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Bill Gates on ED in '08: 'Mouthing Platitudes'


My colleague, Erik Robelen, was in Seattle yesterday covering the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's new strategy for revamping its high school reform strategy. After the formal speeches, the Gates team gathered on stage for some Q-and-A from the high-powered audience, which included the likes of Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee and Michael Cohen from Achieve.

Robelen offered up a transcript of Bill Gates' answer to a question about marshalling political and public will to accomplish a new reform agenda. His answer is long and meandering, but worth reading. Take note that when Gates talks about the education advocacy effort, he's talking about ED in '08 which, by some accounts, had little success in making education a top-tier issue in the presidential campaign. In fact, by declaring that the foundation's advocacy efforts on global development were successful, Gates acknowledges that ED in '08 ultimately was not.

“We have not found a way to do it. We have not been very successful at it...the problem we tend to run into is that the most influential and well-educated people either have their kids in private schools, or they have their kids in an enclave inside the high school that are called honor’s courses, where the teaching is pretty decent and so, if we go to a school and say, let’s change things here, they say, no way, you’re going to mess our little enclave up. All the kids go through the same front door, but really it’s a separate school inside there that’s allowing us not to be part of that insanity, and so don’t mess with the thing that works well for us. And I do think, if you want to stand up to some of the practices that are not focused on the needs of the students, you need a broad set of parents. I think we’re very weak on this point.
During the presidential election, we had two advocacy efforts. One about global development, and one about education. And we didn’t end up spending the amount of money that we had available for the advocacy because most of what we were causing people to do was to mouth platitudes. … On global development, which I thought was the harder of the two, we actually succeeded because people never even talked about it at all, and we actually got them to talk about it.”

Mr.Gates could learn a thing or two from Mr.Obama. Obama was successful because he knew how to organize communities and put his resources in place, on the ground to do it. Gates is a top-down man who thinks that a few billion dollars and a good idea (at least he thinks it good) will change the world. They won't. They can't. They shouldn't.

The development of Bill Gates has been an interesting one to watch. Educators have defined the problems in education repeatedly in terms of dollars and class size. Gates has the bucks to put that to the test--although I don't think that was his intention. But he has the bucks, and the fire in the gut, to improve education. The first go around, the small schools effort, if nothing else, demonstrated that the solution is not so simple as $ and class size.

I think that he has discovered something significant about the barriers to change in education in this country. We have operated on the basis of granting more/better to those who have more--either through specialized programs, or the vast property-tax based suburban school districts. Even low-income urbans typically have some pockets of relief that effectively screen out the rabble and provide some sense of elitism. Just as the lie of separate "but equal" was exposed when the courts ordered desegregation, so has he stumbled onto the complexity of inequality that has grown up or maintained in its wake. Just like so many who came of age in the 60's--he thinks that people really want to change our problems, if they just know about them. The reality is, they know, but they are deeply, deeply invested in maintaining them.

"The first go around, the small schools effort, if nothing else, demonstrated that the solution is not so simple as $ and class size."

I teach in a small school in Chicago that received money from Gates.

Firstly, being a small school does not mean small class sizes. My classes were not, on average, smaller than those in a large high school.

Secondly, even with the Gates funding, our school was under-resourced. For example, for 350 kids, I have access to one copy machine. At the wealthy suburban school I taught at, not only did each department have at least one copier, we had a school-wide, fully staffed printing room. Let's not even speak of the fact that I'm teaching an AP Psychology class but don't have textbooks. We also have many inexperienced teachers because the suburban schools pay up to $ 15,000 more on averaged. I could afford the pay cut because I had been a lawyer for a long time. Most teachers cannot.

If money doesn't make a difference, why do the wealthy schools cling to every dollar they have and continually ask for more even though their per student spending is already more than twice that of the city?

On a related note, education is not and has never been a federal concern. Nowhere in the constitution is power over education granted to the federal government. It should not have been a national issue in the campaign. Amend the constitution to make it a federal issue.

