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The Gates Effect: Common Core Has Powerful Ally Keeping Unpopular Program Alive

The amounts are huge. A search in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website for grant awards with the keyword “Common Core” returns 257 results accumulating more than $300 million.

Substituting the Common Core euphemism “college and career readiness” uncovers another $130 million for another 52 grantees.

Even more Common Core money has been sent under vague explanations such as “for general operating support” to organizations whose only relationship with the Gates Foundation is to promote Common Core.

The Common Core Initiative comprises:

  • A set of content standards from kindergarten through grade 12 that most US states have adopted;
  • Tests developed by the Partnership for Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia (SBAC), which fewer states have adopted;
  • “Progressive education” curricular materials and instructional methods;
  • Many promotional strategic partnerships among organizations; and
  • Seemingly ubiquitous marketing.

The controversial Common Core Initiative has reworked what and how US elementary and secondary schools teach in every classroom, in every school, every day.

It is so unpopular and unwieldy it would probably have expired a few years ago if not for Gates Foundation support. But, what if it doesn’t work or, as some critics argue, it makes things worse?

The Gates Foundation has shown a willingness to throw in the towel after earlier, failed efforts to transform US education, for example, with new forms of teacher evaluation and smaller high schools.

(Common Core) is so unpopular and unwieldy it would probably have expired a few years ago if not for Gates Foundation support.
Richard Phelps

Nine years on, however, Gates shows no reluctance to continue pushing on Common Core, despite massive unanticipated resistance from grassroots parents groups and the few political groups that have not accepted money to promote it.

At this point, one wonders what could induce Gates to cease and desist. The Foundation will not run out of money in our lifetimes. With a robust stock market, and generous transfers from Warren Buffet, the coffers continue to swell.

The PR and marketing machine promoting Common Core continues unabated, with no countervailing force anywhere near the Gates Foundation in size or impact.

Gates withdrew from earlier K-12 education projects when faced with obvious mismanagement or clear empirical evidence.

But, the Common Core Initiative differs fundamentally – it is amorphous – not localized, observable, and measurable like previous Gates projects.

It seems possible that Common Core’s impact is so nebulous, that it will never be obvious enough to Gates to give up. In that case, critics would argue, the Common Core Initiative will slowly and gradually degrade US education achievement over the course of a generation.

As large a worry as the possible harm to American education, is the possible harm to American governance.

No one elected Bill and Melinda Gates or the leaders of the many other foundations funding the Common Core Initiative. The foundations are accountable to no one (with the nominal exception of the Internal Revenue Service, which may or may not check to determine if grant goals match organizations’ typically vague, generic mission statements).

Perhaps most alarming, the Gates Foundation is also interjecting its preferences directly into politics. In the first years, Common Core funding was devoted to building infrastructure—paying to develop the standards and tests, for example.

No one elected Bill and Melinda Gates or the leaders of the many other foundations funding the Common Core Initiative.
Richard Phelps

For better or worse, those now exist. So, more and more Common Core funding now pays directly for lobbying and promotion.

Some grants for Common Core promotion go straight to state education agencies, local school districts, and parent-teacher organizations. Others go to public relations and law firms to influence legislatures and judges.

Journalism in general may be suffering, but coverage of education issues has grown, in part thanks to you know who.

Gates generously funds all of the mainstream education press: Education Week, the Hechinger Report, the Education Writers Association, Chalkbeat, and EdSurge, as well as National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System.

While Gates may be listed as just one or two (there’s also a Gates Family Foundation) of the donors in a list, some of the other donors listed may simply be pass-throughs for Gates money, or they may be collaborating with Gates in a strategic partnership aimed at increasing the impact of their donations through collective action.

Occasionally, one hears some protest about the Gates Foundation’s large intrusion into education policy. The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, for example, expressed their opinion that the “Gates Foundation failures show philanthropists shouldn’t be setting America’s public school agenda.”

But, alas, they are.