How @BillGates caused a major education policy shift in the US: common standards

The Washington Post has a long article on how Bill Gates pulled off one of the swiftest shifts in US education policy – the common core revolution which asks for common standards of education across the various states and schools in the US.

Apparently, the problem they have is the opposite of the problem India has. Our education system is sluggish because of too much centralized control; their problem is the complete lack of centralized standards:

Coleman and Wilhoit told the Gateses that academic standards varied so wildly between states that high school diplomas had lost all meaning, that as many as 40 percent of college freshmen needed remedial classes and that U.S. students were falling behind their foreign competitors.

                      The pair also argued that a fragmented education system stifled innovation because textbook publishers and software developers were catering to a large number of small markets instead of exploring breakthrough products. That seemed to resonate with the man who led the creation of the world’s dominant computer operating system.

The biggest problem in any such major shift in education policy is that it is usually a highly politicized issue with lots of stakeholders all pulling in different directions, and hence any substantial change is almost impossible to push through the mess. That’s where Bill Gates, and the Gates Foundation comes in:

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 exactly is the common core? Here is an example:

The math standards require students to learn multiple ways to solve problems and explain how they got their answers, while the English standards emphasize nonfiction and expect students to use evidence to back up oral and written arguments. The standards are not a curriculum but skills that students should acquire at each grade. How they are taught and materials used are decisions left to states and school districts.

Read the full article

US Government to introduce a College Rating System

The New York Times has an interesting article about how colleges in the US are rattled as President Obama Seeks a Rating System for Colleges in the US. The basic idea is that colleges and universities receive about $150 billion in loans and grants from the government, and the government wants to see what all that money is buying.

What is this rating system?

The rating system is in fact a radical new effort by the federal government to hold America’s 7,000 colleges and universities accountable by injecting the executive branch into the business of helping prospective students weigh collegiate pros and cons. For years that task has been dominated by private companies like Barron’s and U.S. News & World Report.

How would this rating system work?

The rating system, which the president called for in a speech last year and is under development, would compare schools on factors like how many of their students graduate, how much debt their students accumulate and how much money their students earn after graduating. Ultimately, Mr. Obama wants Congress to agree to use the ratings to allocate the billions in federal student loans and grants. Schools that earn a high rating on the government’s list would be able to offer more student aid than schools at the bottom.

Of course there are problems, and lots of the colleges are complaining:

Many college presidents said a rating system like the one being considered at the White House would elevate financial concerns above academic ones and would punish schools with liberal arts programs and large numbers of students who major in programs like theater arts, social work or education, disciplines that do not typically lead to lucrative jobs.They also predicted that institutions that serve minority and low-income students, many of whom come from underfunded schools and have had less college preparation, would rank lowest in a new rating system, hurting the very populations the president says he wants to help.


“As with many things, the desire to solve a complicated problem in what feels like a simple way can capture people’s imagination,” said Adam F. Falk, the president of Williams College in Massachusetts. Dr. Falk said the danger of a rating system is that information about the colleges is likely to be “oversimplified to the point that it actually misleads.”

Read the full article

Major changes to SAT Exam: No obscure words, no negative marking, essay now optional

The New York Times has an interesting article on major changes to SAT, the famous exam that high school students in the US have to take before admissions to college.

The fundamental changes are these:

  • No negative marking: end the penalty for guessing wrong
  • Removing obscure vocabulary words: so get rid of “SAT words” (“depreciatory,” “membranous”), and instead focus on words commonly used in college courses, such as “synthesis” and “empirical.”
  • The essay (which has been mandatory since 2005) is now optional

Some more interesting developments. First, SAT prep is going online:

in the spring of 2016, the College Board, in partnership with Khan Academy, will offer free online practice problems and instructional videos showing how to solve them.

Why this change? One of the biggest points is standardized tests are under fire from critics. The arguments will be familiar to all educators in India, since that is a much bigger problem here:

The new SAT will not quell all criticism of standardized tests. Critics have long pointed out — and Mr. Coleman admits — that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores. More colleges have in recent years become “test optional,” allowing students to forgo the exams and submit their grades, transcripts and perhaps a graded paper.

and, they’re trying to reduce dependence of students on “coaching” classes:

“It is time for the College Board to say in a clearer voice that the culture and practice of costly test preparation that has arisen around admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country,” Mr. Coleman said Wednesday. “It may not be our fault, but it is our problem.”

But, that is easier said than done.

While test-preparation companies said the SAT was moving in the right direction, with more openness and more free online test preparation, the changes were unlikely to diminish the demand for their services. “People will always want an edge,” said Seppy Basili, a vice president of Kaplan Test Prep. “And test changes always spur demand.”

Standardized testing, coaching classes, cracking exams becoming a game, rather than a learning experience, are all serious problems facing us, and the solutions are not easy, but read the full article to get an idea of what is being tried in the US.

