Covering the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts on the school reform front — along with the usual angst among traditionalists and even some conservative reformers about its influence on education policy — is old hat for yours truly as well as for nearly any education reporter and commentator on the scene. So the piece by otherwise-stellar Heartlander Editor Joy Pullman on the foundation’s role behind the effort by 45 states and the District of Columbia to enact Common Core reading and math standards was a bit ho-hum. Except for the fact that so many Common Core foes quoted in the piece were spinning the philanthropy’s efforts as some sort of conspiracy against the American democracy

As Huffington Post‘s Joy Resmovits noted yesterday on Twitter, there has been nothing stealthy or hidden about the role Gates Foundation has played in advancing Common Core standards. More importantly, the momentum for Common Core standards has been happening long before Gates Foundation entered the picture. As I noted last year in my commentary on Common Core, moving toward national curricula standards has been as much a goal of the school reform movement (particularly standards and accountability advocates such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute) as expanding school choice. And given that many on the traditionalist side, including the American Federation of Teachers, have also been thoughtfully supportive of moving toward common curricula standards (yes, I know I said something nice about the AFT), it is hard to argue that this is just some idea that originated solely with Gates Foundation’s leaders.

transformersMeanwhile the argument advanced in the piece (insinuated by the otherwise-sensible Jay P. Greene declaration that the Gates Foundation “orchestrated” the adoption of Common Core) that the standards were enacted without any sort of democratic input fails to consider the actual process involved. This included a lengthy comment period conducted by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the outfits that represent elected state chief executives and the state school chiefs who are often elected or appointed by state boards of education. It also included the adoption by 45 state education boards, including those of Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, and District of Columbia (which are elected by the public), along with other state boards appointed by governors (and, in some cases, with consent of state legislatures). No matter what one wants to believe (and no matter your editor’s opinion about the abysmal structure of state education governance), arguing that the adoption of Common Core is some corporate conspiracy — an argument advanced by those traditionalists who also oppose the standards such as Susan Ohanian — doesn’t actually wash in reality.

But the latest piece on Gates Foundation’s efforts, along with some claptrap from the American Principles Project (which landed on the pages of the Washington Examiner), once again brings up an aspect of the anti-intellectualism that tends to predominate in American public education: The idea that private-sector players (including wealthy philanthropists) cannot possibly have anything more than a nefarious interest in using their resources, financial and otherwise, in advancing systemic reform. This sentiment is usually typical among traditionalists, who engage in the kind of conspiracy-theorizing that would put smiles on the faces of John Birch Society members and so-called Kennedy assassination experts such as Mark Lane. But sadly, as seen with the battle over adopting Common Core, this anti-intellectualism has even become endemic among otherwise-sensible movement conservatives, and abetted by conservative reformers such as the otherwise-laudable Jay P. Greene, who should know better. Such faulty thinking gets in the way of what should be thoughtful, sensible thinking about the need to provide all children — including those from poor and minority backgrounds — the comprehensive college-preparatory learning they need for success in the knowledge-based global economy. More-importantly, such thinking by movement conservatives and conservative reformers fails to keep in mind the need for Gates Foundation and other philanthropists to counter what has been, until recently, the out-sized influence of National Education Association and AFT affiliates, whose defense of failed policies and practices have condemned millions of poor and minority kids to economic and social despair. 

For all the talk of school reform philanthropists as what some such as Michigan State University Assistant Professor Sarah Reckhow call “shadow bureaucracy”, there is hardly anything shadowy about what they do. Gates Foundation, in particular, offers a database on every dollar it has ladled out to reform outfits for the last two decades, while the Walton Family Foundation publishes a rather lengthy list of every dollar it hands out to reform outfits. Meanwhile every reform outfit receiving Gates Foundation and other reform philanthropist support (including some for which the RiShawn Biddle Consultancy, a firm owned by the editor of this publication, has previously or currently consults) spends plenty of time noting how the foundation supports its efforts. [Dropout Nation, by the way, is funded solely out of your editor’s considerable and God-blessed personal resources. But it would gladly take Gates Foundation money if needed, and doesn’t look down on publications that do.] This is certainly far more-public disclosure than that that of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which use their combined $152 million in spending in 2011-2012  to aid and abet their defense of traditionalist thinking.

One can certainly question whether Gates Foundation is getting enough bang for its buck in focusing on education policy efforts as well as on working with school districts on overhauling teacher evaluations. In fact, the success of philanthropists such as Walton (with its focus on expanding school choice and advancing Parent Power), along with that of earlier generations of reform-minded philanthropists such as Sears, Roebuck & Co. titan Julius Rosenwald (whose efforts with Booker T. Washington to build schools helped black children get what was then considered high-quality education in an era of Jim Crow segregation), brings that question up in ways that may certainly be uncomfortable to Allan Golston, Vicki Phillips, and their teams of grant managers. But Gates Foundation and the Microsoft tycoon who founded it with his wife is doing nothing more than what any of us would do if we had that kind of cash (and what those of us in school reform without it are doing right now): Using their dollars and influence to engage in efforts to improve the world in which they live, and have an equal self-interest in leaving their mark on it. This is something that all of us, especially those conservative reformers who, like the rest of the movement, boldly seek to transform American public education, should want and welcome. After all, as I have pointed out ad nauseam, it is the new voices coming from outside education — and even from outside of communities, those whose children are devastated the most by educational neglect and malpractice — who will help overhaul the super-clusters of failure that make up American public education.

