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Questioning Education Reformers' Motives: The Big Taboo

When Lyndsey Layton interviewed Bill Gates a few months ago, she violated one of the major taboos of the education reform discourse. She suggested that he needed to respond to concerns being raised about his personal financial motives in supporting the Common Core. 

Here is her question, as transcribed by Mercedes Schneider (minute 14:30 in the video above):

Layton: There are some people who, when they hear the speech that you just gave where you were talking about standardization and common standards will help drive innovation and help us have this, the online revolution in a way that, that this part of the economy has really been untouched; that it's important that if we have common standards, then we can really open up the online, the benefits of the online revolution in education. There are people who hear that and think, 'That's what he's doing. He really wants this because he wants to encourage the technology industry because he's the cofounder of Microsoft. It's, it's, he's being driven by business interests here.' What, how would you respond to that?

Gates' response is interesting. At first he pretends to not even understand what Layton could possibly be suggesting:

Gates: Uh, I think, you're, you're sticking to the political side of this thing. Uhh...

Layton: I'm from the Washington Post. We're in Washington.

Gates: Do you think that passes, do you think that passes muster?

Layton: I, I don't know. I am not, I, this is the first time we've met...

Gates: Okay, so give me the, give me the logic here.

Layton: The logic is...

Gates: What is it that you're saying? It's all a lot of self-interest? It's...

Layton: That, no, that that's, that that's one of the driving forces behind your embrace of the Common Core.

Gates: Meaning what?

Layton: Meaning Microsoft and Pearson just signed a deal to, to put the Common Core curriculum on the surface. So, you've got a product, Microsoft has a product now that it's, that it's selling...

Gates: Yeah, we had the old Pearson stuff. I, it, it, there's no connection, there's no connection to Common Core and any Microsoft thing.

Layton: Okay. Well I just, I want to understand this, but that's a, Bill, let me just tell you...

Gates: That's staying away from the substance, okay?

Layton: But it's a question when people know, when people learn that you are promoting the Common Core...

Gates: Do you seriously think that the reason I like the Common Core is for some self-interested reason? That's what you're saying.

Layton: No, no. I don't know that I believe that, and you don't seem...

Gates: You don't know. You don't know?

Layton: I don't think that I believe that.

[Gates rolls his eyes and smiles.] 

Layton: Okay, that's kind of a pertinent question that a lot of people who, uh, who don't know you, are (asking), are wondering, and I would just like some response to. But, you're saying you don't want to talk about that, or you don't want to...

Gates: I'm saying, and I've, I hope I can make this clear, I believe in the Common Core because of its substance and what it will do to improve education, and that's the only reason I believe in the Common Core. And I have no, you know, this is giving money away. This is philanthropy. This is trying to make sure students have the kind of opportunity I had. You, You've, there is nothing, uh, it's so, almost... outrageous to say otherwise in my view. Uhh, umm.

This exchange is worth examining. In order to get Gates to even answer the question, the journalist must first stipulate that she personally does not believe the accusation, but still would like Gates to respond to others. (And actually, in listening to the video myself I heard something not in Schneider's transcript. At the most tense part of the exchange, at minute 16:30, just before Layton says "I don't think that I believe that," a male voice from off camera says "why don't we move on.") 

The question is clearly an affront to Gates. It is "almost outrageous" to suggest that anything but altruism is behind Gates' passionate advocacy and financial sponsorship of the Common Core. 

This was perhaps the first time a reporter had the nerve to ask Gates such a direct question regarding Common Core. Those of us who have raised questions regarding the motives of various sponsors of education reform are accustomed to being accused of "conspiracy theories." This is a marker for statements or inquiries that violate the norms of discourse. This is a form of social taboo, and marginalizes the "conspiracy theorist" as a kook.

I have actually never accused Gates of pursuing education reform for the sake of personal financial gain. I have no way of knowing if this is the case. It is true that, as Valerie Strauss pointed out recently, Gates may indeed profit from Common Core as a result of Microsoft's various projects related to the new standards. 

But given that Gates is the richest man in the world, he may not want even more wealth - I really don't know. Do the rich ever seem to say "that's enough"? Maybe they do!

