On Thursday AEI’s Philanthropic Freedom Project hosted Bill Gates for a conversation with AEI President Arthur Brooks focusing on the role of philanthropy in addressing poverty. During the Q & A time Michael McShane, research fellow in education policy studies at AEI, asked Gates about the controversial Common Core standards. Gates, whose foundation has donated $150 million to facilitate the promotion and implementation of Common Core — including $1 million to AEI — ran through the usual list of talking points given by proponents of the new standards, which have been adopted by 46 states.
Gates thinks that, given the prospects for driving innovation, “pro-capitalistic, market-driven people” should embrace Common Core.
“If they have two [sets of standards] they’re comparing they oughta probably pick something in common because to some degree this is an area where, if you do have commonality, it’s like an electric plug,” Gates said. “You get more free market competition. Scale is good for free market competition. Individual state regulatory capture is not good for competition.”
Economies of scale refers to reductions in a producer’s unit costs as scale of output is increased. For a variety of reasons, it’s cheaper per unit to make a million electric plugs than it is to make one hundred — raw materials can be purchased in bulk for a lower price, a larger company can afford sophisticated automation equipment, etc. Gates thinks that this economic theory can be applied to the education of children. While it’s true that curriculum, tests, and even standards can be reproduced on a mass scale for a lower price than can the same items produced on a lower scale, the same cannot be said about the minds of children.
Human beings are not electric plugs. Schools are not molding soulless plastic objects, they are touching hearts and minds. Though Gates brushes off criticism of the standards by saying they’re merely a “written explanation of what kids should achieve at various milestones in their educational career,” the evidence shows that, whatever their original intentions, the standards have evolved into something that is not rigorous (by traditional American standards) and worse, will lead to continued cultural and moral degradation in our schools. Terrence O. Moore, professor of history at Hillsdale College has said that the new standards, as they are currently being implemented in schools across the country, will destroy minds and souls and lead students down “a depressing path of a prematurely jaded, post-modern, anti-heroic view of life.”
Plenty of industries can benefit from the economy of scale and even from shared services across states, but the idea of mass-producing education across the diverse landscape of the United States will ultimately lead to a Henry Ford-style education for all: You can have any kind of education you want as long as it’s of the approved, federal-centric, progressive variety.
Gates also said that “individual state regulatory capture is not good for competition.” Fair enough; nobody likes special interests co-opting our laws and lawmakers and allowing them to rig the system for their own benefit. But is Gates really asking us to believe that shifting the responsibility for educational standards from the states to national standards tied to federal dollars will remove special interests from the equation? Take a minute and look at the money the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spread around to push the Common Core standards. Unions. Universities. Think tanks. State education departments. Military groups. Many of these organizations employ lobbyists that aided the push to make sure the standards were adopted in states across the country. In addition, a myriad of special interests in the education business will benefit financially from the adoption of the standards — testing companies, curriculum publishers, education consultants.
Remember that states were bribed into signing onto the standards with federal Race to the Top money and the federal government is funding the development of tests to accompany the standards. And money from the federal government will continue to be connected to the standards. Where there is federal government money there is bureaucracy — and thousands of pages of rules and regulations — driven by groups that have a financial stake in the whole endeavor. Though Gates assures us that competition and innovation will flourish in this climate of special interests and heavy lobbying, it’s more likely that the competition and innovation we now see in individual states will be sacrificed for the sake of the one-size-fits-all standards.
In fact, Gates seems to admit as much when he brings up the topic of testing. He says that states have the freedom to opt in or out of the standards at any time but warns that there will be problems for states that do not adopt the Common Core standards. “It does affect when your kids go to take what are national-level tests, whether they are going to do well or not do well.” For all the talk of competition and innovation (let alone local control and federalism), at the end of the day, this will be about teaching to the test. The SAT is already being redesigned (by David Coleman, one of the architects of the Common Core standards) in part, to align better with the new standards and other tests will soon reflect the changes in standards as well. Opting out will be an option in theory only. Your state (or your local school district) is “free” to eschew the standards, but if a student’s education doesn’t line up with the tests, good luck getting into a good college.
Far from being a market-driven, innovating force in education, the top-down, Common Core standards will force schools to conform to a rigid set of standards dictated by a small group of special interests. The standards will drive the tests which will ultimately drive the curriculum. The high level of coercion inherent in the top-down Common Core standards are a far cry from capitalist, pro-market climate that Bill Gates predicts we will see in American education in the future.