By Anthony Cody.
In recent weeks we have heard something new from Bill Gates and the new CEO of the Gates Foundation. A bit of humility regarding their overseas work. It remains to be seen if this sort of reflection will be applied to their domestic work in the field of education.
A month ago, Bill Gates hosted a summit in Seattle to look back on a decade of his Grand Challenges project, which has sought to motivate innovative technological solutions to problems that contribute to poverty in poorer parts of the world.
When he took the stage this fall to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his signature global health research initiative, Bill Gates used the word “naive” — four times — to describe himself and his charitable foundation.
Not only did he underestimate some of the scientific hurdles, Gates said. He and his team also failed to adequately consider what it would take to implement new technologies in countries where millions of people lack access to basic necessities such as clean water and medical care.
Sue Desmond-Hellman, the new CEO of the Gates Foundation expanded on this, and struck a note of humility in an interview published yesterday. Desmond-Hellman brings with her two years of experience teaching in Uganda, and explained,
On a very practical level, that time in Uganda was a lesson about what it takes to work successfully in a different culture. “I learned about what it really takes to work at scale in a poor country. As a western academician, as a Gates Foundation person, the first thing you should be doing is listening and learning. And have a huge sense of humility about what you don’t know,” she said.
It is a welcome sign that the world’s largest philanthropic organization may be willing to look critically at their work. The Gates Foundation has a fundamental belief that market forces and technology can combine to improve the lives of the poor – and this outlook drives their investments. This has led them to push GMOs and chemical fertilizers as part of a new “green revolution” in agriculture. This has tended to displace traditional agriculture, and make farmers dependent on these expensive technologies.
Education is the chief priority for the Gates Foundation within the United States. We have yet to see much sign of reflection or humility in this arena. Gates entered the field with guns ablazing, investing heavily in what he called experimentation.
Back in 2008, Gates described the aggressive approach his foundation was taking:
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, management procedures, to really prove out new things. As those things start working on behalf of the students, then I believe 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 cities where our foundation has put the most money in, is where there’s a single person responsible – in New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, the mayor has responsibility for the school system, and 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.
This was followed by the Foundation’s multimillion dollar investment in the anti-public school propaganda film, Waiting for Superman, and the promotion of Michelle Rhee as a model reformer. At the same time, top level Gates Foundation staff migrated over to the new Obama administration Department of Education, and Federal policy was aligned with foundation goals. That meant federal dollars were directed towards the promotion of charter schools, including test scores in teacher evaluations, and the development and spread of the Common Core.
In 2010, Gates spoke to state legislators, and told them,
Aligning teaching with the common core – and building common data standards – will help us define excellence, measure progress, test new methods, and compare results. Finally, we will apply the tools of science to school reform.
In 2011, he and his wife Melinda wrote this,
It may surprise you–it was certainly surprising to us–but the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching. We have all known terrific teachers. You watch them at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft. But nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them so outstanding.
This ignorance has serious ramifications. We can’t give teachers the right kind of support because there’s no way to distinguish the right kind from the wrong kind. We can’t evaluate teaching because we are not consistent in what we’re looking for. We can’t spread best practices because we can’t capture them in the first place.
Thus Gates has denied that the teaching profession holds any expertise about its own field, and insisted that only the solutions he has created will bring “science” to bear.
The closest thing to reflection we have seen have been some modest notes acknowledging the frustrations teachers have expressed over the often absurd and onerous evaluation systems that have resulted from Gates Foundation policy initiatives. But while Gates and some of his staff have acknowledged that there have been unfortunate excesses, they have failed to grapple with the fact that Value Added Models, (VAM), the use of test score predictions as a part of teacher evaluations, has been completely discredited. Their grants and funded advocacy continues to push for this across the country. Neither have they come to grips with the fact that charter schools are not yielding better results, and are actually increasing segregation, and sapping resources from public schools. And they continue to push the toxic recipe of “rigorous” standards and high stakes tests, in spite of the lack of evidence that this will help.
As we learn that now the majority of students attending public schools in the US live in poverty, will the Gates Foundation finally realize that this must be directly confronted?
One would hope that the humility expressed by Gates Foundation CEO Desmond-Hellman might translate into a willingness to hear and truly respond to critics in the field of education. Perhaps here, as in Uganda, there might be things the Gates Foundation could learn from those of us with decades of experience. I last tried to engage with foundation leaders in 2012, with little success. My recent book, The Educator and the Oligarch, a Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation, provides more feedback, if anyone there might be interested. Unfortunately, my own recent experience with the Education Writers Association, which receives major funding from the Gates Foundation, suggests there is a well-policed echo chamber surrounding their work in this field. It is time for a change.
What do you think? Will the Gates Foundation recognize the need to learn from their mistakes in education?