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Bill Gates came to AEI yesterday and I had the opportunity to ask him a question about the Common Core standards. Given all of the controversy around the standards, I’ve been curious for a while why he and the Gates foundation are such strong supporters. Ultimately they could support any education reform they wanted to, but they chose this one, so I asked him why. Here is the transcript of what he had to say:
Mike McShane: Thank you so much. Your foundation has been known for supporting the Common Core curriculum standards that have become increasingly controversial. And the question that I have is, why? What promise do you see of the Common Core standards? How do you see them as a lever for improving the American education system?
Mr. Gates: OK. So what is the Common Core? It’s a very simple thing. It’s a written explanation of what knowledge kids should achieve at very various milestones in their educational career. So it’s writing down in sixth grade which math things should you know, in ninth grade which math things should you know, in twelfth grade which math things should you know.
And you might be surprised to learn how poor those I’ll call those standards, but to be clear, it’s not curriculum. It’s not a textbook. It’s not a way of teaching. It’s just writing down should you know this part of algebra? Should you know trigonometric functions? Should you know be able to recognize a graph of this type? And doing that very well is hard because there are certain dependencies: if you teach it in the wrong order; if you try and teach too much at once, too much too early, which the US was doing a lot of that, it can be very, very poor. And if you compare we have 50 of these things and there was quite a bit of divergence. Some states had trigonometry, some didn’t. Some had pie charts, some didn’t. So, ironically, what had happened was the textbook companies had gone in and told the committees that make these things up that they should add things over time. And so we had math textbooks over double the size of any of the Asian countries. And we had the ordering in almost every one of our 50 which is strange.
You think if you had 50, one of them would randomly be really, really well ordered. (Laughter.) Some were more ambitious than others. So, for example, being high; that is, having the twelfth grade expectation be high, there were a few like Massachusetts that were quite good in that respect. And so when kids from Massachusetts take international tests or the SAT, anything, they do better, better than the rest of the country. And so often, when you see those country rankings, they’ll take Massachusetts and show you where it would be if it was a separate country. And it’s way past the US, that now is virtually at the bottom of any of the well off countries, with the Asian countries totally dominating the top six slots now. Finland had a brief time where they were up high, and now they’re not even the European leader anymore.
So a bunch of governors said, hey, you know, why are we buying these expensive textbooks? Why are they getting so thick? You know, are standards high enough or quality enough? And I think it was the National Governors Association that said we ought to get together on this. A bunch of teachers met with a bunch of experts, and so in reading and writing and math, these knowledge levels were written down. And at some point 46 states had adopted that curriculum, a variety of competitive curriculum, now that small companies can get into it because it’s not just doing a book for Florida, and so the sort of barrier to entry that was created by the large firms there goes away. The idea that those committees write so you can’t use the old textbooks, you know, that idea will go away because in math, this can have real durability.
Changing your math standards is not like some new form of math that’s being invented. And there has been in a sense a national expectation. When you take the SAT test, it has trigonometry on it, so if you’re in a state that doesn’t have that, you’re going to get a low score. And they use a certain notation in the way they do math and certain states were different than that, so you’re screwed. If you move from state to state you experience discontinuity because of this. And it’s made it very hard to compare things. And this is an era where we have things like Khan Academy that are trying to be a national resource and yet they you sit down, it will tell you, are you up to the sixth grade level? Are you up to the ninth grade level? Are you ready to graduate from high school? And so this Common Core was put together.
Somebody in states will decide this thing. Nobody is suggesting that the federal government will, even in this area, which is not curriculum, dictate these things. States can opt in. They can opt out. As they do that, they should look at this status quo, which is poor. They should look and find something that’s high achievement, that’s got quality. And if they can find something that’s that, if they have two they’re comparing, they ought to probably pick something in common, because to some degree, this is an area where if you do have commonality it’s like an electrical plug you get more free market competition.
Scale is good for free market competition. Individual state regulatory capture is not good for competition. And so this thing, in terms of driving innovation, you’d think that sort of pro-capitalistic market-driven people would be in favor of it, but, you know, somehow, it’s gotten to be controversial. And, you know, states will decide. Whatever they want to decide is fine. But, at the end of the day, it does affect the quality of your teaching, does affect when your kids go to take what are national-level tests, whether they are going to do well or not do well.
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