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A Teacher in Dialogue with the Gates Foundation: Five Exchanges over Core Issues in Education

Follow me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

I have been in conversations with the Gates Foundation for the past two months. In my early exchanges with representatives of the Gates Foundation it felt as if we were barely scratching the surface of the many issues that I thought should be explored. I thought that this dialogue might serve to delve into the issues more deeply.

Yesterday the Gates Foundation responded to my last post, focused on the problems associated with a market-driven approach to education reform.

I want to revisit the ten posts in this exchange, and have chosen excerpts from each to provide an overview to the discussion. Below are links to each of the ten posts, on both my Education Week blog, and over at the Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimists blog. (Note: there tended to be more comments posted over at Impatient Optimists.)

Exchange #1: How can educators create a strong professional culture in our schools? How do we build the teaching profession?

My post went first: How do we Build the Teaching Profession?

At Living in Dialogue.

At Impatient Optimists.

We need to pursue the conditions necessary for solid reflective, collaborative cultures at schools. These are dynamic processes that rely on the leadership and inspiration of everyone involved. They require trust to be invested in our school leaders, who in turn need to trust their teachers to engage in this often open-ended work. Constant pressure to raise test scores and top-down mandates destroy this. These external pressures do not add coherence--they subtract it. Teachers need autonomy and time, and they need support, access to partners, the use of strong models of collaboration, and small class sizes so they are not overwhelmed every day. We need to strengthen, not eliminate due process, when we ask teachers to open their classroom practices to one another and reflect honestly about their practice.

-- Anthony Cody

Gates Foundation response is by Irvin Scott: "How do we Build the Teaching Profession?"

At Living in Dialogue.


At Impatient Optimists.

I think the elevation of the teaching profession we seek not only can happen - it's already happening. Over the past year, I have had the honor of meeting and engaging with hundreds and hundreds of teachers across the country. From these experiences, three things have become very apparent. First, teachers are not monolithic in their views and perspectives. This is why it has been so important for us at the foundation to engage with many teachers as frequently as possible. Second, while teachers may not all share the same views on how to build the profession, most seem to believe that the challenges faced by our students and teachers warrant significant shifts in the profession. Finally, teachers welcome the opportunity to play key roles in building the profession. The foundation will do all that we can to ensure that this happens.

-- Irvin Scott

Exchange #2: How do we consider evidence of student learning in teacher evaluation?

The Gates Foundation's Vicki Phillips writes the first post:

At Living in Dialogue.

At Impatient Optimists.

The most important question, however, is not how evidence of student learning should be used in teacher evaluation, but how teacher evaluations themselves should be used.


And there, the focus must lie firmly on development. The reality is that few teachers are remarkably effective or ineffective, as confirmed by the MET study. Most teachers are professionals trying to get better at their craft. We owe it to them--and their students--to help.
The primary purpose of teacher evaluation systems isn't to identify the small percentage of teachers who should choose another calling, or even those whose practice should be celebrated and spread (although we certainly want to do that). The purpose is to get teachers the targeted, personalized feedback and professional development they need and want, tied to more detailed information about their teaching, so that they can continue to improve collectively and individually.

-- Vicki Phillips


My response:

At Living in Dialogue.

At Impatient Optimists.

If the Gates Foundation honestly believes that the heart of teacher evaluation ought to focus on improvement, not ridding schools of the bottom five percent, then shouldn't they actively support, rather than undermine, due process protections that allow teachers the security to engage in meaningful reflection, without fear of being fired for their shortcomings? If the Gates Foundation wishes to reverse the effects of the war that has been so devastatingly waged against the teaching profession, it must first come to terms with the role it has played. Any attempt to dance around the very real damage that has been done invites dismissal by honest teachers. Evaluations that rely in any way on VAM scores are causing great harm to teachers and their students. If the Gates Foundation is unaware of this, after having spent $300 million studying how we can best measure effective teaching, I question its capacity to learn. If the Gates Foundation IS aware of this, given its role in advancing these methods, it is not enough to simply come out with another, more nuanced model - while the old model continues to wreak havoc in our schools. If the Gates Foundation is accountable for its work, it must undo the harm to which it has contributed.

