Teaching Opinion

Mr. Gates Goes to College: Has He Learned From His K12 Project?

By Anthony Cody — July 17, 2013 5 min read
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The new Big Man on Campus is none other than Bill Gates, who, having spent the past decade making K12 education more tightly measured and efficient, is now bringing his market-driven methods to higher education. Buckle up, boys and girls, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

This analysis in the Chronicle for Higher Education paints a picture by now familiar to public school educators. The declared goal here is the same as with public education. In the past decade, the Gates Foundation has put several hundred million dollars into efforts that have as their goal the reduction in poverty. For some unknown reason, actual poverty has sharply increased during this same decade. But let’s not let that stop the project.

Just as with its K12 flagship effort, the Common Core, the Gates Foundation wants to transform higher education to insure a “competitive workforce.” To that end, they would like college to be cheaper, more accessible, and more targeted towards the specific skills desired by employers. Instead of a broad education where a college student might take courses across a range of subjects, the new model has students demonstrating “competencies” by passing tests in specific areas, and receiving a certificate upon completion.

According to Mr. Gates, “The education we’re currently providing, or the way we’re providing it, just isn’t sustainable. Instead we have to ask, ‘How can we use technology as a tool to recreate the entire college experience? How can we provide a better education to more people for less money?”

I have a few major concerns about this.

1. Is it a “better education” to have students taking courses online, seldom if ever interacting with professors or even fellow students?

We have already seen what “virtual education” looks like in the public school arena, especially when coupled to the profit motive. The largest chain of virtual schools in the nation has shown very poor performance results. The highly promoted MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have been marked by completion rates below ten percent, recent studies have found.

It is possible that having students learn via online courses is more “efficient,” but a recent study also showed that this approach may widen the achievement gap.

The researchers examined 500,000 courses taken by more than 40,000 community- and technical-college students in Washington State. They found that students in demographic groups whose members typically struggle in traditional classrooms are finding their troubles exacerbated in online courses.
The study found that all students who take more online courses, no matter the demographic, are less likely to attain a degree. However, some groups--including black students, male students, younger students, and students with lower grade-point averages--are particularly susceptible to this pattern.

Time Magazine shared a similar warning a year ago:

In terms of learning on the college level, the Department of Education looked at thousands of research studies from 1996 to 2008 and found that in higher education, students rarely learned as much from online courses as they did in traditional classes. In fact, the report found that the biggest benefit of online instruction came from a blended learning environment that combined technology with traditional methods, but warned that the uptick had more to do with the increased amount of individualized instruction students got in that environment, not the presence of technology. For all but the brightest, the more time students spend with traditional instruction, the better they seem to do.

2. Is there any evidence that middle class jobs await this new generation of “certificated” graduates?

Unfortunately not much.

According to this report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistic, looking forward to 2018, only 23% of all job openings require a bachelor’s degree or more. About 67% require a high school degree OR LESS. Increasing the number of people with college degrees (or “certificates of competency”) may make employers happy. But given that there is no real shortage of skilled workers, an increase in their number is only likely to push wages downward.

3. Is education simply job preparation? Have colleges abdicated any role in engaging students in bigger questions? Or any real questions at all?

Stepping beyond the purely economic realm, we must examine our purpose for educating young people in the first place. Our colleges and universities certainly have a role in the national economy, and a college education may prepare students for the world of work, through some combination of the discipline of study, habits of mind, and specific knowledge required for any given field. But education - even K12 education - ought to be much more than this.

A measurement-driven system reduces everything to that which can easily be measured. However, as a science teacher, I see education as a series of learner-driven inquiries. Our students should be given invitations and opportunities to investigate the world they are inheriting. We are delivering them into an unholy mess, and just as previous generations have done, they need to reshape the world. That means they ought to be active learners, exploring and questioning. Education should not be reduced to passing a series of tests so some unseen authority can “certify” your competence for the benefit of some employer who may or may not need you.

Mr. Gates’ claim that we now have less money to spend on education than in the past does not make sense. We have the most productive economy in the world. The money that corporations avoided paying in taxes last year could have covered the entire Federal education budget.

This report reveals that:

For 2011 and 2012, the 155 companies paid just 1.8 percent of their total income in state taxes, and 3.6 percent of their declared U.S. income. The average required rate for the 50 states is 6.56 percent.

These unpaid taxes are more than all K12 education budget cuts combined. And corporate profits are at an all-time high, while wages continue to fall:

But whether at the K12 level or higher education, schools are facing the same push from Mr. Gates and his allies in business. Schools must serve employers, and must do it more cheaply than ever.

I entered teaching to serve my students. I think they will be best equipped by experiencing the discipline of learning, of inquiry and exploration. I hope those that go to college get to learn about lots of things, and engage with exciting and challenging professors and classmates. The push for efficiency will yield short term profits, but in the long run our students, and our economy, will suffer.

Those who are serious about fighting poverty might want to be more direct about it. How about an increase in the minimum wage? Take a look at Australia, where the minimum wage is far more than it is in the US. How about corporations paying their taxes so we have the funds needed for our schools? How about ending the drug war, and reducing the number of Americans behind bars?

The Gates Foundation suggested they wanted to learn from their experiences in K12 education before seeking to transform higher education. Those of us who have experienced their involvement in K12 education might suggest they wait a little longer, and learn a little more, before they move upward.

What do you think? Is the Gates Foundation ready to graduate K12 and take its methods upwards to the world of higher education? Or do they need some remedial work before they move on?

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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.