From your editor’s perspective, one can understand why Common Core opponents have now embraced the kind of conspiracy-theorizing reserved for the likes of once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch and her ilk. After all, the arguments they have advanced so far haven’t really stood up to scrutiny. The idea that standards-setting and curricula development should be best left to traditional districts (along with their staffs of teachers and school leaders), fails to admit the reality that this has been the norm for most of the past 140 years — and it clearly hasn’t worked. Given that far too many teachers lack the subject-matter competency to teach reading, math, and science — and that the nation’s ed schools are failing mightily in training aspiring teachers before they leave the classroom (including National Council on Teacher Quality’s conclusion that only 11 of 71 ed schools  it surveyed in 2006 adequately trained future teachers in reading) — expecting teachers and school leaders to develop curricula and standards on their own is just pure folly. A complaint mounted over the past few months — that Common Core’s reading standards requiring students to read more non-fiction — will lead to fewer students reading The Canterbury Tales has put Common Core foes into the embarrassing position of playing to the anti-intellectual disdain for nonfiction among many reading instructors (who haven’t figured out that the cannon of great books includes such famed texts as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty) and the incompetence of school leaders (who are too lazy to pay attention to what is required under the standards). And when Common Core foes are confronted with the fact that all of our kids — especially the poorest of them — are getting low-quality curricula that hardly prepares them for success in school or in life, it becomes difficult for them to mount any compelling argument against the standards.

Certainly Common Core is no cure-all for what ails American public education. In an ideal world for those of us who want to fully abandon the traditional district model, common curricula standards wouldn’t even be necessary. But then, there are no silver bullets in the first place, and we don’t live in ideal.  This isn’t even to say that there aren’t legitimate qualms about Common Core or that reformers shouldn’t argue with reformers about strategies and policies; conflict is an essential element of the school reform movement’s intellectual vibrancy, something that traditionalists lack.

What is clear is that the standards do is provide a key step in providing comprehensive college-preparatory standards all children — especially our poorest kids — need and deserve. As with proficiency targets, standards are more than just benchmarks of what kids should learn. As with so much public policy, it is a clear communication in action of the expectations we have for our society, especially when it comes to ensuring that every child gets a high-quality education. Through Common Core, we are basically making plain what is we know is so: That all kids, regardless of background, can master college-preparatory curricula, and should get high-quality teaching, nurturing school cultures, and strong school leaders. It would be nice if most Common Core foes would concede that point instead of engaging thoughtless conspiracy-theorizing that embarrasses them.

Meanwhile the movement conservatives and conservative reformers who engage in bashing Gates Foundation (and other reformers) for playing a proper role in the education space fail to remember the fact that it isn’t the only player — and may not even be the most-powerful. Let’s not forget the traditionalists, who also bask in financial resources, and may actually command even more dollars because of their influence over the districts, university schools of education, and array of other organizations through which most of the $591 billion in taxpayer dollars devoted to education flow. The NEA and AFT, for example, command $713 million in 2011-2012 in forced dues payments made by teachers regardless of their desire for membership; add in their affiliates, and the unions are billion-dollar enterprises with the bureaucracies to match. The unions  have long-influenced those dollars thanks to state laws and collective bargaining agreements that structure how dollars (in the form of teachers and their compensation packages) are directed to classrooms, and, until recently, successful lobbying and campaign finance activities at the state and district levels. 

This influence matters. After all all, the NEA, the AFT and its allies  perpetuate practices and ideologies — including the Poverty Myth in Education — that have essentially allowed far too many educators to write off poor and minority children as being unworthy of a good education. They have consistently opposed any form of real school choice that allows children, no matter their station in life or their condition of birth, to escape dropout factories and failure mills. They have defended a system in which a child’s zip code determines the quality of their education — and can wreck their futures (and even land parents unwilling to accept this in the criminal justice system). They have supported seniority-based teacher compensation systems that have kept high-quality teachers from getting the rewards they deserve, as well as supported ed schools whose abysmal recruiting and training has done damage to children in classrooms. Meanwhile their unwillingness to address issues such as the crisis of low educational achievement among young males of all races pretty much shows where they truly stand on helping all kids succeed, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds. It isn’t difficult to understand why Dr. Steve Perry took time earlier today to compare AFT President Randi Weingarten to the infamous segregationist Bull Connor.

The reality of traditionalist influence is one reason why the presence of the Gates Foundation, along with other voices (including those from outside traditional education circles) is critical to advancing systemic reform. Yet this effort is derided by traditionalists who want to keep the very status quo that Gates Foundation, movement conservatives, and conservative reformers all agree need to be tossed into the ashbin of history. By engaging in conspiracy-theorizing, Common Core opponents end up supporting the very traditionalists who oppose their own solutions for transforming American public education. Solutions that the Gates Foundation also supports.

It would be nice for movement conservatives and conservative reformers spouting Common Core conspiracy theories to take pause and give some thought to what they are actually opposing. Thinking things over is what smart conservatives actually do before standing athwart anything yelling ”stop”.