Last week, if I wanted a reminder that I was in Washington, D.C., and not Seattle, all I had to do was look at the weather forecast. The temperature was in the 60s when I arrived Wednesday morning, dipped into the 20s on Thursday, and climbed back to the 50s on Friday. That doesn’t happen at home in the Pacific Northwest. It certainly made packing my bags a challenge…
I went to D.C. to spotlight two issues: America’s commitment to global health, and the need to improve outcomes for students in U.S. schools.
My aim on global health was pretty straightforward. I wanted to thank the members of Congress who stepped up last year—in a really tough economic climate—and made sure that the U.S. increased its funding for global health. I think this is some of the most effective money we spend, so it was great to see the funding go up a bit. I also wanted to hear what the members think will happen in the next budget cycle. It’s looking like a tough year. Yet it was clear from my conversations on the Hill that there’s strong support for global health on both sides of the aisle. Saving lives transcends party lines.
I also spent a lot of time in D.C. talking about education—in particular the momentum across states to adopt a consistent set of high academic standards, known as the Common Core State Standards. I talked about the Common Core on the Hill, with a group of mayors, in interviews, and in a speech I gave to a conference of 3,000 teachers.
One Republican member of Congress told me that he’s all for the Common Core—but he said the supporters have to do a better job of explaining what it is and why it matters.
To me, the case for consistent high standards begins with setting up students to succeed after high school. There’s a huge gap between what it takes to graduate from high school and what it takes to be ready for college or work. Millions of students finish 12th grade, thinking that they’re ready for college, and find out they’re not ready at all. They conclude that they’re not college material, and they simply drop out. It’s heartbreaking.
The Common Core State Standards—which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia—are a set of benchmarks for each grade. They close the gap between what you need to know to graduate from high school and what you need to know for college or work. They’re rationally designed, so students learn concepts in a logical order. And they emphasize learning fewer subjects more deeply.
Our foundation has found that a strong majority of teachers like the idea. Here’s a short video where you can hear from a few of them:
This support is broad, but it’s not unanimous. Some people say the standards represent a federal takeover of America’s schools—even though they came from the states and were informed by teachers, states can decide for themselves whether to participate, and they can amend the standards if they want to.
Most importantly—this is a point I made every chance I got in D.C.—the Common Core is not a curriculum. It is a set of goals. It says what should be learned, not how it must be taught. Which novels should you assign? How do you keep the energy level high in class? How do you reach the students who are falling behind and challenge the ones who are moving faster? That’s all in the art of teaching, and Common Core does nothing to stifle it.
In fact, with Common Core, I think the next decade could bring more innovation in education than we’ve ever seen before.
Why? With different standards in every state, it’s hard for innovators to design tools that a lot of teachers could use. The country is splintered into 50 different markets.
We don’t have 50 different kinds of electrical sockets—we have just one. And that standard unleashed all kinds of innovation that improved lives. The same thing will happen with consistent standards for what students should know. Innovators will flock to create new tools for teachers and students, like software that delivers personalized lessons and frees teachers up to work with the students who need the most attention. There is already a lot of innovation happening online (Khan Academy is my favorite example), but common standards will drive even more.
There’s no doubt that the rollout has been bumpy in places. That’s no surprise—big changes like this are hard. We have to make sure that teachers get what they need to teach the standards well. We should be looking at states where the implementation is going well and sharing their best practices.
Some people would rather reject the Common Core altogether. Of course, that decision is up to each state. But I do hope that whatever standards they adopt instead are at least as rigorous and well-designed. Otherwise their students won’t be prepared for the future. And in either case, they will miss out on the coming decade of education innovation.
I wrapped up my speech at the teachers conference by reminding the teachers that they are the most important voice in this discussion. They can tell us what’s working and what needs to be adjusted. They can help break down the myths that surround the Common Core and help get the facts out.
Looking back on my trip, it might seem strange to go to D.C. and talk about two topics as diverse as the Common Core and global health. But they have something in common. Fighting disease in poor countries is the best way to create opportunity around the world, and improving education is the best way to create opportunity at home. It’s all about reducing inequity. The Common Core will help prepare all students for college and career—and that’s the best tool our country has for giving every child an equal chance.