Skip to main content

Here's how Bill Gates Gets the Common Core . . . or Something Called the Common Core

The computer makes it possible to do in nanoseconds what shouldn't be done in the first place.--Attributed to Gerald Bracey 

This observation leads off Stephen Krashen's abstract for a presentation at International Symposium on Web Technologies in ELT Classrooms. Yildiz Technical University, December 1-2, 2012, Istanbul 



by Susan Ohanian


With considerable fanfare, LearnZillion announced the posting of more than 2,000 Common Core lessons developed by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded "Dream Team" of 123 teachers. And so I decided to take a look. 

LearnZillion was co-founded by Eric Westendorf, most recently a principal and Chief Academic Officer of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., and Alix Guerrier, most recently a consultant in McKinsey & Company's Education Practice, "where he advised school systems and foundations on strategic matters." They both have MBA degrees from Stanford's Graduate School of Business. So far, the lessons available on LearnZillion reflect this lack of classroom savvy. 

The career trajectory of one member of what LearnZillion calls the "Dream Team" of teachers preparing lessons is so protypical I can't resist mentioning it: BA Harvard, one year at hedge fund, two years as Teach for America volunteer in Washington, D. C., and now off to Stanford to pursue an MBA. It looks like she hopes to pick up some extra cash writing lessons for LearnZillion. Dream Team members commit to creating 20 video lessons, for which they receive $2,000. 

LearnZillion provides no information about this Dream Team other than picture, name, and city. I tracked down a couple of teachers who have been credited with more than 15 lessons each-- just to find out how long they have been teaching (3 or 4 years). This seems to go along with the Gates claim that more experience does not result in better teaching. 

I don't plan to go into the excruciatingly painful details about the lessons. After all, the Internet was made for the proliferation of bad lessons. LearnZillion's hyperactive sell headlining its home page screams, "Amazing teachers, Amazing Common Core lessons. 

The curious fact is that I have yet to see any lessons billed as Common Core that have anything to do with the precepts outlined so specifically (and dogmatically) by David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, who lay claim to titles of Common Core architects and writers. For example, here's a LearnZillion Extension Activity for "Daffodils" by William Wordsworth: 

Write an original poem using one idea from "who" column and one from the "what" column.



Michael Jackson


Harry Potter



Rides a bike

Cooks dinner

Rides a rollercoaster

Following a similar format of Video Lesson, Lesson on Slides, Coach's Commentary gives LearnZillion Language Arts lessons the appearance of a well-thought-out plan. In contrast, the AFT/TES Connect joint project Share My Lesson which also claims to have "a significant resource bank for Common Core State Standards, covering all aspects of the standards, from advice and guides to help with dedicated resources that support the standards," looks like a free-for-all jumble. If there is any vetting, it isn't apparent. It seems more than coincidental that this AFT effort also received several millions from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation)


On the AFT site, a worksheet on "Daffodils" by a team that reports having delivered 13,543 lessons to this enterprise gets middle graders defining onomatopoeia, alliteration, metaphor, stanza, simile, and personification and then finding examples in the poem. Another presentation (it can't be any stretch of the imagination be called a lesson) informs the viewer that there are 23 different youtube videos of this poem. In the teacher's summary, we are told, "Young imagination-starved city kids will love this one [a rap]."


Written by a rural teacher, maybe?


There is also a 5-page complaint about how it doesn't work to take poor kids outside to look at daffodils--even though the teacher has planned "a beautiful lesson." Again, the problem was "the children are very weak in creative imagination. . . .and the whole experience of sitting among flowers and listening to poetry was so unfamiliar that I guess some children couldn't cope with it."


This is from TES, the AFT's partner in the United Kingdom. There is no explanation of how their lessons can be aligned with the Common Core, but TES trumpets, "More than 2 million resources are downloaded from the TES website every week, with almost four TES resources downloaded every second." My advice to the AFT is: Stop! Before you embarrass yourselves any further, stop this enterprise.


News organizations, of course, don't care about lesson content. As could be predicted, NPR's Marketplace expressed its enthusiasm in a puff piece on LearnZillion. The New York State Education Department recommends that teachers use LearnZillion "to give your students the right lesson at the right time." Wouldn't you think someone at the New York State Education Department would care about content?


Enter Bill Gates


On Twitter, @billgates tweeted on Aug 29, 2012 "@LearnZillion offers 1500+ free, Common Core lessons from top teachers -- great resource to start the school year.


On the same day, he gave another shout out to LearnZillion in The Gates Notes, titled "Why I'm Excited about the Arrival of Back-to-School Season.


Bill Gates, you ask? Why Bill Gates? Read on about the involvement of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in one more enterprise (among many) to push the Common Core.


LearnZillion brags that it has "just launched 1500+ free Common Core lessons! (High quality lessons you can use today. For free.) Each lesson includes a short video lesson, downloadable resources, assessment items, and commentary to explain the thinking behind each lesson."