-- Anthony Cody


Exchange #3: What is the role of education reform in relation to the problem of family poverty? What is the best way to achieve greater equity in educational and life prospects for children of poverty?

My post went first. "Can Schools Defeat Poverty by Ignoring It?"

At Living in Dialogue.

At Impatient Optimists.

Most of the projects supported by the tax-exempt Gates Foundation take a "money is not the answer" approach. Yet if our schools are to even begin to address inequities, we must begin by funding them adequately. Our nation's public school funding is in a shambles, and the schools attended by the poor are, by and large, funded at far lower levels than even the public schools attended by wealthier students. The "savage inequalities" that Jonathan Kozol wrote of two decades ago are, shamefully, even worse.
If money doesn't matter, why not spend our public assets on our neediest children, rather than those who come to school with the greatest advantage? If class size does not matter, why do the schools of the privileged, including the school attended by the Gates family, have class sizes of around 16?
Why doesn't the Gates Foundation, instead of giving funds to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which never met a tax it didn't hate, support a campaign to increase taxation on the wealthy, to pay for education and anti-poverty programs?
Why do the Foundation's philanthropic efforts not target inequity in education at the root - where the biggest differences can be made, rather than accept these conditions as immutable?
How can the Foundation justify its expenditures to advocate for public investment in data systems when the basic needs of children aren't being met in schools? Why not strongly advocate for a base level of adequate funding for all schools, and the taxes necessary to support this?
Why not support concrete assistance to schools currently being systematically de-funded? How about supporting the expansion of libraries, so poor children have access to books? How about smaller class sizes, which make a huge difference in the ability of teachers to give individual attention to struggling students?

-- Anthony Cody

Chris Williams of the Gates Foundation responds: "Poverty Does Matter, but it is Not Destiny"

At Living in Dialogue.

At Impatient Optimists.

We know there is a lot of work to be done outside the school building as well, but again, we have to focus our resources. Inside the school, no one will have a greater impact on student achievement than the teacher in the classroom. And we intend to do everything we can to help that teacher succeed.
We see great teachers across the nation making a huge difference in the lives of children, fundamentally altering their life opportunities. We are learning from their experience and helping other teachers take advantage of the tools and tactics they have used to excel in the profession.
We do this fully aware that we are one of many actors tackling these many, interconnected issues. Strong partnership between schools and their communities are essential, and are exemplified by the work of organizations such as the Harlem Children's Zone and Boston's "Thrive in Five" program. We are also supportive of surrounding teachers who teach in high-poverty schools with the tools and supports they need to ensure progress and success with their students.
What we can't do, however, is address all of the problems that put or keep families in poverty. We just don't have the resources to do that. But we are part of a community of donors who are committed to eliminating the causes of poverty. We believe the most effective philanthropic efforts are ones that remain focused on addressing particular problems and are creative about their approach to supporting solutions. That philosophy is based on the data and research of successful philanthropy.
We agree with Anthony Cody that poverty is a central problem; we just don't think we can ever effectively turn the tide by creating false choices for the daunting series of challenges students in our schools face.

-- Chris Williams

Exchange #4: What is the purpose of K-12 education? How do we think about college and career readiness? How do the Common Core Standards fit in?

The Gates Foundation's Irvin Scott goes first, with "K-12 Education: An Opportunity Catalyst."

At Living in Dialogue.

At Impatient Optimists.


The bottom line is this: we envision a day where teachers, like other elevated professions, are the caretakers of the profession. This would include being the standard-bearers for entry into the profession, developing, and advancement within the profession, as well as ensuring strict levels of accountability and effectiveness. And while this elevated profession may exist in pockets across America, the goal is for it to be in place nationwide, for every teacher and student.

We believe that despite a child's circumstances, she should be given every opportunity to succeed and lead a life better than the one she was given. That is in direct contrast to the belief that because of a child's circumstances she is destined to live a life of obstacles regardless of the opportunities she's given. In our opinion, the purpose of K-12 education is to help provide and shape those opportunities.

Teachers are not the silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. But they can be a critical ingredient to overcoming a tragic reinforcing pattern of poverty. That's what we're working on at the Gates Foundation.

-- Irvin Scott

My Response: 'What is the Purpose of K-12 Education?"

At Living in Dialogue.

At Impatient Optimists.

