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John Thompson: Can the Gates Foundation Learn?

Guest post by John Thompson.

PBS's John Merrow explains how grassroots, bipartisan outrage is toppling Common Core State Standards and the national testing that it accompanies. He says, "at least two other issues are at play: bubble test fatigue and concern over top-down 'technocratic' control of what most Americans think of as a local enterprise, public education."

Reformers once won a series of political victories, even as their educational theories were repeatedly defeated by realities in schools that are far more complex than anything they imagined. Improving schools, as opposed to defeating political enemies, has been an exhausting process of pushing a boulder uphill.

Now, the rock of reality has overwhelmed their theories and it is rolling back down. Merrow writes,

We can push a boulder down the hill but are powerless to control what happens next. That's what seems to be going on here, and at some point we are going to find out what and who will be crushed. As often happens when adults do battle in education, some children's futures will be 'collateral damage.'

Merrow then tackled the question that I repeatedly hear - after data-driven reform collapses, what next? "If we end up starting the higher standards process all over again," he recommends, "let's agree that teachers must be well-represented at the table." After all, education is about relationships. "No matter what the technocrats believe or wish, Merrow notes, education is not a commodity, and "children are not objects to be weighed and measured." "Teachers have to be trusted, because the enterprise cannot succeed without them, no matter what technocrats may believe or wish."

Merrow's wisdom is especially timely for me. I believe that teachers must take some risks, build relationships and communicate with our opponents, and keep that boulder from crushing kids as it descends. That is why I am engaged in a blogosphere conversation with conservative reformer Rick Hess and the Gates Foundation's Steve Cantrell. Hess brought Cantrell and me together for a ninety minute telephone conversation and posted our responses to each others' outreach effort.

I challenged the Gates position that its "teacher quality" reforms can improve high-poverty schools. Of course, their approach can be beneficial. The policy issue, however, is how will they be used, constructively and destructively. How, I asked, can teachers not oppose reforms that can be beneficial before concrete checks and balances for the inevitable misuses are nailed down?

To his credit, Cantrell responded, "John mentioned the need to put safeguards in place before teaching effectiveness measures are used for consequences. I couldn't agree more." 

But, he offered no indication that the Gates Foundation agrees or that it will take actions to help us gain such protections from laws that have already be been passed.

My post explained why the predictable consequence of the "value-added" evaluations that Gates supports, even when balanced by "multiple measures," would be an exodus of teaching talent out of the most challenging schools (where it is harder to raise test scores.)

Unfortunately, Cantrell didn't address that question. I'm still waiting for a plausible explanation of how incorporating test score growth into teacher evaluations can be used as anything more than a club to intimidate teachers into accepting the teach-to-the-test pedagogy. I have yet to hear a scenario where those metrics do more good than harm to students, imposing more primitive test prep on schools. Neither have I heard an explanation of how Common Core college readiness testing can be successfully implemented without at least a moratorium on stakes for individuals attached to tests.

While I intend to keep up the dialogue with Hess, Cantrell, and others who, to a greater or lesser degree, are unwilling to pull the plug on test-driven accountability, I still have reservations about whether such outreach is premature.  I'm afraid the boulder may have to roll further down the hill before a new reform effort can begin.

So, even as I celebrated Merrow's diagnosis the fatal problem with test-driven reform, I was unnerved by an equally profound analysis that was posted on the same day. Teacher/blogger Anthony Cody, in "What Will It Take to Educate the Gates Foundation?," explained why the value added evaluations pushed by Gates are a disaster. He recounts the futility and the dangers of the edu-philanthropists' embrace of charter schools, and how "Common Core and the high stakes accountability system in which it is embedded is on its way to the graveyard of grand ideas."

Cody recalls Bill Gates' 2008 statement that "They (educators and voters) have to give us the opportunity for this experimentation." Six years later their top-down experiment has demonstrably failed. As Cody concludes, "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."

Cody is correct that "before we can begin to build the kind of positive collaborative culture we need in our schools, we have got to unwind the damage the past decade has wrought on them." He correctly argues that the Gates Foundation still refuses to acknowledge what teachers can and cannot do, especially in regard to overcoming generational poverty.

On the other hand, John Merrow once supported Common Core. His evaluation of Michelle Rhee has changed abruptly, as has his take on other data-driven reforms. For that matter, my opinions have continually evolved due to dialogue with Anthony, another person who changed her mind, Diane Ravitch, and others.

As I had an opportunity to explain, Steve Cantrell voices confidence that the quiet pressure the Gates Foundation is placing on systems to be more thoughtful in implementing reforms is reducing the danger that teachers will be damaged. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that top down reformers are slow to recognize the unintended damage of their policies because they are so distant to teachers, students, and schools.

But the publicity surrounding last year's and this year's spring testing seasons has become a game-changer. I don't think it is naïve to hope that edu-philanthropists will listen and change their course. Regardless, I believe we need all of the above, journalists like John Merrow who speak to a large television audience and analysts like Anthony Cody who connect the dots and present a rigorously documented indictment of market-driven reform, as well as others who seek to communicate about their own experience with the harm that is being done by standardized testing.

What do you think? Many of us have complained about some of John Merrow's previous work, but wasn't his post great? Can't we expect more and more educators to be convinced by the comprehensive analyses of Anthony and others? Should we not shift gears, not just worry about the threat of test-driven reform, but think about the next era of school improvement?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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