Watching the Gates people pour millions of dollars into various teacher bashing urban school corporate "reforms" would be sad if the negative impacts weren't so sick and in many cases destructive.

That's the evaluation most of Chicago would give the Gates initiatives here over the past decade. But so many people are sucking up for the dollars (and Gates is so immune from hearing any dissent) that the scams just keep roaring from one to the next.

I could list -- and analyze -- three that Gates has blown money on: Small Schools; Turnaround; Charter schools as "urban" models. This morning two will have to do, although the details are available on all of them, and in Gates's own words and praxis.

During the years Bill Gates poured money into "Small Schools" in Chicago, that money never -- repeated, as Brian just said -- never went to smaller class sizes. What Gates did became a local joke here, although it turned out to be a bad joke on the teachers who bought into the "small schools" stuff.

What Gates dollars (supplemented by millions in local Chicago dollars) did at the places where there were "small schools" was increase administration. I worked in a building (Bowen High School) which during the 1990s had one principal, one assistant principal, and eight of us who were "coordinators" (which meant we taught classes and did some other stuff; I was "security coordinator" with the responsibility to control street gang violence).

When Bowen was converted into three "small schools" at the beginning of the 21st Century, courtesy of Gates pressure with local modeling, Bowen -- the same building -- suddenly had four principals in the building. Three held the title "principal" and the fourth was "campus manager." Class sizes in the vast vast majority of the classes remained the same. Given the needs of those children, it was a sick joke.

Then, without any public discussion, in January 2008, Gates announced he was dumping the "Small Schools" strategy and was going to fund something Chicago is calling "Turnaround." "Turnaround", despite its corporate cachet, is what has been called "Reconstitution" for the past decade -- and it's failed in every city where it's been used, including Chicago.

But Gates didn't care. At the January 2008 media event announcing that Gates would put $9 million into Chicago's "new" Turnaround Strategy, the Gates people and the Chicago people refused to answer my question: Why was "Small Schools" abandoned (and, the follow up would have been how is "Turnaround" different from Reconstitution).

Instead, they simply stopped answering questions.

In June, they fired virtually all of the teachers at the "Smalls Schools" at Chicago's Orr High School. Now they are paying a million dollars to an outfit called the "Academy for Urban School Leadership" to reconstitute Orr as a unitary school. Class sizes at Orr were huge before "Small Schools." Class sizes at Orr will remain large after "Turnaround."

It seems that the formula for getting Gates millions is to come up with some flavor-of-the-month scam, promote it via Power Point slides and contemporary cliches, and make certain that nobody -- nobody -- ever examines the wreckage left behind from the last round of Power Points and corporate cliche.

Brian and George have good points, which both relate to the difficulty of equating dollars (resources) with student outcomes. Hanushek has some interesting speculation on why this is so. His strong suggestion is that resources must be considered as one piece of an equation that includes such things as teacher effects and the appropriate match of programs to needs.

There is an interesting set of recommendations from the National Working Group on School Funding that suggests that school funding--at all levels from building on upward--has always existed totally separate from any purpose of furthering student achievement. Funding goes for programs, personnel, meeting various criteria, but with very little concern for the effect of funding on the end outcome.

Gates may not respond to the question of why the funding is no longer going to small schools--but I didn't think it was any secret. Small schools--like most initiatives--have had spotty and inconsistent results. Now--will "turnaround" encompass any of the strategies that will enable careful and thoughtful matching of resources to needs--I haven't a clue. But then, nobody has to jump on. Certainly if the resource that your school needs is a copy center--don't sign up for small schools thinking that this will get that for you. But also be aware that the best copy center in the world is useless without teachers well prepared to put this tool to good use.

Hanushek, E. (2004).What if there are no "best practices"?. Scottish Journal of Political Economy. 51, 156-172.

National Working Group on Funding Student Learning. (2008). Funding Student Learning: How to Align Education Resources with Student Learning Goals. Bothell, WA: School Finance Redesign Project.

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