In 2010, a stark image was broadcast around the nation. It showed a child seated at a school desk surrounded by absolute devastation and ruin. That image was used promote the movie, “Waiting For Superman.” The movie was boosted with a $2 million advertising grant from the Gates Foundation, and was further promoted on Oprah and NBC’s Education Nation – also underwritten by the Gates Foundation. The clarion call was “public schools are broken and bad teachers cannot be fired.”wfs

But that is not what we hear now, for some reason. Now, we have stories of success popping up in the media – strangely sponsored by some of the same people who were shouting warnings of calamity just a few years ago.

How and why has the prevailing story advanced by sponsors of education reform shifted over the past four years from one of failure and doom to one of success? And how is our media cooperating with the crafting of these dominant narratives?

In February of 2013, Tom Paulson wrote of an interesting conclave in Seattle called “Strategic Media Partnerships.” Hosted by the Gates Foundation, this event was by invitation only, and discussions were strictly off the record.

According to Paulson,

Those attending included representatives from the New York Times, NPR, the Guardian, NBC, Seattle Times and a number of other news organizations, non-profit groups and foundations. Not all were grant recipients, or partners. Some just came to consult.

And what was the message from the Gates Foundation to its “strategic partners” in the media?

Paulson explains:

One of the Gates Foundation’s working assumptions is that the aid narrative is a bummer, mostly bad news, and what we need is more ‘success stories.’

Paulson quotes Tom Scott, Gates Foundation’s director of global brand and innovation:

Our research has shown that people see, or at least remember, the stories that highlight waste and ineffectiveness in foreign aid more than they do the positive stories. It’s harder to break through with the stories of success so that’s our emphasis.

Presumably, the Education Lab at Seattle Times reflects this desire. The Gates Foundation grant that funded the project was announced in July of 2013, a few months following the Seattle gathering. The $700,000 grant states as its purpose:

to test solutions-oriented education journalism that leads to problem-solving and positive outcomes with the Seattle Times.

This is not the only organization to appear spreading the good word of reform. Mercedes Schneider recently pointed out the willingness on the part of the National Public Radio to pull punches in its coverage of the New Orleans charter school mess.

We have some brand new players entering the field. Peter Cunningham, former PR agent for Arne Duncan at the Department of Education, has convinced billionaires Bloomberg and Walton to give his new Education Post $12 million to “shift the conversation” about education reform, away from the polarized place it has been.

In an early post on the Education Post, Cunningham wrote,

With the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, we are launching a new organization called Education Post to provide a strong voice for those who believe the current education system needs to get better.

We will spread the word that in communities around the country progress is being made. All across America, there are countless success stories where states and districts had the courage and determination to put aside politics and work together to improve education.

And coming soon, with funding from the Gates Foundation and others,,

a new, independent nonprofit designed to improve K-12 education in the United States, will launch in winter 2014. will provide free, web-based reviews of instructional materials series focusing on alignment to the Common Core and other indicators of high quality as recommended by educators, including usability, teacher support and differentiation. These Consumer Reports-style reviews will highlight those instructional materials that are aligned to the higher standards states have adopted so that teachers, principals and district and state officials charged with purchasing materials can make more informed choices.

How does this represent bias?

This week, some in the media have begun to take notice of the effect money attached to an agenda can have. A report in Current describes what has become the elephant in the editorial room, especially in what is now inaccurately called “public” media:

The [Gates] foundation has supported public radio and TV journalism for years, backing coverage of global health, another priority for its philanthropy, as well as education. Within the past year, it has extended that commitment with $1.8 million in support to NPR for expanded education reporting. It also gave $639,000 to American Public Media for multiplatform coverage of education technology, to be featured on Marketplace’s broadcasts and website. In previous years, the Gates Foundation has also supported Frontline, PBS NewsHour and Teaching Channel, a nonprofit producer of public TV programming.

However, there is clearly a desire to focus on the positive – the successes of reform, and of technology in education.

