Bill Gates likes Big History

Professor David Christian’s “Big History” synthesizes “history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields” into “a unifying narrative of life on earth,” writes Andrew Ross Sorkin in the New York Times Magazine.

More than a thousand U.S. high schools are trying the 10-module course. Wait for the shoe . . . Bill Gates is funding Big History. He discovered Christian’s college course on video while walking on his treadmill. It’s what he would have loved to have taken in high school.

If Gates loves it, a lot of other people hate it, of course. But is it a useful way to make connections? Or a fad? I can’t tell from the description.

Christian’s aim was not to offer discrete accounts of each period so much as to integrate them all into vertiginous conceptual narratives, sweeping through billions of years in the span of a single semester. A lecture on the Big Bang, for instance, offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centered view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model, through the heliocentric versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe. In the worldview of “Big History,” a discussion about the formation of stars cannot help including Einstein and the hydrogen bomb; a lesson on the rise of life will find its way to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.

. . . The units begin with the Big Bang and shift to lesson plans on the solar system, trade and communications, globalization and, finally, the future. A class on the emergence of life might start with photosynthesis before moving on to eukaryotes and multicellular organisms and the genius of Charles Darwin and James Watson. A lecture on the slave trade might include the history of coffee beans in Ethiopia.

Gates hired engineers and designers to develop the web site, which has lots of graphics and videos.

This fall, Big History is being “offered free to more than 15,000 students in some 1,200 schools, from the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in New York to Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Mich., to Gates’s alma mater, Lakeside Upper School in Seattle.”

I loved Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man when it was on TV, ages ago.

Billionaire power

Darrell West’s U.S. Billionaires Political Power Index ranks the rich by clout rather than dollars.

Powerful billionaires interested in education include Michael Bloomberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, Penny Pritzker, Mark Zuckerberg and Alice Walton.

Gates: Don’t use Core scores for 2 years

Common Core-aligned tests shouldn’t be used for  teacher evaluations and student promotions for two years, writes Vicki Phillips for the Gates Foundation. “The standards need time to work.”

Teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests, and offer their feedback.

. . . A rushed effort to apply the assessments could punish teachers as they’re trying new things, and any hiccups in the assessments could be seen as flaws in the standards.

That makes sense. But it comes a few days after a Washington Post story on the foundation’s support for the development and promotion of Common Core Standards — and its extensive links with the Obama administration.

The foundation backed off on high-stakes testing after “calls for congressional investigations” into the foundation and its administration allies, writes Susan Berry on Breitbart.

How Bill Gates sold the Common Core

Bill Gates put $200 million into Common Core standards.

Common Core State Standards were the brainchild of Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, reports Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post. The godfather was Bill Gates, who put more than $200 million into developing the Core and building support for it.

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.

President Obama’s Education Department, “populated by former Gates Foundation staffers and associates”  used $4.3 billion in “stimulus funds to reward states that accepted the standards.” Forty-six states and the District of Columbia signed on, though some have jumped ship.

Even Catholic schools have adopted the standards, if only because it’s hard to find classroom materials or training that’s not aligned to the Common Core.

The speed of adoption by the states was staggering by normal standards. A process that typically can take five years was collapsed into a matter of months.

“You had dozens of states adopting before the standards even existed, with little or no discussion, coverage or controversy,” said Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, which has received $4 million from the Gates Foundation since 2007 to study education policy, including the Common Core. “States saw a chance to have a crack at a couple of million bucks if they made some promises.”

The Gates Foundation has put $3.4 billion into trying to improve K-12 education, reports the Post. (My other blog, Community College Spotlight is funded by the Hechinger Institute, which receives Gates Foundation grants.) It has enormous influence.

“Really rich guys can come up with ideas that they think are great, but there is a danger that everyone will tell them they’re great, even if they’re not,” said Jay Greene, who heads the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform.

Gates “sees himself as a technocrat” funding research in “new tools” to improve education. “Medicine — they spend a lot of money finding new tools. Software is a very R and D-oriented industry. The funding, in general, of what works in education . . . is tiny. It’s the lowest in this field than any field of human endeavor. Yet you could argue it should be the highest.”

Diane Ravitch wants Congress to investigate Gates’ role in the creation and marketing of Common Core standards.

The idea of “common national standards and tests goes back a long long way before Gates,” points out Alexander Russo. If the idea hadn’t already had broad appeal, Gates’ millions wouldn’t have been effective.

Most education philanthropy supports the status quo, adds Eduwonk. “In education there is very little change absent an infusion of marginal dollars and outside pressure.”

Personally, I think it’s crazy to suggest that Bill Gates has given $3.4 billion to education causes — and billions more to public health — because he wants to make more money. His policy ideas may be wrong. His motives are good.

Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic — and coding

Audrey Hagan, left, and Amelia Flint, both 8, learning to code last month at an event in Mill Valley, Calif. Jason Henry for The New York Times

Computer coding for kids is a “national education movement that is growing at Internet speeds,” reports the New York Times.

MILL VALLEY, Calif. — Seven-year-old Jordan Lisle, a second grader, joined his family at a packed after-hours school event last month aimed at inspiring a new interest: computer programming.

