Standards Opinion

Bill Gates’ Big Play: How Much Can Money Buy in Education?

By Anthony Cody — November 05, 2011 6 min read
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What would happen if one of the wealthiest men in the world decided to remake the institution of public education in America? What if that man believed he understood the secrets to success, and sought to align the nation’s schools to his vision and methods? What if he decided to devote all his time and considerable money to this objective? Could he succeed? We are in the process of finding out just how far money and a sharply defined agenda can take you.

Bill Gates’ first challenge was to define a vision.
After experimenting with small schools, he discovered that this approach did not lead to consistently higher student performance. So he stepped back and said, OK, let’s figure out just what IS going to increase those test scores? This was the crucial decision that has determined all other steps that have followed. The purpose of schooling has been determined by the measurement that tells us if we have succeeded. Although Bill Gates would perceive this as a neutral objective, in fact it has created a driving agenda for school change. The agenda is this: To recraft the system so that it is just as relentlessly focused on test score improvement as any business is focused on making money.

How does one go about making your own agenda everyone else’s?

Bill Gates had a huge head start, in that No Child Left Behind had already set the wheels in motion. The idea that test scores are all that matter was already encoded into federal law and funding policies. The trouble is that law is punitive, cumbersome, illogical and bound to fail, by its own set of indicators. So we had to move beyond NCLB, and create a sustainable trajectory for test-driven reforms. This has been done in several ways.

First, acknowledge that current tests are of limited value
. We cannot abandon them because they are all we have, and we cannot ignore the data they give us, even though it is not all we might wish for. Develop a plan for a new generation of tests that will be clearly superior to existing tests. These new tests will be richer, and incorporate technology, and based on new quasi-national standards that are likewise superior. The Gates Foundation has been a huge supporter of the Common Core Standards, and is partnering with the Pearson Foundation to develop online reading and math courses aligned with the standards.

It can’t hurt to have your high-level staff transfer over to working for the US Department of Education. And if lobbying rules would block this due to ethical considerations, simply get waivers.

Bill Gates recently asserted:

It may surprise you--it was certainly surprising to us--but the field of education doesn't know very much at all about effective teaching.

It does surprise me, because I am familiar with the amazing work done over the past two decades by educators who created the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The National Board defined the highest level of teaching in line with all the things we value in a classroom. The standards include creating a strong classroom community that nurtures and supports all students. They include how well we meet the diverse needs of students from different cultures and linguistic backgrounds. The portfolios teachers assemble need to provide strong evidence that students are learning, including work samples that show how the teacher has challenged and guided the student. Now we see that the National Board faces tremendous pressure to include test score data as an important indicator of teacher quality.

Research can lead the way. The Gates Foundation is going after its goals by investing in research that implicitly defines “effectiveness” as the ability to increase test scores. The studies have been in the works for years, and are now being released one after another. The way the research questions are posed, and the data is interpreted, allows you to control a great deal of the debate. For example, a recent study of charter schools came out, funded by the Gates Foundation, in which the key question posed focused on the “impact...on student outcomes,” as measured by test scores. Similarly, a huge project called Measures of Effective Teaching appears to define effectiveness primarily by looking at test score gains.

Since the accountability devices in NCLB were clumsy and punitive, invent a host of new mechanisms to reward success as well as punish failure. As much a possible, target these interventions down to the level of the individual teacher and student, to ensure compliance. Redefine professionalism for teachers so that it no longer means you have autonomy and responsibility for your work. Instead, being professional means you get paid for your results, and are subject to termination if you fail to help your students achieve what the predictive models project they ought to. Since teachers have been firmly opposed to this, do not make test scores the only means by which their performance is measured. Call this one of “multiple measures.” But make sure other elements that are measured also align with growth in test scores.

Get non-profit advocacy groups on your side. If you hand out multi-million dollar grants to organizations that are piecing together their existence on much smaller sources, all of a sudden you can become their biggest sponsor. Pump money into advocacy groups like Teach Plus, and discover they are willing to lobby on behalf of things you value. Help sponsor the creation of new advocacy groups like Students First and they can help as well.

Influence the media: Sponsor coverage of education in the media, including major television news events such as NBC’s Education Nation. Last year’s Education Nation was tied into the release of Waiting For Superman, which had a $2 million publicity effort sponsored by the Gates Foundation.

This sponsorship will earn you prominent placement and glowing comments from the news hosts, such as during this year’s teacher town hall, when Brian Williams said:

The Gates Foundation, one of the sponsors of this event, and the largest single funder of education anywhere in the world. It's their facts that we're going to be referring to often to help along our conversation.

This shows how media sponsorship and research can fit together to define the very facts that are discussed in the public arena. These definitions are rarely challenged, as they are the implicit conditions one must accept in order to gain sponsorship. This influence is rarely even acknowledged or discussed critically, such is its power and pervasiveness.

Advocacy headed in a different direction has to fight uphill, and faces constant pressure to compromise or capitulate. If you want grant money for some teacher quality project, you will do much better if you agree to “multiple measures,” including test scores. Individual teachers face intimidation, and fear speaking out publicly. The Save Our Schools March last summer was an exceptional event, in that it allowed teachers and parents to raise our voices together. The Occupation Movement now has given a public voice to those who question the corporate values permeating society, and this is likely to affect the debate in education as well. But the fate of our public schools is still very much in question.

Will the power and influence Bill Gates has developed succeed in transforming our schools according to his vision? Or will grassroots efforts and teacher wisdom sustain a different vision?

[Editorial note: Education Week Teacher is not affiliated with the Save Our Schools event; the views expressed in this opinion blog do not reflect the endorsement of Education Week or Editorial Projects in Education, which take no editorial positions]

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.