized foundations mostly buttresses the status quo. Philanthropic dollars aimed at leveraging broader changes have increased over the past decade but are still not the dominant force in overall education philanthropy.

3) The Tom Loveless reference in the story may be the most important part. Standards alone are not the ballgame. Implementation and support for schools and teachers is key – and still lacking. Common Core isn’t a curriculum, the political reasons for that are obvious, but that may end up being its biggest liability. Forget the back and forth with the teachers unions on this point – that’s politics. The broader lesson is the one Loveless points to – standards alone are not enough. It takes a system.

That’s why from where I sit the real promise of common standards is, as Layton puts it,

[Coleman and Wilhoit] 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.

A lot of people talk about this issue but it doesn’t get the ink that international comparisons do. But it’s arguably the longer term promise here.

4) Layton talks about the efforts to keep the words “Common Core” out of Obama Administration policy documents. And that commitment, despite some early miscues, seems real. States that have rejected Common Core have been granted No Child Left Behind waivers that contain a requirement for college and career ready standards. She doesn’t mention what was arguably the bigger misstep: The inclusion of Common Core in the 2012 Democratic platform as an Obama accomplishment. It seems like a picayune thing, but only the zealots read platforms. No one read that and said, ‘Yes!, Now I’m going to support that guy instead of Mitt Romney.’ But plenty of activists did read it and being circulating it as proof that Common Core was “Obamacore.” That was a victory lap best saved for later.  It also didn’t help that White House rhetoric about the standards and the President’s role varied. Again, not a big deal to most but catnip for the activists who parse every word and circulate via social media.

5) In my experience – and I’ve worked with both the Gates Foundation and Microsoft – the firewalls between the two are quite real.  This is one of those you can’t prove a negative type of things. But senior foundation officials working on ed innovation are largely unknown to key Microsoft personnel. In any event, like or dislike the Common Core it’s absurd to argue Gates is doing this to enrich himself given the state of the education sector (and you may have noticed he apparently has some money already). The words wasted on that would be better spent on analysis of why, despite all the money spent, Common Core is still facing such implementation and political challenges.

That shows the limits of what money can accomplish in our fragmented education system, which is far more interesting isn’t it?

Update: Here’s Gene Wilhoit’s statement on the article. 

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