By Anthony Cody.
This coming week I will be back in Seattle, a few months shy of the third anniversary of my first visit to the Gates Foundation. I will give a talk at the University of Washington, introduced by Jesse Hagopian and several Teachers of Conscience from the area, who have refused to give high stakes tests to their students.
The world of education has shifted since that visit. Then I was in conversation. The Gates Foundation said they wanted to hear how their work was being received. In the online dialogue that followed, however, we were unable to resolve the biggest differences between us. Since then, the Gates Foundation has continued on its path, largely undeterred by mounting evidence of major errors.
It would be great if representatives from the Gates Foundation would join us at UW on May 15. There is a new CEO there, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, and she has voiced a willingness to learn, and spoken of the need for humility in the Foundation’s work. I sent her my book, The Educator and the Oligarch, a Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation, last month, and it would be remarkable indeed to see this influential institution show a capacity to learn and change direction.
Bill Gates entered the field of education about fifteen years ago with some interesting ideas. Starting around the year 2000, his foundation invested about $650 million in promoting small schools. On the positive side, this was a concept with some basis in how students learn best. There was an understanding that human relationships were improved when schools and class sizes were smaller. Schools like High Tech High were able to experiment with project based learning and other innovative approaches. On the negative side, the foundation was determined to “scale up” this approach, and so there was a tendency to give money to anyone willing to go through the motions.
The small schools that Deborah Meier had created in the decades preceding this were carefully developed, with staff that was devoted to working closely together, solving problems in a democratic way. When the Gates small schools money came to Oakland, where I was working at the time, we saw large schools broken up into smaller ones left and right, with little time or expertise to develop coherent and sustainable practices. While some succeeded, many were not much better than the larger schools they replaced, and they came with a high price tag for increased administrative costs. Oakland is still burdened with too many schools long after the Gates funding disappeared, and a number of the small schools have been re-combined in recent years.
In 2009, there was huge shift in focus for the Gates Foundation. They drew some unfortunate lessons from their small schools work:
Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way. These tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum. We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school. Even so, many schools had higher attendance and graduation rates than their peers. While we were pleased with these improvements, we are trying to raise college-ready graduation rates, and in most cases, we fell short.
But a few of the schools that we funded achieved something amazing. They replaced schools with low expectations and low results with ones that have high expectations and high results. These schools are not selective in whom they admit, and they are overwhelmingly serving kids in poor areas, most of whose parents did not go to college. Almost all of these schools are charter schools that have significantly longer school days than other schools.
This led into Gates Foundation’s EdReform 2.0, which has had four major thrusts.
Focus 1: Teacher quality. Operationally defined as the ability to raise student test scores (though usually described as “achievement,” or “outcomes”).
Focus 2: Educational technologies. Online learning, MOOCs, various devices to deliver “personalized learning” and allow for larger class sizes, videotaped lessons, Khan Academy, etc.
Focus 3: Common Core standards: Connected to teacher quality because the curriculum, instruction and assessment must all be aligned to measurable standards to determine the quality of teaching and the effectiveness of various technological innovations which are the source of greatest hope.
Focus 4: Charter Schools: Able to experiment with longer school days and “no excuses” policies, these schools would compete with public schools and one another to demonstrate that poverty should not be an obstacle.
The Gates Foundation put the weight of their dollars behind these four policy initiatives.
Sarah Reckhow and Megan Tomkins-Stange released a report earlier this year that describes how the Gates and Broad foundations worked to become dominant forces in US education policy:
We find that after 2008, Gates and Broad deliberately pursued funding strategies that prioritized federal policy and advocacy initiatives, sometimes in partnership with one another through purposeful convergence.i Specifically, we find that since 2008, Gates and Broad shifted funds from local education groups to national advocacy organizations and from discrete project-based initiatives to systemic reform efforts. We also show that Congressional testimony on teacher quality by Gates-funded and Broad-funded grantees has increased over time, indicating that these foundations have identified this strategy as a source of significant policy influence.
