The latest interview with Bill Gates on CNBC has the world’s richest man discussing education with little evidence that he has learned much over the past six years. Is he paying attention? In a bubble? What the heck is going on?
As readers of this blog know, I have been attending to the words and deeds of Bill Gates for several years. The man is highly intelligent, and describes himself as a “technocrat.” He speaks as if he were a scientist, citing research and statistics to support his views, and even calling the work his foundation sponsors “experimental.” But I have worked closely with scientists before, and one thing I have noticed is how carefully they attend to the results of their experiments. And in medical science, great care is taken to monitor potential adverse effects on human subjects. If there are signs that harm is occurring, experiments must be discontinued, even if they are not complete. Gates has used billions of dollars to promote an experimental course of reforms which are making huge impacts on the lives of students and educators across the country, yet he seems remarkably incurious about the results we are already seeing.
In his most recent interview on CNBC, Gates, alongside fellow billionaires Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, was asked what they would do if they were “education czar.” (Ironically, Gates has unofficially functioned in this capacity since 2009.) Gates sad:
Gates: One piece of good news is that charter schools are doing a very good job of educating kids in the inner city. Where typically dropout rates are very, very high, and very few kids go to college. The good charters have overcome that by using long school day, long school year, a different way of working with the teacher, amazing results have taken place. You’re absolutely right, we haven’t moved the needle for most students. Charters are only a few percent, so we have to spread those best practices in order to get real change.
CNBC: How do you do that in the public school system?
Gates: It’s not easy. School boards have a lot of power, so they have to be convinced. Unions have a lot of power, so teachers have to see the models that are working, because although change may be scary, they want to be part of a successful model. So we need more pilot programs, more dialogue, to get all the entities, government, school boards, unions, moving towards a more intensive education process.
[Warren Buffett then suggests that people of all income levels in every community ought to send their children to public schools so everyone is invested in their success.]
Gates: Absolutely right. You want in every community the top people to be aware of the dropout rate, why is it that these inner city schools do such a poor job. This is the issue for the country in my view, that in terms of country-wide success and individual opportunity, the promise of our country, this is the most important issue, and we’re not making as much progress as I’d like. In fact, of all the foundation areas that we work in, I’d say this has proven to be the most difficult.
CNBC: Why is that?
Gates: There are some entrenched practices. It’s a very big system, with over $600 billion a year being spent. It’s a system very resistant to change. The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of the school system, so you have one executive, and the school board isn’t as powerful. So New York City made real progress. In Chicago, they’re making real progress, but those are really the only cities where the mayor has a strong role.
Now let’s hop in a time machine back to the year 2008, when Gates had this to say:
Gates: 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.
What is remarkable to me about this statement from 2008 is how similar it is to what Gates is saying in 2015. In 2015, there is an air of vagueness as he attempts to explain why it’s been harder to “make progress” with public schools than with world health problems. And then he returns to familiar talking points from years ago, even though few people would seriously cite the public school systems of Chicago or New York City as models of successful transformation.
And his facts are simply wrong.
In his recent comment, Gates dropped Washington, DC, from his list of cities where the strong mayor has worked wonders. But a 2013 study took a close look at Chicago, New York and DC, to see if the confidence in strong mayors was justified. The report, Market-oriented education reform’s rhetoric trumps reality, found the following:
- Test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more, in “reform” cities than in other urban districts. Reported successes for targeted students evaporated upon closer examination.
- Test-based accountability prompted churn that thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily bad teachers.
- School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money.
- Charter schools further disrupted the districts while providing mixed benefits, particularly for the highest-needs students.
- Emphasis on the widely touted market-oriented reforms drew attention and resources from initiatives with greater promise.
Research on charter schools consistently find that charter schools do not, in fact, yield better results than comparable public schools. And when charter schools post the high graduation and college acceptance rates that Gates mentions, there are usually high attrition rates hiding in the wings.
If Gates relies on research his foundation has paid for, perhaps he is indeed living in an information bubble. Two researchers recently looked at how the Gates and Broad Foundations “got everyone singing from the same hymnbook,” and found something that should deeply concern an honest scientist. A Gates Foundation insider told them:
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.
If Gates relies on reports that result from this sort of process, all he will do is get his own preconceived beliefs fed back to him with a patina of science, but no real integrity.
In 2013. Gates said, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.”
So apparently we have another eight years before he will feel obliged to take stock of the impact of his spending in this area.
If Bill Gates were a scientist engaged in large scale research using human subjects, he might have some supervision, someone who might ask him more pointed questions than he usually gets from outfits like CNBC. In the absence of such supervision, he has the nation’s teachers, parents and students to hold him accountable.
Students who opt out make the strongest statement possible regarding the value of the tests Gates has sought to make ever more consequential. Teachers who declare that their consciences will not allow them to administer these tests have taken a clear moral stand. If the research subjects needed for an experiment can manage to unlock their cages, all bets are off.
If an experiment has clearly failed and is causing harm, then it must be ended. And if the techno-philanthropist in charge has stopped paying attention to the evidence that shows his hypotheses were wrong, hires people to pump out reports and PR hype to try to hide that fact, and ignores the harm being done – somebody needs to let him know his time is up. Not another decade, not another year, not another month. It is time for the Gates Foundation to divest from education reform. Your license to experiment is hereby revoked.
What do you think? Has the time come to revoke Bill Gates’ license to experiment with the schools and children of America?
Note: I will be doing three Educator and Oligarch book talks this week, starting Weds. May 13, at Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael, California, then on to Spokane, Washington on Thursday, May 14, and wrapping up the series in Seattle, Washington on Friday, May 15. All events are free and open to the public.