A few months ago, when I told friends and media colleagues that I was interested in the Common Core State Standards, the most common response was "What's that?"
Now, it seems, everyone has an opinion about the Core.
And right now, opinions about the K-12 learning goals for math and English that have spread nearly nationwide are trending toward the heated.
While the school year is winding down, education policy sure isn't. This past week brought a bunch of front-page news on the Common Core.
On May 30, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed a law requiring the state to stop using the Common Core after the upcoming school year. And last week, Oklahoma dropped the standards effective immediately, bringing the total number of states embracing Common Core State Standards down to 42, from a high of 45 (Indiana is the third state to have pulled back).
Those states that adopted, and then dropped, the Core now face spending tens of millions of dollars to create new standards, adopt new materials to go with them and retrain teachers.
Speaking of millions of dollars, the money behind the Common Core was the topic of a long story in The Washington Post yesterday that focused on Microsoft founder Bill Gates' role in the creation of the standards and in encouraging their implementation.
The story detailed how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent some $200 million on the development of the standards, political lobbying, and grants to organizations that now support the Core. (The Gates Foundation is also a longtime supporter of NPR, including its coverage of education.)
Education standards are not a new idea. They've been advocated in the United States at least since the 1950s. But our unique system of highly localized control of public schools with limited federal involvement in education has prevented them from getting much traction on a sustained, national level. Until now.
As the piece, by Lyndsey Layton, details, Gates' money helped unite disparate interests behind a single policy in an incredibly short amount of time.
"The Gates Foundation spread money across the political spectrum, to entities including the big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, and business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce groups that have clashed in the past but became vocal backers of the standards.
"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. Liberals at the Center for American Progress and conservatives affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council who routinely disagree on nearly every issue accepted Gates money and found common ground on the Common Core."
What has seemed most troubling for critics of the Core, and of the influence of large philanthropies in U.S. policy generally, is the close association between the Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration. The Common Core are not, strictly speaking, national standards. They were developed independently of the federal government, and states are not under a mandate to adopt them. But the standards received a big boost in the form of funding incentives from the Obama administration.
Behind the alignment of interests, the Post article noted several close ties: Margot Rogers, who was Education Secretary Arne Duncan's chief of staff, and James Shelton, now a deputy secretary, both came directly from the foundation. The administration waived ethics rules to allow the two of them to consult closely with former colleagues. And Chicago received $20 million in Gates funding to reorganize schools while Duncan was that district's CEO before leaving for his Cabinet position.
We reached out to the foundation yesterday for comment on the article and on the developments in Oklahoma and South Carolina, but didn't hear back.
Some of the frustrations with the adoption of the Common Core reflect broader concerns with education policymaking in general.
In an ideal world, policies would be made like this: Practitioners in the field would develop solutions to problems. Disinterested experts would study and test them. Philanthropists would support that research and development phase without picking winners.
And then politicians, through the democratic process, would make the case to the public to support the spread and implementation of the best identified solutions, while giving practitioners the leeway they need to continue to refine and propose new ones.
Many in the ed-policy world agree: The Common Core State Standards skipped a few key steps here.
Critics have long noted that the influence of classroom teachers in writing the standards was limited. They weren't pilot-tested, although, in fairness, it's pretty hard to pilot universal standards either they're universal or they're not.
They were adopted with little public debate. And their implementation, as we've reported, has been plagued with criticisms: notably that they are top-down, rushed and underfunded so far.
And yet in some states, the Common Core built on earlier foundations of setting high standards for students. Many teachers and communities have embraced them.
The bigger-picture problem may be one that Gates himself outlined to the Post.
"The guys who search for oil, they spend a lot of money researching new tools," Gates said. "Medicine they spend a lot of money finding new tools. Software is a very R and D-oriented industry. The funding, in general, of what works in education ... is tiny. It's the lowest in this field than any field of human endeavor. Yet you could argue it should be the highest."
And so, the billionaire said, when he was approached with what sounded like a very good idea, he threw his support behind it. But when it comes to conceiving and implementing new education policies, Bill Gates himself says, he is crying out for some competition.