And the airwaves are filled with sponsored viewpoints. Sometimes, as when Amplify CEO Joel Klein appears on CBS to promote the purchase of technology products as an “equity” issue, the bias is pretty obvious. Other times, the bias is hidden – as when Bill Bennett pens a defense for the Common Core for the Wall St. Journal, it is not disclosed that in fact, he has been paid to provide this perspective.

In 2011, NBC news anchor Brian Williams stated during an Education Nation broadcast,

Gates Foundation, one of the sponsors of this event, and the largest single funder of education anywhere in the world. It’s their facts that we’re going to be referring to often to help along our conversation.

So money buys you the very facts that guide the public discourse!

It was often repeated and became widely accepted as a result of their campaign that “public education is broken.” This was the narrative that has allowed for wholesale experimentation in the deconstruction of public education. Now, the story is shifting, and the new narrative is “Reform is Working!”

Where do we go for facts? We go to journalists. We go to academics who are doing research. We go to “experts.”

When journalists and academics are challenged about the insidious effect this one-sided funding plays in the public arena, rarely is the problem acknowledged. The most common defense to this practice is “we have not changed what we believe or write because of the funding.” And this may, in large part, be true. But what happens when a whole sector of journalism becomes part of telling whatever story the sponsor wishes told?

And what happens when, out of a thousand articulate and passionate participants in a discussion about education, the fifty who are most closely aligned with the agenda of the Gates and Walton foundations find themselves showered with grant opportunities, enabling them to mount rapid response teams, conduct “research,” pose as unbiased “consumer reports” style reviewers of educational products, issue ratings of schools of education, and so forth. As I wrote in 2012, you get groupthink on a massive scale.

Meanwhile, those who are interested in a different story get no support. No coverage. No $12 million grants to hire PR firms. No budget to pay former government officials to write friendly editorials endorsing your agenda.

This week students in Newark led major demonstrations protesting the ravages of corporate reform in their city. I call that a success story – successful organizing and bold leadership from intelligent and idealistic student leaders. Few journalists told the story of the success of Tucson’s ethnic studies program, before it was outlawed. Somehow, these did not fit the mold of success being defined by the managers of brand and innovation at the Gates Foundation. I doubt we will read stories of successful campaigns to opt out of standardized tests, or reject Teach For America in their districts. “Success” is likely to be defined as successful implementation of the Common Core, successful use of educational technologies, and programs resulting in rising test scores.

And there are absolute failures that are not being described or covered in depth. The two thirds of the students who failed to rate “proficient” on Common Core tests in New York and Kentucky, and the widening racial gaps in achievement. The collapsing pass rates on new Pearson Common Core-aligned GED tests. The rise in racial and economic segregation, promoted by the expansion of vouchers and charter schools. The decline in the number of teachers of color in major cities where reform has held sway. The failure of charter schools to raise student achievement in major centers of reform like Chicago. These stories are not likely to be emphasized in any of the “sponsored” journalism, because they do not fit the desired narrative.

So why the sudden interest in success? Could it be that a dozen years into NCLB and five years into a reform-pushing Obama administration, the Gates Foundation realizes it now has a large ownership of the reforms like Common Core it has promoted so vigorously, and must shift from broad condemnations of public schools to finding places where their reforms can be shown to be working?

The story, whether it is success or failure, is changed depending on the tune the billionaires call. And whether they wish to acknowledge it or not, the journalists who accept money to play whatever tune is being called by these funders are helping create a biased media landscape. Those who accept funding for research aligned with this agenda are likewise contributing to the groupthink we have at work. Who benefits? And who is paying the price? The students in Newark can tell you.

What do you think? Are sponsored stories of success truly independent journalism? Or is the media landscape being subtly shifted to favor the agenda of those willing to spread around some dough?



Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. howardat58    

    Since when did newspapers and magazines and TV feel obliged to tell both sides of any story. ?
    And now that is appears to me that there is no serious political disagreement about “what to do about education” then there are a lot of dollars no longer needed to back political candidates, so this money has found another home to further the interests of the donor (or his master).