“I’m a little afraid he’s falling behind,” his mother, Wendy Lisle, said, explaining why they had signed up for the class at Strawberry Point Elementary School., a tech-industry group, is offering free curricula and pushing districts to add programming classes — and not just in high school. In nine states, students earn math — not elective — credits for computer science classes. Chicago’s public school system hopes to make computer science a graduation requirement in five years.

In Mill Valley, elementary school children and their parents solved animated puzzles to learn the basics of computer logic. Many parents see coding as “a basic life skill,” says the Times. Or perhaps the “road to riches.”

Some educators worry about the industry’s heavy role: Major tech companies and their founders, including Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have put up about $10 million for The organization pays to train high school teachers to offer more advanced curriculums, and, for younger students, it has developed a coding curriculum that marries basic instruction with video games involving Angry Birds and hungry zombies.

The lessons do not involve traditional computer language. Rather, they use simple word commands — like “move forward” or “turn right” — that children can click on and move around to, say, direct an Angry Bird to capture a pig.

Computer programming should be taught in every school, said Hadi Partovi, the founder of and a former executive at Microsoft. It’s as essential as “learning about gravity or molecules, electricity or photosynthesis.”

I’m not convinced that everyone needs to learn programming in order to use computers. And it’s not the only way to learn logic.

My three-year-old nephew was playing Angry Birds on his tablet today, prepping for his future as a high-tech zillionaire. That 7-year-old in Mill Valley is so far behind.

Talking back to Bill Gates

In The Education of Mr. Gates, Ze’ev Wurman, a former Education Department official, responds to Bill Gates’ defense of Common Core standards at the American Enterprise Institute.| 

Gates: So a bunch of governors said, hey, you know, why are we buying these expensive textbooks? Why are they getting so thick? You know, are standards high enough or quality enough? And I think it was the National Governors Association that said we ought to get together on this. A bunch of teachers met with a bunch of experts, and so in reading and writing and math, these knowledge levels were written down.

Wurman: Well, not exactly. Not “teachers met experts.” Rather, a bunch of poorly qualified ed policy “experts” (chosen by Mr. Gates and Marc Tucker) met with testing experts from College Board and ACT and made the decisions. Then they brought in teachers as window dressing to create the image of broad support.

Wurman helped develop California’s standards, which were abandoned in favor of the Common Core. A Silicon Valley engineer, he believes the new math standards will make it difficult for high school students to prepare for STEM majors.

States with math standards least like the Common Core have higher achievement scores, concludes a new Brookings’ report. “Supporters of Common Core argue that strong, effective standards will sweep away such skepticism by producing lasting, significant gains in student learning,” wrote the study’s authors. “So far at least–and it is admittedly the early innings of a long ball game–there are no signs of such an impressive accomplishment.”

Gates speaks up for Common Core

As more states rethink Common Core standards and testing, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates says high, consistent standards are essential to keep the U.S. competitive with other nations.

The Gates Foundation has spent $75 million to support the Common Core movement.

The Common Core is under attack from all sides. The right complains of federal meddling. Teachers’ unions are backing away, citing poor implementation. Parents are confused. And reform opponents really don’t like the fact that it’s backed by Bill Gates. He must know that, but think he has clout with other factions.

Reading, ‘riting and coding

“I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think,” said Steve Jobs. is launching a campaign to persuade schools to offer computer programming: Nine out of 10 high schools do not.

Less than 2.4 percent of college graduates earn a degree in computer science, fewer than 10 years ago, despite rising demand for programming skills, according to the nonprofit group.

Code’s site includes links to online apps and programs that teach programming. Some are geared to young children.

Should kids learn programming, as they might study a foreign language, to develop thinking skills?

Coding isn’t just for boys — but sometimes it seems that way — reports the New York Times.

Gates: Measure to improve

Measurement matters, writes Bill Gates in the Wall Street Journal. His foundation fights child mortality and polio in desperately poor countries. It also funds education reforms, such as improved teacher evaluations, in the U.S.

You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal in a feedback loop,” writes Gates.

At Eagle Valley High School in Colorado, he observed the 12th-grade English class of Mary Ann Stavney, a master teacher. The Gates Foundation is funding a three-year evaluation and feedback project in Eagle County.

Drawing input from 3,000 classroom teachers, the project highlighted several measures that schools should use to assess teacher performance, including test data, student surveys and assessments by trained evaluators. Over the course of a school year, each of Eagle County’s 470 teachers is evaluated three times and is observed in class at least nine times by master teachers, their principal and peers called mentor teachers.

The Eagle County evaluations are used to give a teacher not only a score but also specific feedback on areas to improve and ways to build on their strengths. In addition to one-on-one coaching, mentors and masters lead weekly group meetings in which teachers collaborate to spread their skills. Teachers are eligible for annual salary increases and bonuses based on the classroom observations and student achievement.

“The most critical change we can make in U.S. K–12 education . . .  is to create teacher-feedback systems that are properly funded, high quality and trusted by teachers,” Gates concludes.

Trust will be a challenge.

This infographic looks at how data mining and can improve education.

Gates: It’s completion, not costs

Completion is a bigger problem than rising college costs, argues Bill Gates.

Completion numbers are better than previously reported, according to a new analysis which tracks more students, including transfers,