Though meant to improve U.S. education, the Common Core State Standards have been the focus of considerable backlash — focused on everything from their perceived difficulty to the idea that they're instituting a federal mandate on what is taught in the nation's public schools.
The controversy hasn't gone unnoticed by one of the standards' chief proponents, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates. At the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' Teaching & Learning Conference Friday, Gates took to the stage in a ballroom packed with educators to address that criticism and why he thinks the new standards matter.
As a co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates has played a major role in shaping U.S. education reform in the last several years. Some of the foundation's efforts have been called out by critics as attempts to privatize the public education system, and indeed, audible sighs were heard in the crowd when he suggested that public schools must be as good as the best charter schools.
Still, it's hard to argue that he means well.
Gates was introduced by 2010 Montana State Teacher of the Year Anne Keith, who has served on the Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council for the past two years. "I felt really bad at first because the council members were brutally honest [with their feedback to the foundation]," she said. "You know how teachers are: We don’t hold back."
The foundation, in turn, frequently updates the group regarding changes made based on their recommendations. "They realize that the experts are the ones in the classrooms every single day."
Beginning at a podium before eventually sitting down for a chat with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Gates had the following to offer on the new standards, currently being implemented in 45 states and the District of Columbia, and how they should be presented to the public.
1. They will facilitate innovation
The most important, basic details the public should understand is that the Common Core standards are high, with a focus on quality and consistency. "If we teach to the standard, we'll finally make good on the covenant between schools and students, that if you learn what we teach, you will be ready to succeed at the next stage," Gates said.
He argued that having a national standard encourages innovation. "We do have standards in other areas, and they are very critical to innovation," he said, citing those in place for shipping containers, electrical plugs, and the Internet. If each state had its own standard for electrical plugs, for example, the cost of new technology — both from a development and consumer standpoint — would be much higher and innovation would be sluggish as a result.
National education standards put students and teachers everywhere on the same page. Gates provided examples of old, state-by-state education standards. Kentucky previously didn't require all students to be taught the quadratic formula, while Tennessee did. Needless to say, this caused issues on national tests like the ACT and SAT when students ran into concepts they had never seen before. National standards for education, he said, make it possible for students anywhere to go to a site like Khan Academy and find answers that are necessary and relevant regardless of state, and working methods from states will translate consistently for teachers in other states.
And that's not even considering the amount of confusion reduced for students in families that move around frequently, like those in the military.
“I think the next decade can be, based on these standards, the period of the most innovation in teaching we’ve seen in a long time.”
2. They are not just a list of skills
The standards' concepts build on one another, and they require ordering, pacing, and thorough coverage of each concept before a new concept is introduced. "It's a grade-by-grade staircase. Each standard is a step toward the higher skills that will help students solve the complex problems in the classroom and beyond."
Gates cited research showing, for example, that the ability to read and comprehend complex text is the single greatest predictor for college and career success. The Common Core challenges students to read text, explain it, apply it, analyze it, and draw inferences. This requirement stretches beyond English courses into subjects like history and science, further instilling students with these skills as they progress through school.
The standards also prefer depth over quantity when it comes to the introduction of new concepts. America's test scores in math and science are frequently low compared to other developed nations, Gates noted, despite U.S. textbooks in those subjects being twice the size of those in other nations. Factors like this, he said, played a critical role in the Common Core's development.
3. They don't dictate curriculum
Fear mongerers have frightened many into believing that the Common Core will dictate the material taught to their children, indoctrinating them with ideologies they might not agree with. Gates said this simply isn't the case.
Eighth grade literature standards might be "Read a book, and then watch the equivalent movie and analyze and evaluate the differences between the two." The standard doesn't suggest what a student should think, or even what book or movie should be used. It simply provides a task. The same goes for geometry, where a standard would be along the lines of "Prove theorems for lines and angles." How students are taught, assisted, engaged, etc. in learning how to do this is still wholly up to teachers, and administration at the state level.
“I think if people actually looked at the standards, they’d have a very clear view,” Gates said.
4. They are a long-term bet
As with many other professions, change isn't easy in education, and the Common Core's benefits won't be seen right away. It will take time for teachers to adapt to the new standards — though this is being made easier by those who are sharing best practices over the Web — and older students might not benefit from them as much as those beginning school with them already in place. This is why Gates calls the standards a "long-term bet."
Early test scores caused concerns in a handful of states, with many worried that perhaps the standards were too hard. If the Common Core is successful, however, these early pains will be worth it. In September, the New York Times' Kenny Chang reported that, were Massachusetts its own country, its eighth graders would rank second in science and sixth in math worldwide, according to Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) data. Two decades prior, the state introduced its own education reform efforts, which initially saw the same kind of disappointing results early on.
With this in mind, it must be made clear that it is still too early to pass a verdict on the Common Core's efficacy.
5. They depend on teachers' willingness to disrupt the status quo
Asked by George Stephanopoulos what the single most important thing teachers could do to ensure the success of the Common Core, Gates' answer was simple: The status quo must go.
“The power of the status quo is particularly powerful in education,” he said. But there are a slew of new teaching methods proving to be successful nationwide. The Internet continues to change the face of education, making it possible for teachers to flip their classrooms, introducing material through video lectures assigned instead of homework, which can then largely be performed in class with the teacher free to assist — or to lead deeper discussion. Project-based learning models are reshaping advanced placement courses in at least one experiment. And adaptive, personalized learning solutions capable of addressing and focusing on a student's weak areas are continuing to gain steam.
Gates' vision of Common Core success is ultimately dependent on teachers' willingness to take advantage of these new teaching tools and methods, becoming more than talking heads standing before classes that are too often so large that struggling students fall through the class. Grasping the standards requires more than just the standards being present themselves, and disrupting the status quo is key to maximizing individual attention available to each student to ensure their success.
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