  2. szemelman    

    I’ve been able to get the Chicago Sun-Times to publish a biweekly series of teacher essays that I recruit (I’m Director of the Illinois Writing Project and do not work for the newspaper or benefit from big money). While I, too have encouraged teachers to describe positive achievements in the classroom, most emphasize the real teaching and learning that is NOT covered by the Common Core, and many are directly critical of the Core. A few writers teach in charter schools, but are just good, passionate teachers. (a few charters here are highly successful, while many others are not). My aims have been 1) to give as many thoughtful teachers as possible a public voice; and 2) to show the public and policy-makers what good classrooms in neighborhood public schools look like, and why they’re vital to the community, since most people really have no understanding of that. I haven’t sought more politically aggressive pieces mainly because so many good teachers are afraid to speak out that strongly in a public forum. The essays published so far can be seen by going to the Sun-Times website and searching “Summer School Teacher Essays.” As it continues, the series will be called “Fall Semester.”

    Perhaps it is still possible that educators in other cities can get some news media to provide more honest and revealing coverage. I was inspired by Kevin Hodgson, who worked out a similar partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and their local paper. Let’s not give up on getting more progressive voices out to the wider public, even though we are, as your account shows, up against insidious power and money.

    –Steve Zemelman

    1. helenoconnell    

      Thank you for doing this work. A few years ago, I helped organize a forum about “what’s working in education” with a panel of educators (and a parent). It’s crucial to hear unbiased voices from inside the classroom (and home) – what makes you love your job? what do you need to do your job better? what isn’t working? The answers were varied and unexpected and fit no neat reform narrative. If only Gates et al had started not by funding and implementing their own ideas but by asking teachers and parents: what’s going on and how can I help? But they didn’t, and I don’t know if all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can put together the pieces of the stuff they broke: public trust in education, trust between parents and teachers, democratic systems, political trust, and, of course, teachers’ hearts.

  3. Anthony Cody

    Anthony Cody    

    Thanks for sharing that excellent work with the Chicago Sun-Times. We should not give up on trying to get the media to tell the whole story. But I think this also highlights the need for us to develop our own avenues of communication. We need to strengthen the forms of media we can use to get our message out, to one another and to the public at large.

  4. Bill Honig    

    Another part of the problem is that the media and pundits not only report so-called successes of “reformers” uncritically as this post demonstrates, but that they also ignore the many actual success stories of “non-reformist” public schools and districts. Even Elizabeth Green in her powerful work Building A Better Teacher about the centrality of craft knowledge, a broad liberal arts curriculum, and system support for teachers to create the capacity for continuous improvement commits this grievous sin. She lauds a few entrepreneurial charter school operators who figured out that the narrow no excuses educational philosophy they had been advocating wasn’t producing results and started to put into practice what Green was praising. She completely overlooks the numerous examples of public school districts such as Long Beach, Sanger, and Montgomery County, Maryland which never fell for the narrow no-excuses curriculum but instead during the past decade have built teacher teams around a broad instructional program, invested in improving craft knowledge, and created a supportive and engaging professional climate for teachers with stellar results in improved student achievement.

  5. Sergio Flores    

    A important missing character in this play of public deception about public schools, teachers, students, and success is the one play by teachers association leaders. It is true that the corporate reformers create, advance, promote, and defend their narrative about public schools. And it is reasonable to expect that these corporate reformers would do anything to succeed in whatever it is they are trying to accomplish. Thus, there is no surprise noticing their words and positions shifting at times. In addition, corporate reformers own the mass media and have used it accordingly. What seems inappropriate and even treacherous is the complacent, even complicit role of NEA and AFT leaders toward the reformers’ policies, projects, and most importantly their narrative. Disguised as collaboration or reaching out to form alliances with stakeholders and important people, both major teachers associations’ leaders in the past ten years at least, have taken a consistent position of negotiating with them. In doing so, these leaders have cooperating significantly by validating the corporate reformers’ narrative about public schools, teachers, and students, while keeping the disastrous stories from emerging. it is outrageous that NEA and AFT leaders have cooperated to minimize the reformers’ failure. Rather, leaders have kept their members from learning about the numerous corporate reformers’ epic failures in Texas, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia,Ohio, Florida, New Orleans, Oakland, and so on. My point here is that as much as teachers wanted to criticize the corporate reformers’ attack on public schools and teachers, these same teachers have to realize that their leaders have done nothing despite the situation getting progressively worse and presiding over more than three hundred thousand education jobs lost just in recent years.