Finally, we demonstrate that the foundations utilized two distinct strategies within their advocacy funding efforts. First, the foundations closely aligned themselves with high-level officials at the federal Department of Education. Second, they funded a broad range of education interest groups that provided testimony to policymakers, disseminated research, and promoted a common set of policy goals. We argue that these targeted strategies led to a dominant narrative emerging within policy debates regarding teacher quality, specifically the concept of “value-added” teacher evaluation.
Reckhow and Tomkins-Stange also shared a quote from someone inside the Gates Foundation that illuminates how preconceived ideas are reinforced and spread using foundation funding:
It’s within [a] sort of fairly narrow orbit that you manufacture the [research] reports. You hire somebody to write a report. There’s going to be a commission, there’s going to be a lot of research, there’s going to be a lot of vetting and so forth and so on, but you pretty much know what the report is going to say before you go through the exercise.
I wrote recently about the way teacher voices are manipulated in these foundation-funded processes as well.
So what do we know about how the four big priority policies listed above have played out over the past six years?
The “teacher quality” project is in full swing and is having a huge impact on teachers across the nation. Teachers in many states now have evaluations that include student test scores, often with VAM systems heavily pushed by the Gates Foundation. Many are also being evaluated using new “frameworks” from Danielson and Marzano. Teachers and administrators report having to spend huge amounts of time documenting their work, but there are few indications that this is improving learning in meaningful ways. Teacher morale continues to drop, and time for collaboration to shrink. We constantly hear that teachers are so very important, but the level of micromanagement has never been greater.
Teacher quality cannot be reduced to a set of test scores or “student growth indicators.” It will not be improved by top down management, the imposition of detailed frameworks and rubrics, enforced by frequent observations and demands for evidence of every element of one’s practice. The qualities of good teaching are best developed over time in a supportive, collaborative community of autonomous teachers, able to make decisions about their practice, and responsible for their work.
The qualities of student learning are likewise far too complex to be captured by test scores, and are far better developed over time, guided by teachers capable of nurturing them as individuals. Students grow best when they are challenged to build on their strengths, in dimensions where their passions are the strongest. There is no one way to measure student learning, because it is far too variable, and what is lost when all are standardized is far more precious than what is gained.
Educational technology has yet to fulfill the claims made on its behalf, though billions of dollars have been invested in this arena. MOOCs were supposed to bring us what Bill Gates called the “golden era” of education. Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify invested a billion dollars in a tablet-based learning system, which so far is losing close to $200 million a year.
Educational technologies personalize learning in the way that Amazon has personalized our shopping experience. Do you feel “known” as a person when you visit the page Amazon prepares for you? Data points gathered by computerized learning systems may be fine at selecting an appropriate math problem, but they do not come close to the genuinely personalized interactions possible with a human teacher in a small class setting. Technology has a place in education, but it is not likely to allow for significantly larger classes without huge costs to the quality of learning. Learning should be student-centered, not device-centered.
Gates himself complained about the progress in this arena last summer.
New technology to engage students holds some promise, but Gates says it tends to only benefit those who are motivated.
“And the one thing we have a lot of in the United States is unmotivated students,” Gates said.
How Gates proposes to overcome this lack of student motivation is unclear.
Perhaps it lies in holding everyone accountable for outcomes. (Just to be clear, the people to be held accountable are students, teachers and administrators. So not really everyone. Philanthropists and policymakers are pretty safe.) And accountability is made possible by that other Gates initiative, the Common Core standards.
But the Common Core standards are in a bit of trouble. The standards were initially embraced by 46 states, influenced by the chance to win Race to the Top grants, (with applications guided by Gates Foundation staff). But that number has now dropped to around 40, and the draft reauthorization of ESEA is likely to greatly curtail the Department of Education’s ability to coerce states into adopting or maintaining the standards and aligned tests.
