Families & the Community Opinion

Bill Gates Discovers Money Cannot Buy Teachers

By Anthony Cody — June 13, 2013 4 min read
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Sunday’s Seattle Times tells us of a strange problem encountered by the richest man in the world. He has discovered that his money is not working its magic in education -- teachers are not for sale.

The Gates Foundation has spent the past decade promoting hard hitting education reforms. Organizations they fund have conducted research, lobbied politicians, and advanced policies that have brought us Value Added teacher and principal evaluations, charter school expansion, Teach For America corps members, and merit pay. They have poured millions into efforts to shape public opinion, sponsoring Education Nation and the propaganda documentary Waiting for Superman, and its star, Michelle Rhee. They have told us how important teachers are, but in spite of all this attention, teachers seem positively ungrateful.

So now the Gates Foundation is on what has been called a “charm offensive.” According to Seattle Times reporter Linda Shaw, the Gates Foundation last year brought 250 teachers to a hotel in Arizona to share their new vision. The Gates Foundation’s Irvin Scott said, “We’re trying to start a movement. A movement started by you. A movement you’re leading.”

Is this not a paradox worthy of Lewis Carroll?

Money tends to distort reality. Those that have it think that they can use it to get what they want. And those that have a lot, think they can get a lot. But when what you want to control is something as big as the way children are educated, and the conditions under which an entire profession is trained, supervised and paid, you are going to run into some bumps along the way.

Ultimately, there are three ways to get people to do something you want them to do. One is to force them, by making the consequences for not complying onerous or unacceptable. The second is to lure them, by offering some sort of bribe or incentive. The third is to get them excited about your ideas, whereupon they may engage with enthusiasm.

In my experience, real change in education only comes with the third of these methods, because the first two inspire more resistance than cooperation.

You may get people to buckle under and teach to the test because they fear being fired if their scores don’t rise. You may get them to have PLC meetings focused on test data that supposedly allows them to “personalize” their instruction. But this sort of change does not go very deep, or inspire much enthusiasm, because it is not rooted in our deepest aspirations for our students. And people sense when they are being manipulated and coerced - they resent it, and they resist. That is what the Gates Foundation is getting now - resentment and resistance.

The sort of high quality work I wrote about last week comes from a different, deeper source of inspiration. It is not the product of fear or desire for rewards. It is from that spirit of compassion and creativity that drew most of us into teaching in the first place.

So far, I have not seen any evidence that the Gates Foundation has learned this lesson. When I look at the substance of the recent editorials written by Gates and his representatives, I see an acknowledgement that some of the things they have pushed for may have gone too far.
In the Seattle Times article, I am quoted as wanting Gates to apologize for all the destructive policies his money has inspired. I do want that, but much more important would be the recognition that we need a very different direction.

It might start with some curiosity. What do teachers who have not been “empowered” by the Gates Foundation’s largesse think of their work? The comments to the Seattle Times were rather scathing.

One of the milder ones reads:

If I could send Mr. Gates just one message, it would be this:
Almost all teachers are proud of the progress of their students and enjoy sharing evidence of that progress with administrators, other teachers and parents. In California, I worked under the Stull Act for many years, which required me to prove student progress. To help with that, I kept a portfolio for every student in which I kept samples of student work, compositions and tests. I never resented doing this because ensuring student progress was my job. (I am now retired.)
What teachers are against is being evaluated on the basis of a whole group standardized test. The reasons for this should be obvious: these tests are not designed to differentiate between classroom and home learning; they are often not valid; they are not professionally administered or handled. In short, an excellent teacher could get mediocre test scores, while a poor teacher could get good ones. These test scores most often correlate closely with the socioeconomic background of the students and not with classroom instruction.
If Mr. Gates continues to include teachers in his efforts to reform education, I believe he will find that the average teacher is NOT against being evaluated, as long as it is done fairly.

And another comment provides an avenue for even more feedback, should the Gates Foundation be interested. Several teachers have launched a new project, Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates, with a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account.. If you have any thoughts to share with the Gates Foundation, here is a place to do that.

The coercive strain of education reform advanced by the Gates Foundation has left them in a bad spot, if they want to start, or help lead any sort of movement of teachers in this country. So far, the minor course adjustments that have been made have been insufficient to convince educators that deep lessons have been learned.

The key to understanding the way out may lie in the paradox offered by Irvin Scott. Teachers are already leading their own movement, a movement they started themselves. The Gates Foundation cannot start that movement, and they cannot succeed in “empowering” leaders that align with their models of reform. Teachers, just like any group of people, have to choose their own leaders, and must be inspired from values held within. That paradox, like a Gordian knot, must be severed with a decisive blow, and rejected whole.

We are engaged in some formative assessment here, and feedback is being offered. It remains to be seen if the Gates Foundation is open to new understandings.

What do you think? What feedback do you have in response to the Gates Foundation’s efforts to “make nice” with teachers?

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