Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Accountability for Mr. Gates: The Billionaire Philanthropist Evaluation

By Anthony Cody — April 05, 2013 7 min read
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Bill Gates, who is more responsible than anyone for the absurd evaluations by which teachers are now being held accountable, had the gall to write this week in a tone of exasperation about the results of his own advocacy for these very practices.

Yesterday I asked when Mr. Gates, the great enthusiast for accountability for others, might hold himself accountable for his own handiwork.

As wealth has concentrated in the accounts of individuals such as the Gates, Walton and Broad families, they have used this to wield unprecedented power over the lives of those of us without access to such resources. They pay for research that creates the very “facts” upon which public debate is based. They pay for their own media outlets, and heavily subsidize others. Their money redirects existing grassroots groups, and underwrites new ones. They work with ALEC to write legislation, and funnel money through PACs to buy off politicians to move it forward across the country. They are utterly insulated from any sort of accountability. They do not face voters in any election. Nobody “evaluates” them. They cannot be fired. They may on occasion choose to engage in a dialogue, but they are not obliged to respond to the substance of the criticisms raised. As my question indicated, this accountability they demand from teachers is a street that goes one way only.

But let’s imagine we could turn the tables on Mr. Gates and evaluate his performance as a philanthropist. Might we establish some goals to which we could hold our billionaires accountable? We do not have any measurable indicators such as test scores to use, but since I do not find these to be of great value in any case, I will offer a more qualitative metric, based on my knowledge of the subject’s work. Since he has spoken glowingly of the salutary effect of feedback on teachers, surely he will welcome this feedback, even though it is unsolicited.

In the tradition of the Danielson and Marzano teacher evaluation frameworks, I offer the Cody Billionaire Philanthropist Evaluation Model, as applied to Bill Gates.

Standard 1: Awareness of the Social Conditions Targeted by Philanthropy
Rating: Below Standard
Mr. Gates does not demonstrate an understanding of the social conditions that are the focus of his philanthropy. Actions and statements by him and his representatives indicate ignorance of the pervasive effects of poverty, and the overwhelming research that indicates the need to address these effects directly. Mr. Gates has not attended public schools, nor worked in an educational context, and thus he has no personal expertise. He primarily cites research he has paid for himself, which tends to conform to his views. His representatives claim their Foundation lacks the resources to address poverty, and insists that educators bear the burden for overcoming its effects with minimal support.

Recommendation for Professional Growth:

We recommend Mr. Gates take a year off from his work as a philanthropist, and work as a high school instructor in an urban setting. His students should include English learners, students who are homeless, and those designated as Special Education. He should work alongside a fully credentialed professional educator, who will provide him with feedback, and reflect with him as he gains an understanding of how we create effective learning conditions for students.

Standard 2: Understanding of how Learning is Measured
Rating: Below Standard
Mr. Gates has concluded that measurement is the primary means by which social progress can be made. He has determined that test scores are an adequate means of measuring learning, and promoted a wide variety of ways by which these scores are used to measure learning, and reward teachers and students accordingly. This is based on a fundamental error. In fact, test scores measure only a small part of what we value.

Recommendations for Professional Growth:

Mr. Gates should first read Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man, for an understanding of the history of testing. He should also read Daniel Koretz’ book, Measuring Up, What Educational Testing Really Tells Us.

Mr. Gates should, with the help of an experienced educator, design a series of rich PBL projects that allows each of his students to demonstrate their learning through authentic products in real-world contexts. He should compare the work they are capable of producing to their standardized test scores, and reflect on the things that each mode of measurement captures.

Standard 3: Understanding of How Teaching is Evaluated
Rating: Below Standard
Compounding the fundamental error regarding the measurement of learning described under Standard 2 above, Mr. Gates has promoted the use of teacher evaluations based in significant part on test scores and VAM systems. Research does not support this use of test scores, and raising the stakes on test scores has promoted widespread teaching to the test. Mr. Gates has made statements that indicate he is unaware of effective evaluation practices, such as the Peer Assistance and Review program and others.

Recommendations for Professional Growth:
Mr. Gates should spend a week shadowing PAR consulting teachers as they work with teachers in Toledo, Ohio. He should review the research on forms of effective evaluation practices.

As recommended above, he should serve as a classroom teacher for a full year, and have his performance rated based on VAM scores derived from standardized tests taken by his students. He should reflect with his colleagues on the validity of these ratings. He should also meet with a peer evaluator to set professional goals at the start of the year, and several times during the year meet with this person to reflect. At year’s end he should compare the models of evaluation he experienced, and reflect on which were of greater validity and value.

Standard 4: Understanding of Effective Instruction

Rating: Below Standard
Mr. Gates has repeatedly stated that he believes we ought to stop spending money on keeping class sizes small, and instead should use that money to provide performance bonuses for teachers. He has also indicated that we should “personalize” learning through the use of computers and videos that allow students to work at their own pace. This does not comport with what we know about child development, or the importance of personal relationships with students.

Recommendations for Professional Growth
Mr. Gates should spend a week shadowing children in elite schools such as the one attended by his own children, and study the way personalization is accomplished. He should then spend a week shadowing children at a Detroit school where class sizes have been significantly increased due to budget cuts, and the pressure of high stakes have focused instruction on test preparation.

In the year he teaches, he should be assigned at least one class no larger than 15, and another no smaller than 38, and reflect on the learning conditions in these two environments.

Summary of Evaluation Results and Recommendations:
Mr. Gates falls below standards in all four of the areas that were observed. His philanthropic activities should be suspended immediately pending his completion of the recommended professional growth activities.

A panel of expert reviewers composed of students, parents and educators from communities that are the targets of his philanthropy should be convened to review his reflections at the end of his year of investigation and reflection. This panel should subsequently review and approve the re-initiation of philanthropic projects following this process.

This is the beginning of what might be a far more complex process of reflection for Mr. Gates. It might be seen as absurd, but my intention is sincere. His thinking is magnified in its effect by the billions he has to spend as he chooses. With such power comes a huge responsibility to learn from one’s mistakes. I do not know how Mr. Gates reflects on the successes and failures of his work - there is no evidence of thoughtful reflection in his public writing.

Fairness demands that accountability cannot be a one way street. If Mr. Gates demands that teachers be held accountable for their work, surely he must accept some accountability for his. What is good for the poor geese ought to be good for the billionaire gander, even if he does lay golden eggs.

What do you think of this feedback? Are there other standards we might use to judge the quality of the work of billionaire philanthropists? Have I been fair with Mr. Gates?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony Cody on Twitter.

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