Budget & Finance Opinion

2013 in Review Part 3: Gatesian Reforms Rejected

By Anthony Cody — December 27, 2013 5 min read
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In the year 2013, what was wrong with corporate reform became even clearer, and we also made a strong case for an alternative vision for public schools. In 2012, I spent considerable time working on a dialogue with representatives of the Gates Foundation, because I had become deeply disturbed by the path down which their spending was pushing our schools.

I began the year 2013 with a hotly debated post about what I termed the Education Reform Dichotomy. Building on work by Paul Thomas, I shared a table that contrasted the solutions offered by “no excuses reformers” by those offered by “social context reformers.” The “no excuses” solutions tended to ignore or even worsen the conditions experienced by children in poverty, whereas “social context” solutions recognize and address these conditions. For example, “no excuses” reformers favor the closing of schools with low test scores, whereas “social context” reformers advocate support for such schools, enhancing the resources and stability for the students attending these schools.

In February, I responded to Bill Gates’ Annual Letter with an open letter of my own. Gates had suggested that measuring things provided us with useful feedback to inform social change. I pointed out that the test scores that his education reforms were built around provide us data of very limited usefulness, and suggested that some other data might be far more instructive. My list of indicators included unplanned pregnancies, the availability of prenatal care, levels of school funding, access to college, childhood poverty, neighborhood violence, incarceration and segregation. I asked:

If the Gates Foundation is unwilling to tackle the scourge of poverty directly, could it at least begin to actively measure and set goals for some of the things identified here? Any one of the things listed would be far more likely to be successful than the Foundation's misguided efforts to increase the capacity of teachers to raise test scores.

In April, Bill Gates took to the editorial pages to attempt to distance himself from the often absurd evaluation practices that were the result of advocacy he had sponsored. I pointed out the many direct links connecting Gates funding to the practices he was deploring. And then I went a step further, and suggested we turn the tables by way of a “Billionaire Philanthropist Evaluation” which I offered. This evaluation revealed that Mr. Gates fell “below standards” in several key areas, and recommended a course of professional development and reflection. It is not known whether Mr. Gates took advantage of this useful and timely feedback.

We continued to hear from the Gates Foundation and their friends at Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify of the wonders of “personalization,” made possible through technology. While in their business meetings, they emphasize the efficiency of these “educational delivery systems,” to parents, the pitch is all about making learning personalized to the individual student, through their individual device. Oh, that, and larger class sizes.

I shared a different vision of personalization:

Teachers, parents and students know very well what personalized learning looks and feels like. It requires small class sizes. And in areas impacted by economic crisis, students need even smaller classes, and more personal attention. A personalized learning environment is driven by the relationships between learners and one another, and with their teacher. That is why class size is so important. That is why it is so important to honor the knowledge, skill and culture that our students bring to school - because a respectful relationship with each student is based on our acceptance of them, and our desire to help them achieve their goals, rather than force them to meet predetermined benchmarks.

We saw the continuation of autocratic control of schools advocated by Gates, who has actively supported mayoral control rather than elected school boards. In May, the mayor-controlled board in Chicago voted to close fifty schools - the largest wave of closures in history.

An in-depth study by researchers Elaine Weiss and Don Wong analyzed the results of reform efforts in the big cities, and discovered that in fact, these cities saw less growth in student achievement, higher levels of teacher turnover, and fewer resources for other strategies that would have been more likely to succeed.

In May, Bill Gates was given a TED Talk platform to explain to us why we should spend $5 billion to purchase video cameras for every classroom in America. He began by talking about the need for feedback, but quickly slid into describing a formal evaluation process. It became clear that the video cameras are just one part of an ever-expanding set of data that Gates envisions being used to monitor and improve what and how our children are taught.

Loosened federal regulations regarding student data, and the creation of inBloom, a nonprofit funded by the Gates Foundation to house student data, led to concerns about student privacy. This expansive system of student and teacher data led me to describe a dystopian scenario of teacher evaluation in the not-so-distant-future. I pointed out that while Gates and his employees constantly talk about growth and constructive feedback, they always seek to embed these systems in the evaluation process, where there will be huge consequences for those involved.

I asked:

If I am wrong, and the new evaluation system described by Bill Gates really is all about feedback and collaboration, then why not remove the model from an evaluative framework? Make the sharing of videos voluntary and low-stakes. Provide teachers dedicated time for collaboration. Offer a variety of structures such as Lesson Study, Critical Friends and Teacher Inquiry, that have been proven effective at generating authentic reflection and growth. If I turn out to be right, then smash those cameras, boycott those tests, opt out of the data systems, and refuse to be standardized and scripted.

In June, we learned from the Seattle Times that in spite of the billions spent, Gates was still struggling to gain a following among educators. The article quoted a Gates Foundation official as saying, “We’re trying to start a movement. A movement started by you. A movement you’re leading.” While teachers have resisted being coerced and coopted into this movement, they do have a lot of feedback for the Gates Foundation, and we learned of a new blog, Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates, which has been offering this service.

In August, a lawmaker in Michigan pointed out that the think tank “expert” testifying in favor of the Common Core had received millions of dollars in Gates Foundation funding. The Gates Foundation continues to pump dollars into the formation of public opinion through “research” and advocacy, but this influence is becoming more widely known.

In September, Bill Gates said, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.” Those who work in our schools do not need ten years to find out. We know now.

The year 2013 was one of gaining clarity about the strategies and objectives of Gatesian education reform. This clarity allows us to begin 2014 determined to move in a different direction. We want to move away from seeing student growth in terms of test scores, and towards authentic assessments of learning. We want to move away from the disruption and destruction of neighborhood public schools, and towards their preservation and support. Away from teacher turnover and towards stability and growth. Away from mayoral control and towards democracy. Away from segregation and economic isolation, and towards the sort of community-based integration that has yielded tremendous results in the past. Away from pursuing personalization through computerized devices, and towards personalization through smaller class sizes and teacher support. We are clearer than ever about this. And we are not going away.

See also:

2013 in Review Part 1: Charter Schools, Public, Private or Parasitic?

2013 in Review Part 2: The Year the Common Core Began to Unravel

2013 in Review Part 4: Teachers, Unions, and the Path Forward

What do you think? Has the Gates Foundation worn out its welcome in our schools? Do you have any more feedback for them?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.