Here is the deeper problem with Gates' model for education reform. It is built on a vision for social change that asserts that in order for the needs of the poor to be met effectively, the drive for profit must be unleashed. Gates views this as the driving force for innovation.

In 2007, Gates returned to Harvard, which he had attended but not graduated from, to give a commencement speech. Here is part of what he said: 

We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism - if we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities. We also can press governments around the world to spend taxpayer money in ways that better reflect the values of the people who pay the taxes.

If we can find approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits for business and votes for politicians, we will have found a sustainable way to reduce inequity in the world.

In Gates' view, the way to meet the needs of the poor is to make it profitable for corporations to do so. The simple fact that a drive for profits is far more often the source of poverty than a solution to it has escaped him.

This model does not allow for a robust and independent public sector that is under the democratic control of citizens. Instead, the public system must be re-engineered so that the funds continue to flow from taxpayers, but flow into various profit-seeking enterprises competing against one another. The only thing that stays "public" is the source of the funding.

It is really irrelevant to me whether Gates himself is motivated by a desire to increase his vast wealth. His model for education reform is powered by the drive for profits, and his "reforms" all seem to unleash this drive in one way or another. His "philanthropy" is aimed at pushing the institution of education from the public sphere into the realm of the private, the corporate. Here are the strategies that go into this:

  • Measure student outcomes by test scores so that schools, teachers, students, and various competing "learning systems" can be judged, and marked as successes or failures. (See the Gates-funded Measures of Effective Teaching project.)
  • Promote mayoral control and undermine elected school boards, so as to allow for maximum leeway for reform "experiments."
  • Create a system of national tests so "innovations" can be compared and marketed on a national scale. (see Joanne Weiss, 2011.)
  • Promote semi-private charter schools, with little public oversight or union representation.
  • Undermine traditional schools of education, and promote "alternative" means of preparing teachers. Push for the evaluation of such programs to be based on test scores of the students of their graduates. (see the Gates-funded work of the NCTQ.)

All of these "reforms" undermine the democratic control of our public education system, and wherever possible, shift control into testing companies, private ventures or individuals subject to corporate influence.

Every week we read of some new scandal associated with charter schools. A recent investigation by Integrity in Education focused on only 15 states found more than $100 million has been diverted into private pockets. Software and testing systems routinely deliver flawed data, with very little accountability. We get a regular charade of supposed champions of civil rights insisting that we must have high quality teachers while at the same time awarding grants to Teach For America, promoting the use of teachers with only five weeks of training in the nation's most challenging schools.

Market-based solutions have a major flaw. When profit is used as the motivator, the most needy students are not served well. The measurement systems that the Gates Foundation has promoted, such as VAM based teacher evaluations, actually punish teachers who work with the neediest students. Charter schools have been found to consistently under enroll the neediest special ed students, leaving that burden to the public schools. Charter schools are increasing the level of segregation in many cities. Solutions based on technological innovations, so beloved by Gates, have yet to reduce inequities - and may even increase them, as this research suggests. The cities Gates lauded for imposing mayoral control of schools, and high pressure focused on test score accountability, actually performed worse than cities not under such regimes.

However, so long as profits are being made, the inadequacies of these "solutions" can be masked, because the corporations making money can provide active financial support to lawmakers willing to give them support, and few in the media are willing to run the risk of incurring the epithets of the billionaires they might offend by uncovering the unsavory side of reform. 

I am glad Layton asked Gates that outrageous question about his personal financial motives, even if we never get a clear answer. What is clear is that his model for education reform places the motive for profits in the drivers seat, and our recent experiences with profit seeking corporations suggests that this will make for a very rough ride for the rest of us.

The failure of market-driven solutions to educational problems offers us a chance to try something different. It is time to re-invest in the democratic processes in our cities. It is time to tap the energy of innovation within our schools, by freeing them from intense pressure to increase test scores. We need to put the public back into public education, and for once, provide adequate resources to our schools, especially those with the neediest students.

 What do you think? Do we need the profit motive to incentivize education reform? Or is the drive for profits leading us astray?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter. 

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