Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

A Lesson on the Common Core

March 27, 2014

Across the United States, more and more people are beginning to hear about a big change happening in American education. That change is a move, now underway in 45 states, to what is known as the Common Core State Standards.

These standards are guidelines designed to prepare every student for success – regardless of where they live, how much money their parents make or what their plans are after high school. They help students with critical thinking and with mastering the skills and knowledge they need to be successful. 

This change has been driven by real need. Critical thinking and creative problem solving are two of the most fundamental skills needed to survive and thrive in our rapidly changing, global world. As parents, grandparents, caregivers and as American citizens, it is our DUTY to provide the best education possible for our young people to thrive, in a world where "brainpower" will be the key currency of the future.  

The pace of change continues to accelerate. The uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity we face in our day-to-day lives requires a different level of preparedness, a qualitatively different kind of education.. Navigating this uncharted future, one that will be absolutely brimming with new technologies, innovations and problems, will require exceptional critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills — far  beyond the traditional "Reading, Writing, Arithmetic" that many of us grew up with.  

I was fortunate to have a high-quality education that prepared me for a challenging and rewarding career. I know how much a great education affected my life, and I care deeply about ensuring that every young person in America also has access to opportunities that will allow them to reach their full potential. As a business leader, I also understand why this is an imperative for our country’s future. 

We live in a country where people continue to be more mobile as they seek employment wherever there are opportunities. Shouldn't children have access to high quality, core academic programs, whether they live in New York, Colorado, or Kentucky? That's what the Common Core State standards are all about, in fact, they grew out of conversations between governors from different states who realized how inefficient it was for every state in the same country to have different academic standards.

Now consider this: until the Common Core State Standards came along, the U.S. didn’t have uniform standards in education. Instead, each state set its own guidelines for what students should know and be able to do, in each grade. That meant that if an 8th grader’s family moved from Pennsylvania to Colorado in the middle of the school year, there was no guarantee she’d be taught to understand the same concepts; her new classes might be learning more basic concepts in algebra, and doing more advanced work in English. 

But as important as creating uniform goals across the country — and perhaps even more so — Common Core reflects a shift in what we teach our children, how we teach them and how we measure their progress.  It is not enough any longer for students to merely absorb and repeat information, they must interpret it with a higher level of sophistication and subtlety than we have been demanding. And that should be welcome news to students, parents and educators everywhere.

These standards were designed by states, informed by teachers and the best available research, and have been embraced by 45 states. And happily, we’re starting to see some good results. In 2011, Kentucky became the first state to begin using the Common Core. By 2012, the percent of Kentucky high school graduates ready for college and career increased from 38 percent to 47 percent in a single year, and in 2013 it hit 54 percent.[1] And while 54 percent isn’t high enough, it is major progress. 

I know there, there are legitimate concerns about how well some states are implementing the Common Core.  We have to manage the transition well, and states must be thoughtful, and make sure there are no unintended consequences for students or teachers while these changes are underway. The most successful examples of implementation have involved parents, school districts and teachers working together. Collaboration is key.

As a business leader, but also as a grandmother, I deeply believe that all children should have access to academic programs that will provide a high level of education, no matter where they live. Until Common Core standards were introduced, too many students did their job in school, studying hard and earning a high school diploma, only to discover when they got to college that they were woefully underprepared for college-level material.  These new rigorous, internationally benchmarked standards will help make sure students are ready for college or for today’s intellectually demanding careers.

Academic standards are not a cure-all – they must work together with curricula that are still set by states and districts, and with assessments that measure what students are learning, and how well. That’s why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has put together the following Common Core explainer – to help parents, students and families understand how all of these pieces fit together, and why rigorous, common standards are so important to a quality education.

Ann M. Fudge is a member of the Advisory Board for the United States Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

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