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A Question for Bill Gates: How Can We Motivate Students When Their Futures Are Bleak?

By Anthony Cody — July 03, 2014 7 min read
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I am trying to make sense of the education reform project, which seems a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, we have a seemingly utopian project with bold pronouncements about the boundless capacity of all students - even those with serious learning disabilities - to succeed on ever more difficult tests. On the other hand, we have tests that are apparently intentionally designed to fail in the realm of two thirds of our students. I am focusing on the thinking of one of the chief architects and financial sponsors of corporate reform, Bill Gates. His vision guides one of the largest philanthropies in the world, which has made education reform its number one priority within the US, so his thinking has huge consequences for our schools.

As I wrote yesterday, Gates seems to be awakening to the role “student motivation” plays in the capacity for students to learn - at least when technology is involved. This is a huge and important insight, because it is the clue that tells us there are limits to the degree to which we can manipulate others. Human agency is ultimately a determining factor. And once we begin to explore the motivation of our students - or lack thereof, we can learn some very important things.

I think one of the key pieces that Gates has missed with his approach to education is the connection between students’ motivation and their life prospects. This goes beyond the material conditions of poverty that directly impinge on students’ capacity to learn - neighborhood violence, hunger, unstable housing and so on. This has to do with what students perceive are their own opportunities in life. These perceptions are influenced by what students see around them. How are older relatives and friends in the neighborhood doing after graduating from high school? Is the promised path of high school diploma, followed by four-year degree, actually working out? Or are they seeing older peers forced to drop out, or graduating saddled with debt, without the high-paying jobs that might justify such an investment?

Gates himself recently observed in an interview at the American Enterprise Institute that future job prospects are likely to be significantly diminished in the decades to come as a result of technological advances.

Gates says (around minute 46):

Well, technology in general will make capital more attractive than labor over time. Software substitution, you know, whether it's for drivers or waiters or nurses... It's progressing. And that's going to force us to rethink how these tax structures work in order to maximize employment, you know, given that, you know, capitalism in general, over time, will create more inequality and technology, over time, will reduce demand for jobs particularly at the lower end of the skill set. And so, you know, we have to adjust, and these things are coming fast. Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower, and I don't think people have that in their mental model.

He might be surprised to find out how many people already living in poverty and the dwindling middle class have adjusted their mental models to this reality of 21st century America. And if people do not see opportunities available to them as a result of their education, they are likely to disengage.

In several interviews, he has made it clear that the gap between rich and poor is of little concern. Instead, he focuses on poverty - but take a look at how poverty and the middle class are defined in this interview with Jeremy Paxman:

Paxman: When you hear that statistic from Oxfam that the poorest half of the world own about as much as the 85 richest, including you of course, does that make you feel uncomfortable? Gates: Well we... What makes me uncomfortable is that children die, that people don't get a good education, they don't get enough nutrition and that's what I've devoted my life working on. So all the money in my hands is going against those problems. Paxman: But you don't deny that the gap between rich and poor seems to have got worse? Gates: The gap between rich and poor has not gotten worse, thank goodness. Less children are dying, people are living longer, people are more literate. If you go back far enough, everybody was poor. If you want everybody to be the same like 200 years ago when life was very short, a third of all children died before they were five years old. That was an age of strong equality.

In this interview with Rolling Stone, the picture becomes clear.

Poverty today looks very different than poverty in the past. The real thing you want to look at is consumption and use that as a metric and say, "Have you been worried about having enough to eat? Do you have enough warmth, shelter? Do you think of yourself as having a place to go?" The poor are better off than they were before, even though they're still in the bottom group in terms of income.

Gates’ interview at the American Enterprise Institute reveals a bit more, regarding how Gates believes we might address the problem of poverty.

Well, I think economists would have said that a progressive consumption tax is a better construct, you know, at any point in history. The idea that through the income tax credit you would end up with a certain minimum wage that you'd receive, that I understand better than potentially damping demand in the part of the labor spectrum that I'm most worried about.

