By Anthony Cody.
Bill Gates sounded surprisingly defensive when asked about the Gates Foundation’s work in education, in a video interview made available this week by the Wall Street Journal. His statement suggests he is unaware of much of what his money is buying in the field of education. Here is the exchange (my transcript from the video.)
Bill, are you concerned about some criticism that the Gates Foundation has, you know, a private foundation, has basically funded a huge shift in public education; a couple lawsuits have been filed, people are saying “why should the federal government be playing such a big role in what’s happening in my local school district and why is the Gates Foundation playing a role in this?”
Well, we fund R & D, and the idea that there will be better online software – we’re the biggest funder of these online courses, and seeing how do they work for students who are not high income [not especially well, according to comments Gates made last year in Los Alamos]. Does it help with their schedule flexibility, does it help when they fall behind, that it’s personalized and can give them positive reinforcement, to help them catch up. And so the huge underinvestment in education, foundations can come in and fill some of that gap. The actual decision of what should be taught, and what the personnel policies should be, obviously that’s under political control. The state government, the school board, the negotiation with the union. But the idea of having some of these tools that can be adopted – peer feedback, you know we have some districts that have adopted that, it’s gone very well. We hope other districts come in and see that and choose to participate, but that’s gonna be all inside the political system. But the underinvestment in learning why some teachers are so good – we’re trying to close some of the gap there.
Starting at the halfway point, when he starts talking about political control, his arms start waving around a lot. That is where the story gets a bit murky. First of all, we might take a look at an earlier interview that shows a rather different attitude towards the political process.
Back in 2008, Gates said this to Wolf Blitzer on CNN:
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 and management procedures, to really prove out new things. As those things start working on behalf of the students, then I believe that 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 unions, the voters. The cities where our foundation has put the most money in is where there’s a single person responsible. In New York, Chicago and Washington, DC, the mayor has responsibility for the school system. 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.
And we know that the Gates-inspired experimentation expanded to a national level after the election of Barack Obama, and the appointment of Arne Duncan, as described in my recent book, The Educator and the Oligarch.
But what about the most recent Foundation investments?
I took a look to see if Gates’ statement that “we fund R & D and stay out of political decisions” holds water. I am afraid it is a bit leaky. Here are a few of the holes. Reviewing the latest grants in the Foundation’s database, in the US program, College Ready issue, there are some patterns that emerge that show funding that goes a bit beyond research and development.
There are several priorities that emerge from the grants awarded over the past year or so.
First, charter schools, especially in Gates’ home state of Washington.
In 2014 alone, there were 16 grants, ranging in size from $20,000 to one for almost $4 million, to charter school organizations of one sort or another. The total amount given to charter schools last year adds up to $8,893,099.
Charter schools in the state of Washington are an interesting case given Gates’ claim that he leaves decisions about which direction to go to “the political process.” He was not so hands off here. This study by Wayne Au and Joseph Ferrarre details how Gates’ own money and influence assembled a multi-million dollar campaign to pass a statewide ballot initiative in 2012 permitting charter schools, something which had been defeated both in the legislature and at the polls in years prior.
In 2014, the Gates Foundation is delivering support to make sure that personal investment pays off. Almost $4 million was granted to Pacific Charter School Development Inc. in order to “support the facility needs of charter schools in Washington State.” Another $50,000 went to the Washington State Charter Schools Association to “support the development of a Washington State and Idaho charter support organization regional collaboration feasibility study.”
Charter schools in Chicago also got a boost. Chicago is one of the three cities Gates stated was worth investing in back in 2008, because of a strong mayor being in charge of schools. The Chicago Community Trust received $1.1 million “to advance collaboration between traditional district schools and public charter schools in Chicago,” and the Illinois Network Of Charter Schoolsreceived $281,100 for a similar goal. The Children’s First Fund, The Chicago Public School Foundation, got yet another $1,249,040 for this purpose.
