Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who is spending part of his considerable fortune trying to improve U.S. public education, called on teachers Friday to help parents understand the new Common Core academic standards in an effort to beat back “false claims” lobbed by critics of the standards.
“There are many voices in this debate but none are more important or trusted than yours,” Gates told several thousand educators gathered in the District for the inaugural conference of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a nonprofit organization that runs a voluntary system to certify teachers. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was a sponsor of the conference; it has awarded about $5 million to the board since 2010.
The Gates Foundation has spent more than $170 million to develop and promote the Common Core standards, and is their biggest nongovernmental backer. Forty-five states and the District have fully adopted the standards, which call for wholesale changes in the way math and reading are taught from kindergarten through 12th grade.
The standards are a set of expectations about knowledge students should have and skills they should possess by the end of each grade. The standards are not curricula; decisions about what and how to teach are left up to states and local school districts.
Until now, every state has set its own standards, and they varied widely in quality.
Gates said common standards could transform U.S. education, reduce the number of students taking remedial courses in college and enable American students to better compete globally.
Standardization is especially important to allow for innovation in the classroom, said Gates, who used an analogy of electrical outlets.
“If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn’t be available and would be very expensive,” he said. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers, he said.
If states use common academic standards, the quality of classroom materials and professional development will improve, Gates said. Much of that material will be digital tools that are personalized to the student, he said. “To get this innovation out, common standards will be helpful,” he said.
But Gates said he worried about “bumpy” implementation in some states and some of the political attacks that have been lobbed at the Common Core.
“There is one thing that worries me, though,” he said. “It’s the false claims that some people keep making about the standards. We have to make sure people know that it’s not the federal government setting standards or that it’s a block to innovation. Often, people are talking about problems that aren’t really there. It’s important that we stick to these facts.”
He suggested that critics are uninformed.
“It’s just another case when I was naive — I thought people who spoke out against the Common Core would be people who read the Common Core,” Gates said during a question-and-answer session after his remarks.
The real problems with the Common Core have been “bumpy” implementation in some states and districts — places where teachers complain that they have not been given enough time, training and quality materials to teach to the new standards, Gates said.
Leaders of the nation’s two major teachers unions support the standards but have decried the way states are implementing them. Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said it has been “completely botched” and that seven of out 10 NEA members surveyed complained that the implementation has been poor. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has called the rollout worse than the debut of the Affordable Care Act.
Union leaders want more time for implementation, especially when it comes to plans by states to judge teacher quality based on the way students perform academically under the new standards.
Gates and other Common Core supporters say the standards emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills, as opposed to rote learning.
Opponents span the political spectrum, from tea party activists who say the standards amount to a federal takeover of local education to progressives who bristle at the emphasis on testing and the role of the Gates Foundation. Some academics say the math and reading standards are too weak; others say they are too demanding, particularly for young students.
Meanwhile, parents are left to wonder about all the changes taking place in the classroom.
Gates urged teachers to talk with parents and explain the value of the new standards and said that was the most effective way to shoot down false claims.
“We don’t have time to answer every false tweet and post,” Gates said. “The most authoritative voices will be teachers who’ve had this exposure [to the standards]. . . . I hope you can communicate with parents. This is not just another policy thing. It’s pivotal to the effort to improve education.”