Furthermore, the fact that Common Core-aligned tests have been designed to produce widespread failure is provoking a major backlash, with unprecedented numbers of students opting out. The opt out movement strikes at the heart of the Gatesian vision, because everything is designed to revolve around that all important test score data, which is used to judge students, teachers, schools, and ed-tech innovations. Educators and students know the data is inaccurate and inappropriate for high stakes decisions. Top down macro-managers and technocrats like Gates have not worried about these limitations, but when large numbers of students opt out, the data is simply not there to be misused.
While a dozen civil rights groups were recently rounded up to issue a statement condemning the practice of opting out of high stakes tests, there was a decided lack of energy in the statement. And it was notable for the groups that apparently declined to sign on. But of greater significance was the depth of understanding coming from advocates for change in education. An earlier statement from the Seattle NAACP set the stage for the response. Following the release of the statement from the Civil Rights groups, Jesse Hagopian and the Board of Directors of the Network for Public Education released this response, a thorough rebuttal to those who insist that high stakes tests are some sort of civil right.
And lastly, we come to charter schools. The Gates Foundation worked with the Department of Education to make the promotion of charter schools a federal priority, and include this in the requirements for Race to the Top grants. The Gates Foundation has for years given school districts special grants if they expand charter schools in their domain.
In 2012, Bill Gates led efforts to pass a ballot initiative allowing charter schools in the state of Washington, and spent $3 million of his own money on the proposal. The Gates Foundation subsequently invested $13 million to support the growth of charter schools in that state. The first charter school to open in the state is already in trouble.
Of even greater significance is the level of concern raised in a new report from the Center for Media and Democracy, which investigated federal expenditures on charter schools.
CMD’s review of appropriations reveals that the federal government has spent a staggering sum, $3.3 billion, of taxpayer money creating and expanding the charter school industry over the past two decades, but it has done so without requiring the most basic transparency in who ultimately receives the funds and what those tax dollars are being used for, especially in contrast to the public information about truly public schools.
Most studies find little significant performance advantage for charter schools over traditional public schools – which should set off some alarm bells at the Gates Foundation.
I know Bill Gates thinks it will take another eight years or so to figure out if their education stuff will work, but I do not think our students can give him that much time to tinker. The students are voting with their feet when they walk out on Common Core tests. Teachers are putting their jobs on the line when they refuse to administer the tests. And at the Network for Public Education conference on April 26, both leaders of the nation’s two teacher unions declared they will no longer accept grant funding from the Gates Foundation.
I asked leaders of the Gates Foundation to re-appraise their approach back in 2012. There was ample evidence then that VAM was a sham, that charter schools were no real answer, and that the Common Core was repeating the same mistakes that doomed NCLB. I emphasized that student poverty could not be ignored any longer, and that market competition would only deepen inequities. Now the mound of evidence has piled even higher.
How many children will be falsely declared inadequate, not on track for college in kindergarten or the third grade? How many teachers will be driven from the profession by these flawed evaluation systems? How many administrators will quit, or resort to cheating or other sorts of manipulations to get around impossible “higher bar” performance demands?
The Gates Foundation should end EdReform 2.0 today. It did not enter the field of education with the humility that current CEO Desmond-Hellmann demands from Gates Foundation staff. The foundation has yet to show the capacity to learn from its experience.
There is an entire sector of education think tanks and advocacy groups that exist only because of funding from Gates and other corporate philanthropies. These organizations have driven US education into a rut, a death spiral circling around the vortex of meaningless test scores.
Two years ago, I offered the first ever Billionaire Philanthropist Evaluation, and offered my feedback to Bill Gates himself. Gates fell “below standard,” and was offered a number of steps to develop his understanding and practice. So far as I know, no progress has been made on these standards, nor has Gates engaged in any of the professional development opportunities that were offered. For that reason, I recommend his immediate termination as oligarch in charge of US education. I further request that the Gates Foundation divest itself of any and all projects in this arena, until such time as the humility and capacity to learn suggested by Dr. Desmond-Hellmann is evident.
What do you think? Is there any evidence the Gates Foundation has learned over the past six years? Or is it time to end their domination in our schools?