Bill Gates is rallying teachers to support an embattled cause, the Common Core State Standards.
At a speech Friday afternoon in Washington, D.C., the Microsoft co-founder is lending his voice to save the standards. According to prepared remarks provided to The Huffington Post, Gates told educators at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' Teaching and Learning Conference that the Common Core is the key to creativity for teachers. He also charged that the controversy around the Core "comes from people who want to stop the standards, which would send us back to what we had before."
The Common Core is a set of learning standards that has been touted as more focused, rigorous and internationally competitive than the current hodgepodge of learning expectations that define American education. Its proponents say the Core intends to have students learn less content but in greater depth. In English language arts, students will read more nonfiction texts to train them to engage with material one might encounter in the real world. In math, proofs and demonstration of work will be emphasized over the memorization of equations.
Gates argued that America's education system currently does not prepare students adequately for college, because it's not asking enough of them. So the transition to the new standards is hard because it has to be, he said, and asked teachers to explain the standards to local families.
While the initiative was supported by most state schools chiefs and governors, a recent poll from Achieve, a group that supports the Core, found that almost two-thirds of American voters have heard "nothing" or "not much" about the effort.
Gates went on to address critiques that the Common Core represents a national curriculum, a federal takeover or the end of innovation. He said these claims are false and distract from teaching -- and that teachers can provide the most effective response to critics.
Gates says his foundation convened teachers last month to discuss Common Core implementation. (Through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates has put about $75 million behind the Common Core.) One teacher told a foundation staffer, Gates said, that under the current system, even top-performing kids aren't prepared for college. She told the story of a student whom she thought was ready, but who ultimately dropped out -- that's what convinced her that the previous standards didn't always work.
The creation of the Common Core started in 2009, and thanks in part to nudges from the federal government via the Race to the Top competition and the application process for waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, most states have adopted them. States have begun revving up tests to measure learning against the new standards.
In recent months, as teachers begin to implement the standards, the once-quiet effort has suddenly become controversial. On the right, organizations such as the American Principles Project and Freedomworks have mobilized their highly organized networks to attack the standards, arguing that the Common Core is a federal initiative being imposed on states. On the left, some worry that the Common Core is untested or will continue to disadvantage poorer students. Teachers unions that initially supported the effort have criticized some states' messy implementation efforts.
And as Gates noted, these bumpy implementation efforts haven't helped.
In recent weeks, several states have made moves to hobble or scrap the Common Core entirely. Indiana has come closest, with its state Senate on Wednesday approving a bill that withdraws the state from the initiative and adopts its own set of academic standards to "maintain Indiana sovereignty" by July. A similar repeal passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives, but Republicans in the Senate have said they will not bring it to the floor. Tennessee's legislature has so far supported a bill that would freeze the Common Core's implementation.
Gates also warned that a messy implementation could bedevil the effort. "Everybody in my school is complaining about the lack of curriculum," another teacher told a foundation staffer, according to Gates. "Now we have to jump all over the place and find extra materials to make things deeper and richer."
Consistency of the Common Core across states, Gates argued, is a key ingredient in its potential success. Under older standards, he said, a student from Kentucky didn't have to know the quadratic formula, but a neighbor in Tennessee did.
"Maybe we can't answer every tweet or post, but the authoritative voice on this is teachers," Gates said.