How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution
The pair of education advocates had a big idea, a new approach to transform every public-school classroom in America. By early 2008, many of the nation’s top politicians and education leaders had lined up in support.As Barry Ritholtz noted in a memorable post, McKinsey & Company has walked away from some of the most notorious corporate fiascoes of the past 50 years while somehow managing to keep their reputation and hourly rates intact.
But that wasn’t enough. The duo needed money — tens of millions of dollars, at least — and they needed a champion who could overcome the politics that had thwarted every previous attempt to institute national standards.
So they turned to the richest man in the world.
On a summer day in 2008, Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, an emerging evangelist for the standards movement, spent hours in Bill Gates’s sleek headquarters near Seattle, trying to persuade him and his wife, Melinda, to turn their idea into reality.
This is, by no means, a matter of luck. Rather it reflects just how good McKinsey is at their core mission: winning over high-level executives and spinning compelling narratives for the press. As long as the C level executives like the consultants and the consultants make them look good, the executives will happily hand out shocking sums of money.
One of the challenges that management consultants often face is trying to sell a very expensive product or service to a company that is capable of providing something similar internally at a much lower cost. For this reason, firms like McKinsey are very good at driving a wedge between top level management and the rest of the company. If you can convince high level executives that the people two or three tiers below them are incompetent and/or untrustworthy, you can justify charging exorbitant fees for things could that which can be done cheaply and quickly in-house.
At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, Coleman approach to Common Core follow this template exactly. He had a set of radical (and by some standards rather flaky) changes he wanted to make in American education. Instead of building support through research or grassroots lobbying, he approached one of the world's richest and most powerful former CEOs and, having secured his support, mounted a tremendously effective charm offensive on the press.
An essential part of Coleman's pitch has been to undercut the standing and authority of the education rank and file, from partnering with Michelle Rhee to patronizing the statisticians in his own organization, the College Board, to being openly dismissive of teachers who questioned some of his more extreme pedagogical ideas. This last point led a fawning NYT reporter to talk about Coleman's unwillingness to suffer fools (I'm trying to maintain an elevated tone in this post. You can see me addressing the article in a less refined mood here).
None of this means that Coleman is wrong or that his ideas should be dismissed, but if you want to understand what's going on in the education reform movement, you have to understand the culture that produced David Coleman.