Education in America

Education in America: Bill Gates

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.

By Mona Se Queda

I teach bilingual special education and I like guinea pigs.

9 replies on “Education in America: Bill Gates”

I realize that there are many valid arguments against using test scores as a measure however I think that any alternative measurements we finally decide on will require data points and parameters. Speaking of algorithms I have read that School of One, while in very early stage development, has made some progress teaching kids with algos.

Is the general view that unions don’t have self-preservation at the forefront of their goals?

What do you mean by self-preservation? Unions certainly engage in bargaining, pursue their members legitimate professional interests, and provide a structured grievance process that helps ensure fairness. But unions are not just insurance companies, they’ve long lobbied for continued investment in public education. The biggest teacher’s union NEA with 3.2 million members isn’t even much of a union at all.

Of course data is important, but it needs to be meaningful. Do you know what they do to children who are not meeting the NCLB reading standards? They test every week to find the number of words they recognize. Nine year olds who go through a standardized test every week eventually find it pretty meaningless, they have zero incentive to try. And recognizing a word without knowing the meaning doesn’t mean reading to any licensed teacher, but somehow it does to the federal government. Teachers and the literacy aids who work with these kids are frequently directed by the administration to work most closely with those that are near the standard and not to spend time with the kids who are more than one grade level behind because getting those kids up to speed is too “resource intensive.” Testing creates some perverse incentives.

The kind of self-preservation that was mentioned in the NYT article. My opinion is not to abolish unions however I believe we should be critical of them because they are intimately entwined with education. Your example sounds like a very valid reason against standardized testing. Is it accurate to say that standardized tests vary by state? My knowledge of perverse incentives is limited to the school in The Wire ;) Also, I can’t seem to reconcile the idea that unions engage in legitimate professional interests yet teachers are pressured by the possibility of being fired or complacency to work more closely with certain kids and not others.

The power of private giving in education is unsettling. The Zuckerberg cash pile, Teach for America’s Foundation and PAC, and now Rhee is raising a billion dollars to move her agenda. I really fear that schools will make dubious changes to chase this money. Administrators will test and test and test to provide the data that will convince CEOs to invest in their schools. Which will inevitably mean that the kids who need the investment the most will be left behind.

Since NCLB a lot of the K-12 policy scene has calcified, despite innovation being the new buzz word. All of the obvious things have been tried and the studies point to complex solutions. A good teacher, paraprofessionals, good parents, good food, exercise, supplies, class size, etc., etc. etc. Gates is doing some interesting stuff with teacher education and with classroom technology that I respect; helping make good teachers and alleviating some of the administrative bullshit is always good.

I work in higher ed policy, where the Gates foundation has been doing some work. Kind of the same old thing: they hate tenure, love technology. The Lumina Foundation for Education is the real mover and shaker in that realm, they do only higher education. The creepy thing is they got their $2 billion from private student loan profits in the 1990s before the company was sold to Sallie Mae. Now they’re just a foundation that underwrites every freaking higher ed event/initiative/research project in the country.

Lumina isn’t totally evil, they have some great scholars working for them, but they’re also very data driven. Until 18 months ago they didn’t care what students were learning, just about graduation rates, then someone made a chart to teach them why learning was important and now they’re on board. They met with my bosses in their home office in Indy (which is a fucking palace) and told them “money is literally no object.”

All of this private money makes me uncomfortable. They’re public schools, which are still funded by public money and the public should be invested in making them great. Bill Gates is not the Superman we’re waiting for. Why should a small handful of people get to run the board just because they have a lot of private wealth? Sorry for the long comment, I don’t get to geek out about this much.

“Lumina isn’t totally evil, they have some great scholars working for them, but they’re also very data driven.” I feel like this can be applied to so many people and foundations working for educational change and reform.

I really appreciate your comment and views and it’s nice to know there are other people out there who are just as worried about private funds changing public education.

Yeah, I didn’t realize that when I wrote it, but you are totally right. Even if we made Diane Ravitch (or whomever is your personal favorite education person ) permanent Sec. of Ed tomorrow it would still take a generation for things to substantively change. Education policy is a long hard slog. Which I why I like it, because I like to develop self flagellating hobbies, like learning Russian.

I completely agree with your discomfort with private funds influencing public education. Friends of mine who push TFA don’t understand why I am so against it, or why I insist that any future Dangerspawn will go to public non-chartered schools unless it absolutely cannot be avoided. So it’s refreshing to see someone else point out the underlying issues with private funding for public schools.

Ooooooooh I’ve gotten so increasingly angry about TFA over the last few years. I just call them scabs now. There was great post about them on another blog recently:

Not to be all doom and gloom, but public schools might not be great either if they’re run by a TFA Alum like Rhee. I live in DC and the latest mayoral race was a referendum on her policies, parents were deeply unhappy with her scorched earth mentality. And now it is coming out that her policies spawned tons of fraud. That is another fundamental thing that really squicks me out about outside money and schools: there is not enough oversight.

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