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The Washington Post's 'Tense' Talk With Bill Gates on Common Core

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The Washington Post had a lengthy story in its Sunday editions about "How Bill Gates pulled off the Common Core revolution."

Gene Wilhoit and David Coleman, early advocates of the national education standards, approached the billionaire Microsoft Corp. chairman in 2008 about the need for a sizable amount of money to develop and promote their idea, says the story by Lyndsey Layton.

"After the meeting, weeks passed with no word," Layton writes. "Then Wilhoit [at the time the head of the Council of Chief State School Officers] 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," the story continues. "With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes."

Here are some highlights from the story:

  • In an interview with the Post, Gates says the country "has a huge problem that low-income kids get less good education than suburban kids get. ... We can do better."
  • Gates grew irritated when Layton brought up the political backlash against the common core. "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 says. "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.'"
  • The story details how money from Gates Foundation reached Kentucky, the first state to adopt the common-core standards. "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.
  • "Bill and Melinda Gates, [President Barack] Obama, and [U.S. Secretary of Education] 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," the story says.

Layton's story includes some graphics and a sidebar on key players advocating for the standards, as well as a video of highlights from the interview with Gates (embedded above) and the full 27-minute interview (embedded below), which the paper describes as "sometimes tense."

In my view, Layton's story is a little undecided on what it wants to be. For anyone who hasn't paid attention to the debate, the story is a decent primer on the origins and widespread early acceptance of the standards. But the story also casually notes that "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."

Was the Gates money buying research stamps of approval? The story doesn't really follow that question through. There are other somewhat conspiratorial tones in the piece, from the idea that the standards were promoted without pilot testing and that Microsoft stands to benefit from the common core's embrace of technology, something Gates vehemently says is not his motivation.

Maybe some teachers in common-core states will assign their students to analyze the Post story as an "informational text."

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