    1. Barbara Mullin    

      Absolutely. Both teacher unions have accepted Gates money in large amounts.

  6. Lloyd Lofthouse    

    The manufactured, corporate-driven, fake-education, reform movement, funded by a few billionaires, reminds me of the God complex:

    “There is no specific definition of the term “god complex,” but there are certain characteristics that are common in people who are said to have this. These characteristics include arrogance, bullying or manipulating others, being judgmental and believing that he or she is never wrong. Someone who has a god complex might also be prone to becoming angry when things do not go his or her way, might be poor at interpersonal communication and might not be receptive to criticism. He or she also might try to exert a great deal of influence in various matters or relish having power, authority or control. Many people exhibit some of these characteristics in certain situations, even if they would not be said to have god complexes.”

  7. Lloyd Lofthouse    

    In addition, Waiting for Superman grossed $6.42 million at the box office (according to Box Office Mojo). The average cost of a movie ticket is about $8.40 according to Variety in 2013. If true, that means about 76.4 thousand people saw Waiting for Superman, even though Box Office,com says, “The new documentary looks at the problems inherent in the public education system, a subject that’s hardly an easy sell with audiences.

    “So the film’s marketing team decided to shake up its approach. In addition to the standard film web site, there’s an active pledge campaign to see the film and get people talking about the sorry state of modern education.

    “More than 600,000 have already pledged to see the movie, opening in select theaters September 24. That’s only part of the equation. When certain pledge goals are met it means more educational donations that play into part of the movie’s mission – to improve learning across the board.”

    Then there this from Rethinking “Waiting for “Superman” and its surrounding campaign reflect an influential trend that has proven adept at dominating education policy in both Republican and Democratic administrations. This bipartisan alliance unites 20th-century conservatives closely aligned with the Republican Party, who made the bulk of their money before the dawn of the digital era, and 21st-century billionaires more loosely aligned with the Democratic Party, who generally made their fortunes through digitally based technology. These two groups can be described as analog conservatives and digital billionaires.

    “Despite their differences, both groups embrace market-based reforms, entrepreneurial initiatives, deregulation, and data-driven/test-based accountability as the pillars of educational change. Under the banner of challenging bureaucracy and promoting innovation, both groups chafe at public oversight and collective bargaining agreements. Above all, both rely on money to get their way.”

    Then there’s what the billionaires will never pay to promote: A 2009 study done by Stanford University found that, on average, charter schools perform about the same or worse than their traditional public school virtual twins. The film does note, however, that most charter schools do not outperform public schools and focuses on those that do. It also states that only one in five charter schools outperform public schools (close to the 17% statistic).

    46-percent of Charters performed the same as public schools
    37-percent performed worse
    Only 17-percent performed better.

    And according to the 2013 Stanford follow-up study of Charters, any perceived improvement over 2009 is mostly due to the Charter schools that failed and went out of business—not from improvement in the Charter schools that stayed in business. By removing some of the worst performing Charters, that changed the percentages without much real improvement overall for those Charters that remained creating a false hope that in a few decades the shift will turn into a positive with more Charters outperforming public schools.

    19-percent worse
    56-percent no different
    25-percent better

    31-percent worse
    40-percent no different
    29-percent better

    ” the different scenarios make obvious the fact that the impact on quality that accompanies closure [of Charters] is more dramatic and enduring than efforts to improve the current stock of [Charter] schools.

    I’m sure Gates and his Wall Street Gang of billionaires will focus only on the improvement in the ratio of Charters that falsely appear to be outperforming public schools without mentioning the fact that closures [of Charters] caused the percentages to shift without much change in the quality or of the Charter schools that remained.

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