The New York Times recently ran an article detailing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s forays into education reform. According to the NYT, in 2009 the foundation spent $373 million on education. Of that money, $78 million was devoted to advocacy, and there were 360 education grants awarded.
I don’t really have anything against the foundation itself; I grew up watching PBS and heard countless times “brought to you by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.” However, I worry about some of Gates’ sentiments on education and the fact that the foundation’s tactics can be somewhat shady at times. I would like to know why we are looking to Bill Gates for ideas on education reform in the first place. Yes, he is hugely successful and knows how to run a business, but education is not a business.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation underwrites countless education advocacy and reform groups; however, many people, including elected representatives and other decision makers, are unaware of this fact. They often view these groups as being truly grass-roots, even though in some cases they are actually even created in part by this foundation that appears to have the monopoly on “independent” advocacy funding. Additionally, as with any foundation or group that provides money for research, researchers invariably feel some pressure to produce results that will be acceptable to their funders. One researcher from the NYT article said, “We have a reasonable self-preservation instinct. There can be an exquisite carefulness about how we’re going to say anything that could reflect badly on the foundation.”
While I agree with some of the reforms that Gates supports, such as looking at seniority-based cuts, I cannot agree with his anti-union sentiments. In the past he has criticized teachers getting pay raises not linked student achievement in addition to advocating for bigger class sizes. Furthermore, when I hear that he supports student test scores as a measure of teacher effectiveness, I have to scratch my head and wonder how much he and the foundation truly know about the realities of teaching America’s children. I realize that he wants to change the whole way we look at the system, but evaluating teachers based on test scores and raising class sizes are flawed concepts.
Because he is looking at the system from a business viewpoint, all that really matters is data. Any teacher can tell you, though, that educating is much more than data and information. We cannot look at the education system in this manner, which is what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in addition to many politicians, want to do. There is no precise method or algorithm that can be found which will magically teach all children.
Systemic reform from the top is necessary. However, in some sense it appears that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is just throwing money at the problem in order to look for a magical equation that will solve everything. The president of the U.S. foundation, Allan C. Golston, said, “We’ve learned that school-level investments aren’t enough to drive systemic changes. The importance of advocacy has gotten clearer and clearer.” Once again, federal and state education reform is necessary, particularly in the area of funding, but many of the other issues in education, such as student achievement, really do need to be dealt with on a district and even school level.
In the end, what I would really like to see is more powerful interest groups in the field of education advocacy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may not have a hidden agenda (after all, Gates’ views on education are well-known), but they need to have some healthy competition in order to truly promote independent thought.