Not surprisingly, another key emphasis was the Common Core. As Gates has acknowledged, his dollars financed the original development of the Common Core, allowing its end run around prohibitions against federal promotion of national standards. Since 2009, the development and promotion of Common Core has been a big funding priority for the Foundation. Last year saw a total of 26 grants awarded related to Common Core, for a total dollar amount of $18,054,070. One grant that jumps out is one for just over $10 million to the New Venture Fund. The purpose? “to support the successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards and related assessments through comprehensive and targeted communications and advocacy in key states and the District of Columbia.” (emphasis added). Communications and advocacy. Not research and development. A group called Children Now got nearly half a million dollars to “to support the Common Core State Standards in California.” Again, advocacy, in a contentious political arena.
Though I focused my research mainly on the year 2014, it is worth noting a few additional grants still in effect. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation got about $1.4 million in late 2013 “to lead the effort to engage and educate state and local chambers to support Common Core State Standards.” Again, advocacy sponsored by Gates. And the Council of Great City Schools, also in late 2013, got $2 million, “to help member school districts to align implementation of the Common Core State Standards with their reform efforts in teacher effectiveness and prepare for new PARCC and SBAC online assessments.” Remember, Gates stated that personnel policies should be under political control, and thus off limits from Gates Foundation influence. Yet here the foundation is paying for an organization to actively guide these policies. Similarly, the Council of Chief State School Officers received almost $2 million “to support a 20-month project of the Council of Chief State School Officers to help 7-10 member states and a subset of their school districts to integrate implementation of the Common Core State Standards with their reform efforts in teacher effectiveness in ways that produce measurable impact at the school and district level.” That sure sounds like personnel policies to me. And while Gates describes these policies as the uncontroversial practice of “peer feedback,” districts following the Gates Foundation’s lead are also applying the use of VAM metrics to include test scores in teacher evaluations.
The other interesting thing is the many relatively small (by Gates standards) grants to organizations like the National Writing Project. The NWP has, in the past, given teachers a sense of their own voices through their writing. This is a group that might be expected to have some independent thoughts to add to the debate over writing instruction raging around the Common Core. But now that they have received a grant of $300,000 to “mobilize teacher learning focused on the Common Core” we will be unlikely to hear much objection from them.
Similar grants went to the National Council for the Social Studies. The purpose is “to operationalize a plan designed to help social studies teachers implement the Common Core State Standards.” ($205,000), the National Paideia Center, Inc, ($298,375). The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages was a bit cheaper – they only got $174,888 for the promise “to develop and incorporate professional development based on the Common Core State Standards.
One grant that seems a bit ironic was made to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, in the amount of $299,709. Its purpose? “To provide professional development opportunities for teachers to further hardwire the Common Core curriculum.”
This pattern shows how a whole sector of professional organizations has accepted money to implement the Gates Foundation’s Common Core standards, in spite of the ways those standards and associated tests undermine good teaching. This compromises the capacity of these organizations to speak independently, as much as they might protest otherwise.
Oh, and let’s not forget the field of journalism. Editorial Projects in Education Inc., which publishes Education Week, got $750,000, “to support coverage on implementation of Common Core State Standards.”
There is one last set of funding priorities worth mentioning. The Gates Foundation has emphasized technology as a tool to advance learning, and last year they continued to invest heavily in this area, making 14 grants, totaling $13,910,489. These grants went mainly to individual school districts, “to implement a system-level strategic plan for personalized learning.” (Personalized learning is the Gates Foundation’s euphemism for computer-based learning.) This is not advocacy, but as someone who worked in a cash-strapped urban district for 24 years, I know that funding of this sort has a way of re-setting institutional priorities – and that, presumably, is the intent.
I try to give those with whom I disagree the benefit of the doubt — even Bill Gates. But when they make statements of fact that are patently misleading or false, it is important that they be challenged. The Gates-funded Education Writers Association recently declared me “not a journalist,” because, according to them, I do not show sufficient distance from the subject I cover. On that count, I have a question. To her credit, Rebecca Blumenstein posed this question to Gates. But will she check the readily available facts to see if he was truthful? How many Gates-supported “journalists” will investigate his statements? With a very few notable exceptions, that work seems to be left to truly independent bloggers.
What do you think? Is “R & D” an accurate description of the work of the Gates Foundation in education? Has the Foundation left the rest to the political process, as Bill Gates states? Will journalists (as opposed to bloggers like myself) question his assertions?
Featured image by Jules Antonio, used with Creative Commons license.