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Melinda Gates: Foundation for Excellence in Education Summit

October 13, 2011
Prepared remarks by Melinda French Gates, co-chair and trustee

Thank you, Mary Ellen. It was a privilege to meet with you and other school superintendents in Seattle this summer. Bill and I are inspired by your commitment, and your path-breaking work in Hillsborough County gives us confidence in the future of our public schools.

Governor Bush, let me say what an honor it is to be here.

There are quite a few leaders in America who want to be the Education Governor. But the true test of dedication is whether you want to be an Education ex-Governor. America is lucky to have Governor Bush working to extend Florida’s success to schools and states across the country.

I especially want to thank Governor Bush for working across party lines to advance school reform. It is not easy to lead in a bipartisan way during a partisan time. But it’s vitally important. For the sake of our students and their future, we cannot afford to change direction with every election. Thank you, Governor Bush.

Personal Commitment

We all come to this cause from different backgrounds. But I suspect we may all have a common inspiration. I would bet that each of us here owes a huge debt to a favorite teacher.

I grew up in Dallas, Texas and attended high school at Ursuline Academy, where I was deeply blessed to have a math teacher by the name of Mrs. Bauer. When I was a junior, Mrs. Bauer attended a Math conference in Austin where she saw the Apple II+ computer.

She thought, “This is going to be huge; we have to get them for the girls.” The school said: “But nobody here knows how to use them.” So Mrs. Bauer said: “If you buy the computers, I’ll figure out how to teach computer science.” And she did – making 70-mile round trips to the University of North Texas at night so she could teach us in the fall.

She was a single mom, raising three boys, working full time as a teacher, and getting her degree in computer science on the side – so that I could learn it too. That’s the kind of teacher I had.

My senior year, when I was taking computer science with Mrs. Bauer, I volunteered at a public school just a few miles down Walnut Hill Lane. I tutored math to the kids in the back of the class who couldn’t keep up. These were bright kids. But many didn’t speak English very well, and the teachers had so much to do, they didn’t have the extra time these kids needed.

So I had a chance to see education from two sides – from the front row at a great private school and from the back row at a crowded public school. Every week, I saw how a short stretch of road separated the students who were getting ahead from the students who were falling behind. They all deserved a great education, but only some were getting it.

The lesson that I absorbed in the back row of that classroom is the moral core of our philanthropy. Every life has equal value. Everyone deserves a chance to live a healthy and productive life. Here in America, Bill and I believe we can promote that cause best by investing in our public schools.

We have been working in education for more than 10 years now. We have studied the highest-achieving schools, especially the schools where poor children were doing well. And we have found mounting evidence that the single most important factor in a successful school is effective teaching. Data now show that students with great teachers learn three times as much as students with ineffective teachers.

That suggests a clear strategy – we should create a system to ensure there is effective teaching in every classroom.

Common Core

Today, I want to talk about the cornerstone of our efforts to help all teachers become effective. I’m referring to the focused, consistent, high-level academic standards in Math and English Language Arts – typically known as the common core state standards.

These standards have been developed by education experts, teachers, and business leaders. They are based on the skills students need to succeed in college and career. They are designed to match or beat our international competition. They are supported by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers. And they’ve now been adopted by 44 states.

But that’s not enough. If states adopt these standards, but don’t lift up their courses to align with these standards, we’ll be like people who make super-ambitious New Year’s Resolutions – but don’t take the steps to keep them.

That would be a terrible loss – because the common core, if we implement it, can be a key pillar of school reform in America.

Let me explain why:

First – the standards are set very high – to prepare our students for the real-world tests of life after high school.

They are not based on opinions of what’s needed; they’re based on research and the realities of international competition. These standards will finally make good the covenant between schools and students: If you learn what we teach, you will be ready to succeed at the next stage.

That covenant is not offered or honored in most of our high schools today.

All of us in this room know about the SAT and the ACT. They are facts of college life. But the image we conjure up when we think of as college students—young people who go to college straight from high school, live on campus, and attend classes full-time—is no longer the dominant reality in the United States.

More than 7 million students are currently enrolled in public two-year colleges. These students don’t take the SAT. They take a test like the Accuplacer – a test that community colleges use to decide whether to place students in college-level or remedial classes.

And guess what? More than half of students entering community college do so poorly on these tests that they have to take remedial classes. These students are expected to pay out of their own pocket to learn what they should have been taught in high school.

But here’s the worst of it: Only a quarter of the students enrolled in these remedial classes end up with a degree or certificate after 8 years.

That’s why people in the field call remedial education “the Bermuda Triangle.” People go in and never come out. It’s an appalling waste of human potential. And the very fact that tests like Accuplacer exist is proof that we don’t teach high school students what they need to learn.

The common core can end that – if we implement it.

The second key feature of the standards is focus. The countries that beat us in international math competitions do not cover more material than we do. They focus on fewer things – and they use the extra time with each topic to learn it more deeply.

That’s what we’re doing with the common core, and it’s a big change. We have been “a mile wide and an inch deep” in math for a long time. A study of the standards in California found that it would take 30 years to cover all their standards. Of course, not every concept in that 30-year curriculum has the same importance – a few are essential; most are not.