Just to remove any doubt, I do not share the Gates Foundation's apparent faith in the ability of new technology to solve the problems the previous generation of testing technology created. The problem is not in the shape of the bubbles or the Scantron forms. The problem is that we are trying to improve teaching in the backwards way that a data driven system requires. Instead of challenging our teachers each day to find the best ways to engage their students, we are giving them lists of standards and scripted curricula to meet them. We replace the expectation that teachers excite and inspire their students to take on new challenges, with the expectation that they deliver a predetermined lesson, where even the student responses are anticipated and planned for. This is not the elevation of the teaching profession - it is its intellectual demise.
We have had more than a decade of test-driven accountability, and we have very little to show for it. Our schools should not be re-purposed into places for test preparation, even if those tests are now to be taken on computers. If the internet has taught us anything, it is that putting words and numbers through a microprocessor does not render them somehow smarter.
We need to re-examine our goals, and realize that our schools are not ecosystems walled off from the economy and society. They are porous places, and we must have strong connections with the needs and challenges in our communities. Our communities should play a strong role in supporting our schools, and making sure that the curriculum there is preparing students well for life beyond high school. Our schools should be accountable to parents, students and their community, not to a national testing system, no matter how technologically advanced.

-- Anthony Cody


Exchange #5: What is the role of the marketplace in pushing forward education improvement and innovation?


My post went first: "What Happens when Profits Drive Reform?"


At Living in Dialogue.

At Impatient Optimists.


Choice in education is an illusion. In some cases it allows a lucky few access to a better school. But those seeking profit rarely want a level playing field - they seek whatever advantages they can get, and often that means leaving behind the special education student and the English learner. 
As a parent, I was not only concerned about my own sons. I wanted the best education possible for all the children of our community. The public schools were a legacy handed to us by generations before that built them. It is our challenge to rebuild them into places that fulfill that now tarnished ideal, to educate everyone well. It is critically important that institutions such as our schools be driven not by decisions based on what is most profitable, but instead by our interest in the common good, and by our commitment to providing excellent opportunities for every child, even when this is unprofitable.

In the process by which decisions are being made about our schools, private companies with a vested interest in advancing profitable solutions have become ever more influential. The Gates Foundation has tied the future of American education to the capacity of the marketplace to raise all boats, but the poor are being left in leaky dinghies.

Neither the scourge of high stakes tests nor the false choices offered by charter schools, real or virtual, will serve to improve our schools. Solutions are to be found in rebuilding our local schools, recommitting to the social compact that says, in this community we care for all our children, and we do not leave their fate to chance, to a lottery for scarce slots. We have the wealth in this nation to give every child a high quality education, if that is what we decide to do. With the money we spent on the Bush tax cuts for millionaires in one month we could hire 72,000 more teachers for a year. It is all about our priorities.

-- Anthony Cody


The Gates Foundation's response was written by Stacey Childress and Irvin Scott: "The Role of the Marketplace in Education."


At Living in Dialogue.

At Impatient Optimists.


As I have reflected on these exchanges, my meeting with Mr. Cody here at the foundation, and my life's work as an educator with a deep commitment to equity and opportunity, I must agree with how Mr. Cody started his last column: we have different realities.

Simply, I believe all children can learn. I believe low-income children of color can learn when they have great teachers who believe in them, and treat them with the same passion, enthusiasm and intellectual rigor that they would treat their own children. And I believe in the skill and will of teachers, provided they are given the opportunity to teach, learn and lead as true professionals. I believe in John Dewey's insight that learning in the process of living is the deepest form of freedom. In a nation that aspires to democracy, that's what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society.

I want to believe that Mr. Cody believes this same truth about students, yet in each post he carefully marshals an assortment of facts and statistics which seems to suggest that he believes that children living in poverty cannot learn and that until the status quo changes we should lower our expectations for poor children.

We know that there are great, heroic teachers preparing low-income students for college and that it is our moral duty to understand what they do and how they do it - and help many more teachers learn from them. Then we must make sure low-income young people have access to those teachers and the life changing opportunities they represent. That is the essence of our teacher work here at the foundation - to help create a system that helps all teachers improve so they can change children's lives.

-- Irvin Scott

What do you think of this dialogue? What can we learn here about the state of the education reform debate in the year 2012?


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