Admittedly, I have watched only a dozen or so of these lessons, but in each one I found the videos and the commentary very odd. Then I read Bill Gates; explanation of the format of this enterprise. The plan is that teachers can:


1) Watch the videos to get ideas for their own classes;

2) use the videos with their students;

3) study the presentation techniques to learn from these master-teachers who participated in the project.


The whole enterprise is off-key. The ideas are rudimentary, even inappropriate, and there is no technique. Has Bill Gates ever seen a master teacher present a language arts lesson?


LearnZillion presents "Daffodils" as several worksheet activities. I do not mean to be cruel here but these are not the lessons of master teachers--any more than Salman Khan's product is that of a master teacher (and getting $5,544,028 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation did not turn Khan into a master).


PLUS: I find it mind-boggling that there is no evidence that the creators of these lessons have ever heard of the Common Core. Maybe this is cause for celebration.


LearnZillion partners with: NewSchools Venture Fund, E. L. Haynes Achievement Network (The Haynes Charter School board is politically well-connected) and Next Gen Learning Challenges.


NewSchools Venture Fund: 
Ted Mitchell, the president and CEO serves on the board of directors of Khan Academy, New Leaders for New Schools, The Teaching Channel, ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career and The McClatchy Company. 

Since 2003, NewSchools has received $75,041,787 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Board members come from: Khan Academy (Gates grants: $5,566,025), EnCorps, Bellwether Education Partners, Green Dot, Friendship Public Charter Schools,Alliance for College Ready Public Schools (where Senior Program Officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation US Program is on the board, but their 2012 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was for only $1,800, "to support professional development opportunities for teachers to share their perspectives and present their work as it pertains to the teacher effectiveness strategies underway across the Intensive and Accelerator Partnership district sites").



Next Generation Learning Partners



Since 2010, Educause has received $43,615,058 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to to launch and promote "breakthrough technology-enabled learning solutions." In 2011, $5,727,043 was to support NGLC Impact Strategies and operating costs and $400,489 to the League for Innovation in the Community "to support NGLC Impact Strategies." 
Dr. Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is "to advance higher education through the use of information technology." Previously, Oblinger held positions in academia and business: Vice President for Information Resources and the Chief Information Officer for the University of North Carolina system, Executive Director of Higher Education for Microsoft, and IBM Director of the Institute for Academic Technology. She was on the faculty at the University of Missouri-Columbia and at Michigan State University and served as the associate dean of academic programs at the University of Missouri.


Council of Chief State School Officers(CCSSO) 

Since 2003, CCSSO has received $62,338,078 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation--for advocacy and public policy, for promoting the Common Core State Standards.


The International Association for K-12 Online Learning(iNAOL) 
Board of Directors includes Tom Vander Ark, the first Executive Director of Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and one of the first non-traditional public school superintendents.


League for Innovation in the Community College
Since 2009, the League for Innovation in the Community has received $6,100,492 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation "to support development and incubation of a faculty-driven scalable pedagogy and curriculum."


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who need no introduction but boast they are "guided by the belief that every life has equal value."


The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, whose education program has "concentrated on improving the conditions for education policy reform in California and fostered the spread of high-quality open educational resources (OER)." 
Their 2012 grants included $126,000 to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute "for sustainability models for the Common Core assessment consortia."


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who need no introduction.


How does this all come together. Here's how Tom Vander Ark,the first Executive Director of Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, describes it. 
The first social enterprise to emerge from E.L. Haynes was LearnZillion, a professional development platform founded by former principal and Chief Academic Officer Eric Westendorf and former teacher Alix Guerrier. Today, LearnZillion announced the addition of 2000 Common Core lessons developed by a Gates Foundation funded "Dream Team" of 123 teachers.


LearnZillion received funding from NewSchools Venture Fund, the Achievement Network, O'Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures, and Learn Capital (where I'm a partner). LearnZillion is now being piloted in more than 20 DC schools and 150 other schools throughout the country.

LearnZillion advertises: High quality lessons you can use today. It is disrespectful of teachers and demeaning to the profession to suggest that good teaching is fostered by providing an Internet warehouse of lesson strategy grab bags. If a teacher feels pressured to do what W. H. Auden so passionately warned against in a teacher in-service provided by the New York City Department of Education--teach "Daffodils"-- there are high quality professional books and inservice courses available, books and courses that help teachers dig deeper instead of skimming along on pick-and-grab minutiae that will keep them busy but never expand their horizons. 

Maybe I should be happy that this latest Gates-funded enterprise has turned out so goofy. But I guess I just haven't quite reached that level of cynicism. . . yet. I call it goofy, but I'm not celebrating. . . just rolling my eyes--and feeling angry that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is so hellbent on working against teacher professionalism. 

      This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
      Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
      Find the original post here:

      The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

      Susan Ohanian

      Susan Ohanian, a long-time public school teacher, is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Atlantic, Parents, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Phi Del...