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Education Funding Opinion

NYT's Gates Piece Got My Key Point Wrong

By Rick Hess — May 26, 2011 4 min read
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I was disappointed by the page one New York Times story on the Gates Foundation that my friend, NYT reporter Sam Dillon, penned last Sunday. The much-discussed, rather critical account on the Gates Foundation’s role in K-12 schooling, is something I would’ve expected to like, but I found the treatment of my own contribution to reflect a broader problem with the storyline.

I went back and forth on whether to address it. But given that the article, by zooming in on Gates, masked larger questions about the dynamics of edu-philanthropy, I figured it might be worth clarifying the larger point. After hearing from a number of individuals who clearly thought I meant something other than what I said, I decided, “What the heck.”

A crucial point in the NYT story was the contention that the Gates Foundation is (cue Dr. Evil finger-to-lip gesture) scheming to influence education policy, and that they’re alternately buying up or intimidating researchers, advocates, and reformers along the way. I was quoted, seemingly making this point, saying, “We’re all implicated.”

Now, I’m supportive of hard, skeptical looks at Gates and any other foundation that wishes to influence education. I’ve raised questions about various Gates Foundation enthusiasms, including value-added teacher evaluation, the Common Core, and Waiting for Superman. I’ve long championed the need to cast a more skeptical eye upon philanthropists who seek to influence schooling. As I noted back in 2005 in With the Best of Intentions, “Media coverage and scholarly analysis...have failed to ask hard questions, challenge assumptions, or shine much of a light on philanthropic activity.” I noted that, "[Effusive] headlines and stories are not unique to one foundation, but reflect the kid-glove treatment philanthropists habitually receive from the press and the education community.”

I explained, “Academics, activists, and the policy community live in a world where philanthropists are royalty--where philanthropic support is often the ticket to tackling big projects, making a difference, and maintaining one’s livelihood. Even individuals and organizations who also receive financial support from government grants, tuition, endowment, or interest groups are eager to be on good terms with the philanthropic community...Even if scholars themselves are insulated enough to risk being impolitic, they routinely collaborate with school districts, policymakers, and colleagues who desire philanthropic support.”

I was quoted to this effect in NYT story. However, I was disappointed to see these quotes framed in a manner that suggested they were Gates specific. I was quoted as saying, “As researchers, we have a reasonable self-preservation instinct. There can be an exquisite carefulness about how we’re going to say anything that could reflect badly on a foundation. We’re all implicated.” This is all fine. But it was framed by Dillon first writing, “Mr. Hess, a frequent blogger on education whose institute received $500,000 from the Gates foundation in 2009 ‘to influence the national education debates,’ acknowledged that he and others sometimes felt constrained.”

This caused many to read my comments as specific to Gates and to imagine that I was saying that we’re all “implicated” in some kind of nefarious Gates plot. This is enormously frustrating, because my actual point, which is the same point I’ve made for many years, is that this kind of “exquisite carefulness” is a general phenomenon and is broadly true when it comes to foundations and donors. And it is silly to suggest or imagine that it applies uniquely to Gates. As one journalist of some repute wrote to me, helping incline me to pen this post: “Wow...I’d say he took you out of context because it absolutely seemed as if you were talking about Gates.”

“We’re all implicated” is not some guilty confession, but an observation that every researcher, reformer, practitioner, or advocate who accepts philanthropic support, might seek it, or collaborates with someone who does is naturally reticent to bite the hand that feeds or alienate potential partners. And donors of all stripes must acknowledge the resulting challenges. Unfortunately, presenting the “we’re all implicated” line as the NYT did distorted that point. It allowed a bunch of folks who eagerly accept funds from friendly foundations for saying things those foundations like to rail self-righteously while declaring that they’re not “implicated” by Gates. Those Gates bashers who sneered at the notion that “we’re all implicated” because they don’t take Gates money, are (like the NYT) kind of missing the point. If these brave critics are receiving support from any source, I’ll be impressed only when I see them denounce their backers with the same energy they’ve turned on Gates. If they don’t, I’ll be curious whether that’s because their silence has been bought...or because they’re supported by funders with whom they’re simpatico.

More broadly, if someone thinks it’s problematic for the Gates Foundation’s efforts to influence public policy through research and advocacy (and I don’t), then I’d imagine they’d have been even more aghast at the Ford Foundation’s decades-long effort to change educational finance policy through the far less democratic approach of litigation or Ford’s current giant investment in promoting a very particular equity agenda. And I assume they’d recoil from the Annenberg Challenge’s advocacy for rural schooling, as well as efforts to push federal and state government to fund the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. But I’d be curious to see some clarification on that.

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