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What Will It Take to Educate the Gates Foundation?

Two years ago, I was involved in a behind the scenes dialogue with individuals at the Gates Foundation. I agreed to keep the details of that confidential, and so I shall. That private dialogue led to a public exchange that consisted of five separate essays from each side, taking on the big issues in education reform.

Bill Gates and his direct and indirect employees have made a huge gamble.

Let's go back to a 2008 interview with Mr. Gates to understand what he hoped would happen.

There's a lot of issues about governance, whether its school boards or unions, where you want to allow for experimentation, in terms of pay procedures, management procedures, to really prove out new things. As those things start working on behalf of the students, then I believe the majority of teachers and voters will be open-minded to these new approaches. And so we have to take it a step at a time. They have to give us the opportunity for this experimentation.

The cities where our foundation has put the most money in, is where there's a single person responsible - in New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, the mayor has responsibility for the school system, and so instead of having a committee of people, you have that one person. And that's where we've seen the willingness to take on some of the older practices and try new things, and we've seen very good results in all three of those cities, so there are some lessons that have already been learned. We need to make more investments, and I do think the teachers will come along, because after all they're there because they believe in helping the students as well.

Bill Gates has made it clear that this was an experiment from the start. What he did not seem to allow for in his scenario was the possibility that his experiment would not succeed. And there was an impatient imperative in his demands—"They have to give us the opportunity for this experimentation."

We, the citizens,  students, parents, and educators were not asked nor allowed to vote on this. Bill Gates and his allies decided this was needed, and they made it happen, using the levers of power within their control.

And this is an experiment not being carried out in a laboratory. It is not even limited to the large cities with mayoral control—because when President Obama was elected, the Gates Foundation had the chance to take its experiment to the national level. Through Race to the Top and the subsequent NCLB-waiver process, we have had ideas that came from the Gates Foundation turned into federal policies. Here are the big ideas that came from Gates and became federal policy:

  • Teacher pay and evaluation systems that must give significant weight to test scores and VAM formulas.
  • Unlimited expansion and deregulation of charter schools.
  • Creation of Common Core standards and aligned tests and curriculum.

These strategies were driven by three big assumptions. The first was that data—mainly in the form of test scores—would provide ever more timely and specific information that could be used to "personalize" instruction, and to scientifically measure learning. When this data was connected to evaluation and compensation systems in schools, this would drive continuous improvement, and weed out those who were not effective.

The second major assumption was that market competition would drive improvement, both in schools themselves, and in the ever-more-important field of educational technology. This is a bit complex. In terms of schools, the Gates Foundation pushed—and the Department of Education adopted—policies that removed limits from the expansion of charter schools. This has led to a significant expansion in these schools across the country, the idea being that removing these schools from the fetters of school district management and union representation would yield innovation. And forcing schools to compete for students would lead to improvement.

The third assumption was that educators had used poverty to excuse their own failings, and that high expectations for schools, teachers, and students would lead to greatly improved outcomes. And these high expectations needed to be enforced through real consequences for failure at every level. "Our students cannot wait" for poverty to be addressed, goes the argument, and education itself is the way out of poverty. If we fire the bottom five percent of teachers, Gates asserted on Oprah in 2010, our standing on international test rankings would soar to the top.

In our published dialogue 18 months ago, I attempted to point out the flaws in these assumptions and the strategies they yielded. Even then, there were already solid reasons to doubt the wisdom of these reforms.

Gates proved right in one regard, in that we "had to" give this approach a chance. We had no choice, because Gates and his allies in government and industry made the decisions for us. But today, the experiment has yielded plenty of data to allow us to reach some rather disturbing conclusions.

 A report released last year by the nonprofit advocacy group Broader, Bolder Approach to Education took a close look at the big cities—the very ones cited by Bill Gates in his 2008 remarks quoted above as being models of reform, and found that rather than being showcases of success, they have yielded poor results overall.

The report finds that the reforms deliver few benefits, often harm the students they purport to help, and divert attention from a set of other, less visible policies with more promise to weaken the link between poverty and low educational attainment.

Two weeks ago, the American Statistical Association issued a definitive report condemning the use of VAM systems to evaluate teachers.

Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.

This reinforces a joint statement by the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education:

With respect to value-added measures of student achievement tied to individual teachers, current research suggests that high-stakes, individual-level decisions, or comparisons across highly dissimilar schools or student populations, should be avoided.

Meanwhile these systems are yielding the haphazard results that experts have warned against from the start—teachers of the year fired for inadequate scores, and those who teach English Learners or special education students unfairly labeled ineffective. See more research here.

Research on charter schools continues to provide evidence that they rarely outperform public schools, and often divert essential support from them. Virtual charters tend to be worst of all, yet continue to receive public funds.  Even in Chicago, where Arne Duncan and Rahm Emanuel have provided extensive support, charters have failed to show themselves any better than regular public schools.

Charters have been part of a pattern of increased segregation, and have been found to leave some of the neediest students behind. Policymakers in both Chile  and Sweden are now attempting to undo the tremendous damage the public funding of private schools has done to their public schools.

While a few charters, like this one I visited in Albuquerque, have been truly innovative, the sector as a whole has been a bust, especially if the intention was to show that poverty should not matter to school success.

The grand alignment that was to be achieved through the Common Core is likewise faltering. As Diane Ravitch pointed out recently,  the standard-setting process failed to follow established processes that make such standards legitimate.  As the tests arrive and declare our students and schools to be even worse than ever, their validity faces even more questions. A growing opt-out movement threatens to bring the entire data-driven enterprise to its knees, and parental concerns about student privacy have already led to the demise of the Gates-funded inBloom data storage system.

This month a study was released by Princeton University's  Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page which suggests that

...economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

To be clear, teacher unions are a mass-based interest group. Teachers and our unions do not have any significant power in our schools, or in policies affecting education. Instead, it is organizations like the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations, and business alliances like ALEC which are running the reform show.

Last September Bill Gates said,

It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won't know for probably a decade.

I think we already know enough to declare the experiment a failure.

  • Value Added is a disaster. Any "reformer" who continues to support giving significant weight to such unreliable indicators should lose any credibility.
  • Charter schools are, as a sector, not better than public schools, and are expanding segregation, and increasing inequality.
  • The Common Core and the high stakes accountability system in which it is embedded is on its way to the graveyard of grand ideas.

The only question remaining is how long Gates and his employees and proxies will remain wedded to their ideas, and continue to push them through their sponsored advocacy, even when these policies have been proven to be ill-founded and unworkable.

Part of the problem with market-driven reform is that when you introduce the opportunity to make money off something like education, you unleash a feedback loop. Companies like the virtual charter chain K12 Inc can make tremendous profits, which they can use to buy off politicians, given our Supreme Court's "Corporations are people and money is speech" philosophy. There are no systemic brakes on this train. The only way turn this around is for people to organize in large enough numbers, and act together in ways that actively disrupt and derail the operation.

Along those lines, activists in Seattle are organizing a demonstration on June 26th, protesting the Gates Foundation at their headquarters. It has been a year and a half since I engaged the Gates Foundation in dialogue. Given the rather poor aptitude for learning Gates and company have shown, I will be joining this protest, and perhaps if enough of us are there, we can take the dialogue to the next level.

What do you think it will take to educate the Gates Foundation? Is it time to protest their education reform initiatives?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

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