Common Core Backlash Means More Hard Lessons for K-12 Funders, Starting With Gates

The annual letter from the CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation admits further missteps in its education reform efforts — and illustrates the hard lessons that can result when funder goals and ambitions collide with the political and organizational complexities of the K-12 landscape.

For years now, Gates has stood at the head of a coalition of funders supporting the development and implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Other funders supporting the Common Core have included the Hewlett and Mott foundations, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Helmsley Charitable Trust. But no funder has given more, or done more, to make the Common Core happen. 

Gates Foundation work in this area started in 2008 and has given more than an estimated $200 million to push the standards forward. Eventually, more than 40 states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core, which required students to meet more rigorous standards in reading and math. Common Core also ushered in a set of more rigorous standardized assessments: the Smarter Balanced assessment in some states, the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) in others. The U.S. Department of Education under President Obama encouraged states to adopt the standards, even providing financial incentives to do so.

And then the political backlash began. Conservatives saw the administration's action as federal overreach into education, traditionally regarded as a state and local matter. We've reported on the range of funders on the right who mobilized serious money to fight the Common Core, most notably the hedge funder Sean Fieler.

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Other critics attacked the overemphasis on testing and charged that the standards relied on unproven instructional methods. Diane Ravitch has written: “The idea that the richest man in America can purchase and — working closely with the U.S. Department of Education — impose new and untested academic standards on the nation’s public schools is a national scandal.” 

What's striking is how much pushback to the Common Core emerged, despite what appeared to be a calculated effort by the Gates Foundation to co-opt possible critics through a blizzard of grants to nearly every ed group one might imagine. For example, if you ever found yourself scratching your head about why the foundation was giving big money to the American Federation of Teachers — some $10 million between 2010 and 2013 — the Common Core push offers one explanation. (The NEA got almost as much money.)

If there was a deliberate co-option strategy, though, it failed. 

As opposition grew and baseline data from the new assessments showed underwhelming results, a growing number of states evinced a kind of "buyer's remorse" and backed away from the assessments or dropped Common Core altogether. Indiana and Oklahoma dropped the standards, while North Carolina ordered the drafting of new standards. Politics has arguably played a bigger role than data. Tea Party types turned opposition to the Common Core into a litmus test for GOP candidates at both the national and state level. 

In a speech last year, Bill Gates acknowledged that the Common Core effort had gone off the rails, saying the "attacks have drowned out the facts." He went on:

I believe much of the difficulty with the Common Core standards came because the advocates—and I include our foundation in this category—didn’t do enough to explain them early and clearly. Once states adopted the standards, parents needed to hear from principals and teachers and superintendents about the reason for the changes, how they would help their kids, and how things would be bumpy for a number of years as teachers adjusted to the new standards.

This month, in her annual letter, Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann says something similar. She acknowledges that the funder underestimated the level of resources and support that would be required for school systems to implement the standards. She also said that it failed to engage educators, parents, and communities about the benefits of the standards and to build support for them. "This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart," she wrote. 

A mea culpa like this from Gates is not new. The funder has admitted past missteps in K-12 reform efforts. In 2009, for example, Gates admitted that its initial investment in "small schools" had failed, noting that many smaller schools had not impacted student achievement in a meaningful way. (That mea culpa, some believe, was premature, as we've reported.)

Related: "Evidence-based" Philanthropy Gone Wrong: The Myth of How Small Schools Failed

In a 2015 interview with New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof, Bill and Melinda Gates themselves admitted that their overall education reform investments had underdelivered. They said their early efforts were too technology focused and that they would redirect their efforts toward such areas as effective teaching and early learning. Yet, as we've reported, the work around teaching has already involved some major missteps, most notably in Tampa.

After we reported last year that Gates seemed to be gearing up for a big move into early education, one of our readers sniped: "Oy vey. Stick to immunization."  

Related: That Didn't Quite Go As Planned: Looking Back at a Huge Gates Ed Grant in Tampa

But remember, we're talking about a "learning organization," here, and Desmond-Hellmond makes it clear that the the foundation's "learning journey in U.S. education is far from over... we are in it for the long haul." And that includes not giving up on Common Core.

Desmond-Hellmann points to Kentucky as a Common Core success story. Following its adoption of the standards, the Bluegrass State engaged communities, parents, teachers, and school system leaders to tie the new standards to systems of teacher support and feedback, and performance measurement. In the years that followed, the proportion of students meeting college readiness standards on the ACT jumped from 27 percent to 33 percent after years of flat results. To some critics, though, Kentucky is hardly a clear-cut success story.

Regardless, Desmond-Hellmann's vision for Gates is that it's a place that course corrects in the face of empirical evidence. And it will be interesting to see how it applies lessons from its experience with the Common Core. There is little doubt that family, school, and community engagement is an essential element in the success of any education reform agenda, and Gates certainly has the resources to support such an effort. The depth of resistance to the Common Core and the number of states that have turned away, however, pose the question of whether engagement alone will be enough to bring about the success for which Gates and other funders are hoping.

More broadly, we wonder how all this will play into a shift that seems to be underway at the foundation in terms of its overall approach and operating style on K-12 as a new director of that work, Bob Hughes, starts his post tomorrow. 

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