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Gates, Pearson Partner to Craft Common-Core Curricula

By Catherine Gewertz — April 27, 2011 7 min read
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As states and school districts grapple with how to teach the skills outlined in the new common standards, two foundations have announced a partnership aimed at crafting complete, online curricula for those standards in mathematics and English/language arts that span nearly every year of a child’s precollegiate education.

The announcement last month by the Pearson Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation marks yet another entry into the increasingly crowded marketplace of curriculum creation sparked by the common standards. All but six states have adopted the learning guidelines issued last year by the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

The move also represents a mix of philanthropic and business interests that is drawing attention from some educators and experts in education philanthropy.

Officials from the Gates and the Pearson foundations say the project will create 24 courses: 11 in math, for grades K-10; and 13 in English/language arts, for grades K-12. Four of those courses will be available for free online through the Gates Foundation. The full 24-course system, with accompanying tools including assessments and professional development for teachers, will be available for purchase, likely through Pearson, the international media company that operates the New York City-based Pearson Foundation.

Each course will serve as a 150-day curriculum and will harness technological advances such as social networking, animation, and gaming to better engage and motivate students, Judy B. Codding, the managing director of the Pearson Foundation, said in an April 27 conference call with reporters.

The linkage between the two foundations and the for-profit education company represents a “leading edge” in education philanthropy, said Chris Tebben, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a Portland, Ore.-based group of funders.

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“I’m hearing more of this kind of market-based thinking going on now,” she said. Teaming up with a large company can help foundations “scale up their solutions,” she said, but it also raises questions.

“The primary mission of a foundation is trying to improve outcomes for kids, and the mission of a for-profit might well overlap with that, but there’s also the overlay of generating financial returns,” she said. “So you have to make sure that what’s good for kids is the objective that carries the day.”

Arrangements involving one major company, such as Pearson, can also raise questions of “advantaging one company,” Ms. Tebben said. “This is presenting a set of questions that hasn’t been grappled with much in the field.”

Expertise From Abroad

The project is being supported by a $3 million grant from the Gates Foundation, the Seattle-based philanthropy led by the board chairman of the software giant Microsoft and his wife.

What People Are Saying

The primary mission of a foundation is trying to improve outcomes for kids, and the mission of a for-profit might well overlap with that, but there’s also the overlay of generating financial returns.

“The primary mission of a foundation is trying to improve outcomes for kids, and the mission of a for-profit might well overlap with that, but there’s also the overlay of generating financial returns.”
Chris Tebben
Executive Director, Grantmakers for Education

“We have ample evidence that solutions that attempt to be comprehensive almost always are inadequate, partly because they’re not developed from the relationship between the local teacher and students.”
Kent Williamson
Executive Director, National Council of Teachers of English

"[Gates has] got good-quality people working with them, so the stuff might well be good quality. But people are grasping at straws out there, and I’m afraid they will just accept this as the answer without asking solid questions about what they’ve got.”
Michael J. Rush
Executive Director, Curriculum Institute

“People will have to profit from it; you can’t deliver education products into the marketplace for free. But it will be interesting to follow the money and see who manages to monetize the nation’s investment in common-core standards and assessments.”
Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst
Director, Brown Center on Education Policy

SOURCE: Education Week

It’s part of a $20 million suite of grants, announced at the same time by the foundation, that aims to take advantage of new technologies to build a range of teaching-and-learning tools for the common-core standards. (The foundation also provides grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.)

Vicki L. Phillips, who oversees education programs for the Gates Foundation, told reporters that in talking with teachers, foundation officials are “hearing consistently” that they want classroom tools and supports that are aligned with the common standards, are grounded in best practices, and allow teachers flexibility to adapt their work to each student. Those aims will guide the new curriculum project, she said.Secondary-level courses in math and elementary-school-level courses in English/language arts are to be available for the 2013-14 school year, and the entire suite of courses and accompanying tools is slated for the 2014-15 school year, Ms. Codding of the Pearson Foundation said. The four free courses—two in math and two in English/language arts—will be posted online as soon as they are finished, she said.