Naom Chomsky: How America’s Great University System Is Getting Destroyed

Innovidya member Raja Bellare points us towards in interesting transcript of Naom Chomsky’s views on How America’s Great University System Is Getting Destroyed

The article is quite long. Here are some excerpts from the different sections:

On the trend of hiring non-tenure-track faculty

Chomsky argues that this is simply the corporatization of the university system.

When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line.

and a corporation works best when the workers are “insecure”:

when Alan Greenspan was testifying before Congress in 1997 on the marvels of the economy he was running, he said straight out that one of the bases for its economic success was imposing what he called “greater worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, that’s very “healthy” for the society, because if workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations’ economic health. At the time, everyone regarded Greenspan’s comment as very reasonable, judging by the lack of reaction and the great acclaim he enjoyed. Well, transfer that to the universities: how do you ensure “greater worker insecurity”?

Relation of Education to Democracy and Activism

Chomsky actually takes a much broader view, and points out that keeping faculty and students “insecure” is related to how the establishment is trying to control democracy and activism since the 1970s.

If you go back to the early 1970s when a lot of this began, there was a lot of concern pretty much across the political spectrum over the activism of the 1960s; it’s commonly called “the time of troubles.” It was a “time of troubles” because the country was getting civilized, and that’s dangerous. People were becoming politically engaged and were trying to gain rights for groups that are called “special interests,” like women, working people, farmers, the young, the old, and so on. That led to a serious backlash, which was pretty overt.

and the point made is that the best way to tackle the too many special interests problem was by ensuring that our students are appropriately “indocrinated”:

the “special interests” were causing problems and they said “we have to have more moderation in democracy,” the public has to go back to being passive and apathetic. And they were particularly concerned with schools and universities, which they said were not properly doing their job of “indoctrinating the young.” You can see from student activism (the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movements) that the young are just not being indoctrinated properly.

So, how do you indoctrinate the young?

There are a number of ways. One way is to burden them with hopelessly heavy tuition debt. Debt is a trap, especially student debt, which is enormous, far larger than credit card debt

And another technique:

… is to cut back faculty-student contact: large classes, temporary teachers who are overburdened, who can barely survive on an adjunct salary. And since you don’t have any job security you can’t build up a career, you can’t move on and get more. These are all techniques of discipline, indoctrination, and control. And it’s very similar to what you’d expect in a factory, where factory workers have to be disciplined, to be obedient; they’re not supposed to play a role in, say, organizing production or determining how the workplace functions-that’s the job of management. This is now carried over to the universities. And I think it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has any experience in private enterprise, in industry; that’s the way they work.

Fixing the System

How do we fix the system? Here are Chomsky’s suggestions:

First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect.

One fix is to increase student and faculty participation in decisions:

Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory.


There are some decisions in a university where you don’t want to have [democratic transparency because] you have to preserve student privacy, say, and there are various kinds of sensitive issues, but on much of the normal activity of the university, there is no reason why direct participation can’t be not only legitimate but helpful. In my department, for example, for 40 years we’ve had student representatives helpfully participating in department meetings.

And increasing he creativity and autonomy of the modes of education:

We certainly want people, both faculty and students, to be engaged in activity that’s satisfying, enjoyable, challenging, exciting-and I don’t really think that’s hard. Even young children are creative, inquisitive, they want to know things, they want to understand things, and unless that’s beaten out of your head it stays with you the rest of your life.


In a reasonably functioning university, you find people working all the time because they love it; that’s what they want to do; they’re given the opportunity, they have the resources, they’re encouraged to be free and independent and creative-what’s better? That’s what they love to do. And that, again, can be done at any level.

Examples of Creative Educational Experiments

It’s worth thinking about some of the imaginative and creative educational programs that are being developed at different levels. So, for example, somebody just described to me the other day a program they’re using in high schools, a science program where the students are asked an interesting question: “How can a mosquito fly in the rain?” That’s a hard question when you think about it. If something hit a human being with the force of a raindrop hitting a mosquito it would absolutely flatten them immediately. So how come the mosquito isn’t crushed instantly? And how can the mosquito keep flying? If you pursue that question-and it’s a pretty hard question-you get into questions of mathematics, physics, and biology, questions that are challenging enough that you want to find an answer to them.

And another example, this time from Kindergarten:

That’s what education should be like at every level, all the way down to kindergarten, literally. There are kindergarten programs in which, say, each child is given a collection of little items: pebbles, shells, seeds, and things like that. Then the class is given the task of finding out which ones are the seeds. It begins with what they call a “scientific conference”: the kids talk to each other and they try to figure out which ones are seeds. And of course there’s some teacher guidance, but the idea is to have the children think it through. After a while, they try various experiments and they figure out which ones are the seeds. At that point, each child is given a magnifying glass and, with the teacher’s help, cracks a seed and looks inside and finds the embryo that makes the seed grow. These children learn something-really, not only something about seeds and what makes things grow; but also about how to discover. They’re learning the joy of discovery and creation, and that’s what carries you on independently, outside the classroom, outside the course.

If any of the above themes resonated with you, you should check out the full article, which goes into much more detail in each section.