Choice as a Cure for Common Core

Published July 30, 2014

Suppose instead of making common cause with corporate titans and Washington technocrats to impose Common Core standards uniformly on education, philanthropist Bill Gates instead used his vast wealth to create his own brand of schools to compete in a vibrant educational marketplace.

Billions of dollars of Gates’ money sunk into such failed, inside-the-monopoly ventures as “small schools,” and, more recently, nationalized standards and tests could have gone instead toward creating the Gates Alternative. Although it’s true even the richest donor could not outspend the $600 billion public-school monopoly, Gates’ foundation (with net assets of $40.2 billion) could start with model schools and expand with demand.

In fact, given Gates’ high regard for the Khan Academy’s incredible rise as a free online resource begun on YouTube, the Gates Alternative could shun bricks-and-mortar schooling entirely and gain market share in cyberspace.

What might the Gates’ way be?

Given the Microsoft cofounder and Harvard dropout’s oft-expressed disdain for the liberal arts and his preference for utilitarian schooling, his independent schools could feature Common Core-style cutbacks in classic literature, increased reading of technical material, encouragement of grade-schoolers to solve math problems in creative ways as Seattle grade-schooler Bill Gates surely did, all-online testing with individualized problem-solving elements, and collection of student data to enable tracking each student from cradle to career.

This option might well appeal to many families looking to position their kids for success in a high-tech world. Gates’ seed money to start such schools and the potential availability of vouchers or tax credits to help parents pay tuition for these and other private options could be a winning combination.

After all, it was through entrepreneurial spirit that Bill Gates began to achieve his enormous success as early as the seventh grade. Although detractors might say he dabbled in monopolistic territory with Microsoft, his inventiveness cannot be denied.

Judging from the Common Core wars, on the other hand, it is clear millions of Americans have a different idea than Bill Gates about the best education for their children. They want their kids to learn the standard algorithms of math, cursive writing instead of solely computer keyboarding, an appreciation of poetry and stories that excite the imagination—not just whatever leads them to become good global worker bees.

Moreover, even if they like elements of Gatesian training, they don’t appreciate elitists forcing one approach uniformly on all, stripping parents and communities of control, as Gates and his buddies in boardrooms and government bureaucracies have sought to do.

Common Core promoters incessantly proclaim their scheme is not a curriculum but rather just a standard outline of what kids should learn about math and English nationwide. Local schools still determine the curriculum and teachers are free to use their own methods, they claim. But in 2009, Gates himself told a conference of state lawmakers, “when the [federally financed] tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well.”

In fact, Common Core will be far more than just a curriculum if fully implemented: It is a workforce-development system, something that was touted as far back as the Progressive Era a century ago. It came close to taking hold in the 1990s with the School-to-Work (STW) system advanced by Bill and Hillary Clinton, but a grassroots uprising moved it to the back burner.

The elitists who regrouped after STW’s fall and devised Common Core behind closed doors with the help of Bill Gates’ millions ought to stand down and let the market—the people—decide. The use of force is beginning to fail once again: Last week, Oklahoma’s legislature became the fourth to vote to pull put, and others are leaning toward repeal. Meanwhile, the two federally financed national testing consortia—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced—are shedding participant states like autumn leaves.

Bill Gates, the technological genius, ought to take his Common Core design to the marketplace, and be humble enough to realize there are many Americans who still love the liberal arts and who revered innovator Steve Jobs of Apple. Indeed, there should be many sets of standards and tests from which people can choose, just as they do at a technology fair.

Many grassroots Americans remain intent on keeping this the land of the free, not of the manipulated and managed masses.