The common core urges us to focus the great majority of our students’ time on those essential concepts that are crucial to learning the next year’s essential concepts -- from multiplication and division -- to working with fractions -- to using ratios and proportions. These topics build on each other. The common core is not just a list of skills; it’s a staircase. Each standard is a crucial step toward mastering higher skills.

In English Language Arts, the research has shown that the single most important predictor of student success in college and career is the ability to read complex text. This is the master art.

The approach of the common core to reading is simple and effective. The students should read text -- understand it, explain it, apply it, analyze it, draw inferences from it, and cite evidence from it – at ever higher levels of complexity – with ever greater independence. That is the core of the core

It applies to whatever it is you want to do for the rest of your life -- from studying law to learning science, from repairing cars to writing software, from majoring in literature to mastering America’s founding documents.

The ability to read complex text opens the door to everything.

The third crucial component of the standards is consistency: The standards are consistent from state to state. Some people who see the value of higher standards don’t see the need for common standards. Why can’t we have 50 separate sets of standards, so long as they’re higher?

One answer is that there are millions of children in America who move from state to state. They might be expected to know decimals when they arrive in a new state, even though they aren’t covered until next year in the state they just left.

This population includes the 1.5 million school-age children of those who serve in our Armed Forces. These children move three times as often as children in civilian families – from six to nine times overall. One of our partners, the Military Child Education Coalition, has said that different state standards pose major problems for the children of military families. That’s why the Coalition strongly endorses the Common Core Standards. We ask so much of those who serve; we should not also ask that they sacrifice the quality of their children’s education.

Helping children who move is a crucial advantage of common standards. But the most important reason for keeping standards consistent from state to state is this one:

Common standards accelerate innovation.

If you hold people accountable to high standards, you can set them free to find new methods. But when you can’t hold people to high standards, you tend to dictate methods – how many days of school, how many hours of seat time, how many students in class. And dictating methods freezes innovation, because you’re not allowed to try anything new.

On the other hand, if you have a common metric and the freedom to choose a new method, teachers quickly see if someone’s figured out something better. A breakthrough approach in one state can be instantly shared in another.

Let’s say I’m a beginning teacher in a rural area of a small state, about to teach equivalent fractions to 3rd graders for the first time. But there are so many options. I could draw diagrams on the board. I could show that four quarters are equivalent to one dollar. But how do I know what works best?

If my state has implemented the common core, I should be able to consult an on-line library where I could watch videos from “Teachers of the Year” in every single state to see how they make this concept clear and hold the kids’ attention.

We’ve had the technology to do that for YEARS. But we haven’t done it. In 2002, the US Department of Commerce ranked major industries according to their level of Information Technology use. Education finished last. Why?

In part because fragmented standards make it hard for technology companies to sell into the education market. Let’s say a software genius with a passion for education develops an amazing tool that teaches kids advanced math concepts while they barely notice – because the software is so entertaining. So he tries to sell it – but every buyer is a small buyer with a different standard. In the end, it just doesn’t pay.

So one of the greatest strengths of American society – our agile, innovative capitalist system – is not able to generate new tools that can serve our public schools.

The history of technology shows us the power of a common standard to spur innovation. In the pre-Internet days, scientists were using computers for research. They were able to develop individual networks to share data with each other, but they weren’t able to connect up all the individual networks. Then they developed a common language that allowed all computers to talk to each other, no matter what hardware or software they used. That made the Internet possible, and it triggered a historic surge of innovation.

Now we have a chance to connect up our 50 individual state networks by embracing common state standards in education. The potential for innovation is staggering.

Right now, our foundation is very excited about the work of a company called Acuitus that teaches Information Technology to US Navy personnel. A study by the Institute for Defense Analysis matched graduates of a 16-week Acuitus training program against experts with up to 15 years IT experience. The Acuitus students had no prior IT background and were not college bound. Yet in all categories, the Acuitus students dominated. They learned in 16 weeks more than others had learned in 15 years.

Now, the company is looking to apply that technology to teach 8th grade math skills to students who have fallen behind.

If they can write a program and market it to the whole country – it could change our whole idea of what can be taught in our classrooms.

This is just one innovator. And this is just the start.

Vision

In spite of all the advantages, there is still some resistance to the common core. I believe much of it is born of suspicion that the common state standards are meant to be national standards, and will inevitably become a national curriculum.

But let’s remember: The states are leading this effort, not the federal government. The common core state standards are goals, not methods. They say what should be learned, not how it must be taught. They will give teachers and schools more freedom, not less.

I have been describing this change that’s underway in America as ‘school reform.’ But that term is really too tame for what’s going on. We’re turning the old order on its head.

Instead of organizing schools around the immovable old methods we’ve had since the one-room school house – the common core state standards will free us up to find new methods, make learning the organizing principle, and arrange everything to advance that.

I hope you share my enthusiasm, and are eager to be a part of this. I believe it’s the most exciting change to sweep schools in our lifetimes.

We can’t say for sure how much more our students will achieve, because we have never aspired to remove so many barriers at once. But we do know that it will be thrilling to see America rise back up in the international rankings.

And I know I will cherish the change in our public debate: our politicians will be fighting over who deserves credit for our schools’ success, not who deserves blame for their failure.

Thank you very much.

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