Officials from the two foundations also said they are working with a range of experts not only in the United States, but also from such countries as Australia, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, and the United Kingdom, in building the new curricula.

The foundations’ curriculum work joins a swirl of activity on the common-core-curriculum front. Education publishers and other groups have been working to adapt or create materials for the new standards. States and districts themselves are working on curricula to capture the new learning expectations. A half-dozen organizations that received a previous, $19 million round of funding from the Gates Foundation are moving ahead with that work as well.

Mark Nieker, the president of the Pearson Foundation, said that one of the goals of designing the new courses, and making some of them free, is to spur more conversation and innovation on ways to impart the common standards.

Another key aim, he said, is helping the courses reach a large audience, and while Pearson could be the company to do that, “no firm agreement” is yet in place. “We would distribute it with whatever partners we thought would give it the best chance of being used,” Mr. Nieker said in a May 3 phone interview.

Broadscale Solutions

News of the partnership received a mixed reception from educators.

Kent Williamson, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, said he worries that this or any curriculum devised by companies would be presented as a one-size-fits-all solution for teachers.

“We have ample evidence that solutions that attempt to be comprehensive almost always are inadequate, partly because they’re not developed from the relationship between the local teacher and students,” he said.

Instead of buying a full, off-the-shelf—or off-the-computer—curriculum, he said, his Urbana, Ill.-based organization encourages schools and districts to create their own, based on their expertise and local needs. Accordingly, the ncte, while it has crafted standards for teachers to use as guides, has purposely never written a model curriculum, he said.

“What you need is professional, well-informed teachers making research-informed judgments about how to do best in their school community,” he said.

Teachers are “starving” for good curriculum for the new standards, said Michael J. Rush, the exective director of the Curriculum Institute, an Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based group that consults with schools, districts, and states on curriculum development. But it’s precisely that great need that sparks flags of caution, he said.

“It’s a little disconcerting to have something as large as the Gates Foundation, which is the biggest lion on the prairie, put this forward,” he said. “They’ve got good-quality people working with them, so the stuff might well be good quality. But people are grasping at straws out there, and I’m afraid they will just accept this as the answer without asking solid questions about what they’ve got.”

Recently, the American Federation of Teachers had expressed concern that the country was moving briskly from standards to assessments without good curricula for teachers.

David B. Sherman, a top aide to AFT President Randi Weingarten, said he welcomes the Pearson-Gates curriculum project as part of the work to fill that gap, and said that at the Pearson Foundation’s request, AFT teachers will be working on the project.

Who Profits?

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm and now the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, said the Pearson-Gates arrangement represents an “interesting intertwining” of nonprofitand for-profit motives and will undoubtedly prompt questions about “who profits from the common core.”

Since common-standards adoption gave states an advantage in competing for federal Race to the Top dollars, and since the Education Department is financing the development of assessments for the standards, that “creates a market” for the work, he said.

“The question will be, and it’s a reasonable one to ask: Who profits from this? People will have to profit from it; you can’t deliver education products into the marketplace for free,” he said. “But it will be interesting to follow the money and see who manages to monetize the nation’s investment in common-core standards and assessments.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Whitehurst said, it’s good to see someone tackle a curriculum spanning so many grades, so one grade can build effectively upon another. And, done well, the work could serve as a valuable lever in the industry to prompt more curriculum development, he said.

Still, Mr. Whitehurst said, it will be a daunting task to complete the curriculum systems in three years.

“They’ve set out some ambitious goals if they expect [the curricula] to be truly innovative and groundbreaking,” he said. “It’s easier to have good-sounding rhetoric about new materials, thinking, approaches, technology, than it is to do it. Ultimately, we have to see what it looks like.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2011 edition of Education Week as Gates, Pearson Partner on Common Core


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