WASHINGTON -- Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who is spending part of his considerable fortune trying to improve U.S. public education, called upon teachers Friday to help parents understand the new Common Core academic standards in an effort to rebut "false claims" the standards' critics have lobbed.
"There are many voices in this debate, but none are more important or trusted than yours," Mr. Gates told several thousand educators gathered for the inaugural conference of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a nonprofit organization that runs a voluntary system to certify teachers. The Gates Foundation was a conference sponsor; it has awarded about $5 million to the national board since 2010.
The Gates Foundation has spent more than $170 million to develop and promote the Common Core standards, and is their biggest nongovernmental backer. Forty-five states and Washington, D.C., have fully adopted the standards, which call for wholesale changes in the way math and reading are taught from kindergarten through 12th grade.
The standards are a set of expectations about knowledge that students should have and skills they should possess by the end of each grade. The standards are not curricula; decisions about what and how to teach are left up to states and local school districts. Until now, every state set its own standards, and they varied widely in quality.
Mr. Gates said common standards could transform U.S. education, reduce the number of students taking remedial courses in college and enable U.S. students to better compete globally.
Standardization is especially crucial to allow for innovation in the classroom, said Mr. Gates, who used an analogy of electrical outlets. "If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn't be available and would be very expensive," he said. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers, he said.
If states use common academic standards, the quality of classroom materials and professional development will improve, Mr. Gates said. Much of that material will be digital tools that are personalized to the student, he said.
But Mr. Gates said he was concerned about "bumpy" implementation in some states and about some political attacks lobbed at the Common Core. "We have to make sure people know that it's not the federal government setting standards, or that it's a block to innovation."
Mr. Gates suggested that critics are uninformed.
"It's just another case when I was naive -- I thought people who spoke out against the Common Core would be people who read the Common Core," he said during a later question-and-answer session.
Foes span the political spectrum, from Tea Party activists who say the Common Core standards amount to a federal takeover of local education to progressives who bristle at the testing emphasis and the Gates Foundation's role. Meanwhile, parents are left to wonder about the changes taking place in the classroom.
Mr. Gates urged teachers to talk with parents and explain the value of the new standards and said that was the most effective way to shoot down false claims.