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Gates’ Excuse for Poor Results of Educational Technology: “Unmotivated Students”

By Anthony Cody — July 02, 2014 3 min read
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I have written a great deal about the Gates Foundation’s role in education reform over the past several years. They have been a focus because no other entity has had such a wide-ranging impact on the institution of public education. In fact, by the end of the summer, I will publish a book entitled The Educator and the Oligarch, which will pull together much of my work related to the Gates Foundation.

If there is one thing Bill Gates has been a fan of, it is the role of technology in improving education. But recent comments he has made suggest he may be starting to see that even technology may not be all powerful. And this leads to some deeper questions about the viability of the entire education reform project. In Lyndsey Layton’s recent interview, Gates had this to say:

Well, technology in the classroom doesn't have some stellar record up until now. ...technology has to deal with the fact that neither technology nor anything else has changed mass achievement in this country up till now. So, whatever reform, technology or otherwise, comes along, it's good to be skeptical because even as we have intensified resources going against education very substantially, we haven't moved achievement. (the challenge is) ... to take these tools into the inner city where you have kids who don't think math is relevant to them and sitting there, paying attention. And we haven't done a good job of making that what they want to do.

Gates’ recent comments in Los Alamos suggest where he places the blame.

New technology to engage students holds some promise, but Gates says it tends to only benefit those who are motivated. "And the one thing we have a lot of in the United States is unmotivated students," Gates said.

A new report from researchers Susan Neuman and Donna Celano reinforces the idea that educational technology does not help close the achievement gap - it may actually widen it, because students of different income levels use technology in different ways. The Hechinger Report’s Annie Murphy Paul explains:

The very tool designed to level the playing field is, in fact, un-leveling it," they wrote in a 2012 book based on their Philadelphia library study. With the spread of educational technology, they predicted, "the not-so-small disparities in skills for children of affluence and children of poverty are about to get even larger. While technology has often been hailed as the great equalizer of educational opportunity, a growing body of evidence indicates that in many cases, tech is actually having the opposite effect: it is increasing the gap between rich and poor, between whites and minorities, and between the school-ready and the less-prepared.

Gates has made technological innovation one of the cornerstones of his reform project. When he spoke to the National Board teachers conference a few months ago, he made it clear that one of the huge benefits of the Common Core standards was that they would make classrooms standardized like electrical sockets, which would allow the developers of innovative educational technology the chance to prove the value of their products.

But if educational technologies actually widen the achievement gap, then this rationale is undermined. Research on MOOCs reinforces this conclusion. While these “innovators,” as well as established corporations such as Microsoft and Pearson, may make billions from this, it is getting harder to make this case that this investment in technology will actually close the achievement gap.

Furthermore, when Gates attributes the poor results for educational technology to a lack of student motivation, what does that say about the other main plank of his reform project - the belief that we can dramatically improve student outcomes by using test data to identify the best and worst teachers, getting rid of the worst, and elevating the best?

So far the test-based teacher evaluations and merit pay plans do not seem to be having the desired effect. Could it be that teacher effectiveness, as with educational technology, is also affected by what Gates calls student motivation?

What Gates terms a lack of student motivation, educators understand to be much more complex. As I discussed in my dialogue with the Gates Foundation in 2012, there are a host of educational problems closely associated with poverty. These include hunger and food insecurity, exposure to neighborhood violence, homelessness, exposure to lead, and high levels of unemployment. These conditions have a very real impact on the ability of students to enthusiastically engage in learning. Another huge factor that Gates does not seem aware of is the way that the lack of opportunities that await students when they graduate from high school and college affect student engagement in learning. Gates himself recently observed that future job prospects are likely to be significantly diminished as a result of technological advances.

It is a bit ironic that Gates offers the “excuse” of poor student motivation for the failure of technology, when the “no excuses” reform movement he has sponsored allows for no such excuses for teachers and schools.

We are reaching a critical juncture in this education reform experiment. We know Gates is extremely intelligent, and capable of connecting these dots. This experiment has gone on long enough to create not just a scattering of those dots, but a pointillistic portrait of misplaced priorities and incorrect assumptions. Here is a crisis of conscience for the reformers. Will they make excuses for their own solutions that they do not allow for others? Or can they see only the mote in their brother’s eye, while missing the beam in their own?

What do you think? Do Bill Gates’ comments suggest that a double standard is at work?

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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.