Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

From Common Core, to Vergara, to VAM, Gates Foundation Fingerprints Everywhere

By Anthony Cody — June 11, 2014 6 min read
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Someone in the mainstream media finally asked Bill Gates straight out what his role was regarding Common Core. What a concept! Until last week, those of us who pointed out the trail of greenbacks leading to his door were often dismissed as “conspiracy theorists.”

Those of us who have been writing about education from a critical perspective have been aware of Bill Gates’ big project for several years. I wrote about his growing influence in 2011, in this post: Bill Gates’ Big Play: How Much Can Money Buy in Education. It turns out the answer is, “just about everything.” This interview by Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post finally drew back the curtain for the mainstream media, detailing what many have refused to notice. Layton writes:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn't just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards. With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes. Bill Gates was de facto organizer, providing the money and structure for states to work together on common standards in a way that avoided the usual collision between states' rights and national interests that had undercut every previous effort, dating from the Eisenhower administration.

But Common Core is just one part of Bill Gates’ role in education policy in the US. His foundation has its fingerprints on almost every major corporate reform initiative that has taken hold in the past five years.

  • Challenges to due process for teachers: The Vergara trial yesterday dealt a blow to due process for teachers in California. One of the witnesses advancing the winning argument was Tom Kane, former director of the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching Project. In 2010, Gates stated on Oprah that if we were able to rid our nation’s schools of ineffective teachers, our schools would go right to the top of international rankings. The Gates Foundation spent $2 million on promoting “Waiting For Superman,” which carried the same message. The Gates Foundation has also sponsored “teacher voice” groups such as Teach Plus and Educators 4 Excellence. Teach Plus mobilized teachers to testify against seniority protections in Indiana, and Educators 4 Excellence requires members to sign a pledge stating their opposition to seniority, and support of the use of test scores to evaluate teachers.
  • Attacks of schools of education: Next week the NCTQ will release its second round of “research” compiled largely from perusing course catalogs, and based upon this “rigorous study” will assign letter grades to such schools. Those insufficiently obsessive over test score data will be marked way down. Funded by the Gates Foundation.
  • Expansion of charter schools: Gates has long argued that charter schools are superior to public schools - more innovative! So the Gates Foundation has promoted them. In 2004, the Gates Foundation provided support to the Center on Reinventing Public Education. [note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Gates Foundation had sponsored the creation of the CRPE.] This organization has promoted the creation of “portfolio districts” in which charter schools can proliferate, and public school administrators actively assist the charter schools that are replacing their own public schools. Twenty districts have signed “collaboration compacts,” which are also referred to as “Gates compacts,” because they make the districts eligible for special grants such as this one from the Gates Foundation. Gates himself personally donated $3 million dollars to pass a 2012 ballot measure allowing for charter schools in the state of Washington, and the Gates Foundation is actively promoting their expansion there. The US Department of Education has followed the Gates Foundation’s lead in this, as in many areas, and made the removal of caps on charter schools one of the factors for Race to the Top grants. Many states complied.
  • Expansion of the use of Value Added Models (VAM) for purposes of teacher evaluation and dismissal. The Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project has spent several hundred million dollars researching these ideas, and continues to promote the use of these flawed models, though independent researchers such as the American Statistical Association have warned against their use for such purposes.
  • Mayoral control of schools: Gates promoted mayoral control of schools in places like New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago, though this has not yielded much in the way of results.

This week we heard an unusual backtrack from the Gates Foundation’s Vicki Phillips. She wrote a letter to “our Partners,” who now must include just about every educational organization in the country. Phillips, while still insisting that teacher evaluation should include test scores, suggests that we delay the use of these scores for two years as we make the transition to the new Common Core tests.

This statement comes the same week that several states acted to back out of the Common Core, and the same month a major teacher demonstration is planned at Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle (disclosure - I will be among the speakers there). This suggestion echoes one made by Randi Weingarten a year ago. It is important to note that it does not go as far as Weingarten now suggests we ought to. Weingarten’s recent suggestion is that VAM systems and school closures be completely removed as consequences for test scores.

But as I wrote last week, the problems with Common Core go much deeper than the harshest consequences for test scores. And two year’s delay will not make this flawed system work any better.

The letter is a defacto acknowledgement of the Gates Foundation’s role behind the scenes promoting these policies. If the Gates Foundation was not advancing them so effectively, then their calls to backtrack would not rate an article in the New York Times.

But the media still shows great reluctance to tread on the toes of one of the wealthiest men in the world. An Education Week report on Lyndsey Layton’s interview said this:

There are other somewhat conspiratorial tones in the piece, from the idea that the standards were promoted without pilot testing and that Microsoft stands to benefit from the common core's embrace of technology, something Gates vehemently says is not his motivation.

Again, critics are accused of “conspiratorial tones.” I must have missed the pilot tests for Common Core Standards that preceded their adoption, because apparently pointing out that there were none makes you a conspiracy theorist.

The question of motivation is a far more complex one. It is undeniable that Microsoft has invested in creating Common Core-aligned curriculum to be sold for profit. Given that a large part of Gates’ personal wealth is still in Microsoft stock, he will stand to gain if these investments are successful. But given his enormous pile of money, it is quite possible he is content and not seeking to expand his wealth - at least not in this arena. However, Gates believes that the source of innovation in education - and everywhere else, is the profit motive. In my 2012 dialogue with the Gates Foundation this market-driven mindset was described. This ideology is behind the promotion of charter schools, as more competitive than traditional public schools. Much of the rationale for Common core standards comes from the way this will supposedly unleash competition that will yield new devices and applications that will improve outcomes, as well as prodigious data systems that will enable such competition. So while Gates himself may not be motivated to make money from Common Core, a big part of his own explanation for why it is needed is that the opportunity to make money will be the key to improving education.

Let’s hope reporters stop calling those of us who question or criticize the Gates Foundation “conspiracy theorists.” This is typical mainstream “groupthink” which has served to inflate the standardized testing bubble beyond reason, by marginalizing independent voices. And thank you to Lyndsey Layton for simply asking Gates the right questions. The Common Core is indeed a Gates-funded project, but it is just one of many “reform” projects transforming our schools.

What do you think? Is Gates’ role in driving market-based education reform finally beginning to come to light?

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