To put this more clearly, Gates is suggesting we increase taxes on consumption by the wealthy, and use those revenues to provide a sort of subsistence level payment to the poor. He opposes an increase in the minimum wage because it might raise employer costs, which they would then try to cut by laying people off.

Gates is unconcerned about income inequality as an issue. He defines poverty as abject starvation and homelessness, and hopes employers can be convinced to keep on employees because they do not cost very much.

The motivation of 50 million K12 students in the US is directly related to the degree to which their education leads to a brighter future. We have a big disconnect here when the future does not, in fact, offer much chance at access to college or productive employment. And as Wilkinson and Pickett established in their book The Spirit Level, the level of inequality a society tolerates has a dramatic effect on the mental state and wellbeing of its citizens.

As I wrote earlier in the week, there seems to be an attempt to use ever more difficult Common Core aligned tests to certify as many as two thirds of our students as unworthy of such opportunities.

This brings to mind a dystopian future where an underclass of Common Core test rejects is allowed to subsist with the bare minimum payments required to keep starvation at bay, while a shrinking cadre of insecure workers maintain the machinery that keep the lights on and the crops harvested.

The fundamental problem of the current economy is that we have not figured out a means by which the top 1% can be persuaded to share the prodigious profits that have flowed from technological advances.

In this regard Gates’ understanding and mine are not that far apart.

While in his response to Paxman he bristles at the idea that the gap between rich and poor has widened, in the more relaxed setting at the American Enterprise Institute, he states:

”...given that, you know, capitalism in general, over time, will create more inequality and technology, over time, will reduce demand for jobs...”

So we agree there. But I cannot reconcile how this future of growing inequality and a shrinking workforce intersects with the grand utopian vision of the Common Core. So then I go back and have to question the validity of the promises made for the Common Core, since the economic projections Gates is making here seem sound.

While Gates is advocating some sort of adjustments to tax policy to transfer a bit of wealth downward, I do not see any serious efforts on his part in this arena. When I have asked representatives of the Gates Foundation if they might press for such changes, they have replied that this is beyond the scope of their work. Our elite, including Mr. Gates, do not seem terribly interested in any sort of restructuring of the economic relationships that have them accruing tremendous wealth and power.

These economic problems will not be addressed by Common Core, by charter schools or any other educational reforms. They will not even be addressed in a significant way by what we might praise as authentic education reforms, such as smaller class sizes or more time for teacher collaboration - though these are worthwhile and humane things.

Imperfect as they have been, public schools have been an institution under mostly democratic control, funded by taxpayers, governed by elected school boards, and run by career educators. Market-driven education reform is bringing the cruelty of commerce into what was part of the public sphere, attempting to use test scores to open and close schools like shoe stores, and pay teachers on test score commissions as if we were salesmen.

The rhetoric of the corporate reform project draws on the modern movement for civil rights, and even Bill Gates asserts that his goal is to fight inequity. But elites have rarely, if ever, designed solutions that diminish their privilege, and this is no exception. It appears that corporate education reform has devised a means to affix blame for inequity on classroom teachers, even as technological advances make it possible to transfer even more wealth into its sponsors’ bank accounts, with fewer people being paid for the work that remains necessary. The promise that the Common Core will prepare everyone for the American dream is made a lie by the intentionally engineered failure rates on Common Core aligned tests.

The fundamental problem educators face is that it is very difficult to inspire and motivate students whose future is bleak. And the ever more difficult Common Core tests actually make this even more starkly clear - as they certify a major portion of our population as unworthy of career or college.

As educators understand this disconnect, there will be greater resistance. And this resistance will find allies among our students, the debt-burdened college graduates, those in communities abandoned by the modern economy, the many millions rendered surplus by an economy that does not need them, and those still clinging to their piece of the dream. The sooner this set of illusions is exploded, the sooner we can begin the real challenge of reshaping our economic system so that it gives our students the opportunities they deserve.

What do you think? Does a future of increased inequality and diminished job prospects make the promise of education reform and the Common Core an illusion?

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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.