Public Education’s Corporate Reformers: Bill Gates

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Last time, we introduced the topic of “Corporate Reform,” a broad label which includes many groups with various approaches to improving public education.  Despite their varied specialties (from charter schools to vouchers to technology to standardized testing being linked to teacher evaluations to the Common Core to the elimination of teacher rights, such as tenure and unions), the key commonality these organizations share is that the bulk of their funding comes from billionaires who amassed fortunes through business dealings, which is where the “corporate” part of the label comes in.  My key point in the previous article was that we critics of these reformers (of which I am a strident one) tend to let that label do all our talking for us without a more reasoned and specific analysis of what these many different movements entail.  But that kind of broad-brushed attack is no more convincing to me than those who claim all schools are terrible and that we need to start from scratch in rebuilding education in America.  We need to understand the specifics of what these people want for education in order to ward off that which is counter to the best interests of our kids.  And what better place to start than with one of the original education-focused billionaires—Bill Gates.

Gates is the most notable among those who earned a fortune, stepped back from his business role, and leapt into charitable works designed to improve society.  And I do believe his motives are generally positive; he does want to assist in making society better.  Given his obsession for detail and desire for control, however, he hasn’t been content to find really significant people already in the education field to support, but instead has attempted to head the reform movement himself, along with his wife, Mindy.  Thus, the bulk of his time and money goes to the Bill and Mindy Gates Foundation.  That key distinction is what has made Gates suspect right from the start:  The obvious question is, “Who the hell is Bill Gates to determine what’s best for America’s schools?”  I believe that’s still at the crux of why we need to be extremely wary of anything coming from Bill or his foundation.  He gets to make the call on what’s good or bad, not the teachers doing the work who are the only ones who have a solid understanding of what’s going on in their classrooms.  In our country, apparently, his willingness to sign checks has allowed him to bypass the usual requirement for practical expertise and proven results before rising to positions of leadership.  To hear Gates speak, one would assume he came to his current perch after years teaching, more years administrating, further years researching as a professor in one of our top universities, and even more years at various levels of government working to improve and make laws that would advance public education.  But actually, no, he made gazillions selling software, and he’s using those gazillions to pursue his hobby, which is saving public education.

What he says: The foundation celebrated its fifteenth year of existence this past October, and Gates was interviewed and gave speeches at various foundation activities. His overall view:  “Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal.  And all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests. This is the combination of advances we are backing that we believe will transform America’s schools—and at the center of it all is an effective teacher.”

Nobody would contradict or disagree with any of that.  Okay, you probably could find some who would, but I’m talking about rational, reasonable people.  The problem I have with Gates’s objectives, right from the start, though, is that he’s assuming a common, single, universal definition for all those subjective qualities he enumerates—“high standards,” “effective teacher,” and of course, the incredibly easy-to-determine-objectively “support to be phenomenal.”  But when you read what Gates has said about public education and see his programs, you get a strong sense that he believes he can find the correct formula which will lead to what he defines all those things as.  That belief—that there’s a single method to do a complicated activity involving human interactions (which flies in the face of our history, not to mention how education has worked)—informs the rest of Gates’s approaches and leads him only to things which can be quantifiable.  Data is king to Bill, and it’s understandable that a computer software engineer would believe that there is a code to be unlocked in every aspect of life.

You can see this over and over in his comments which are based on the research HIS people have done.  For example, the Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project (see http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED540956.pdf) has identified the nine principles for improving teaching: Set goals, use multiple measures, balance weights, monitor validity, ensure reliability, assure accuracy, make meaningful distinctions, prioritize feedback and support, and use data for decisions at all levels.  Not too much to attack in that either, but once again the Foundation is acting as if all those subjective ideas can be objectified to the point of formulaic applications.  “Meaningful distinctions”?  C’mon, you can’t get much more subjective than that, but of course, I forget:  If you apply data to your views, you will be able to reach consensus on the most meaningful distinctions, right?     

Well, no, it just doesn’t work like that when you’re attempting to analyze the millions of variables that go into assessing which technique is most effective for one human being leading twenty-five younger human beings in getting those twenty-five to understand, retain, and apply skills that we believe will be useful to our world.  Change even one of those twenty-six people—to say nothing of the school environment, the community culture, or the resources available for a school district—and your results will also change.  We will never be able to create a lesson, school organization plan, district improvement blue print, state standardized test, or federal set of standards which will be useful in all situations for all teachers and students.

Teachers have known this for their entire working lives, as the lesson plan that killed for one class dies painfully one period later.  Something as basic as the time of day can play a huge factor in how teachers have to plan for their classes.  I regularly had three English I Honors classes in my schedule with one early in the day, another around lunch, and the third the last period of the day.  And I had to change how my day’s plans would be structured based on my early period’s sleepier, less alert responses; my lunch period’s short attention spans, especially when I had the joy of a split period schedule (half of class, lunch, second half of class.  Yeah, they really do that some times.  My department would be assigned these kinds of classes since they wouldn’t split P.E. or science lab classes, but it’s “no problem” for English), and the over-excitement and/or mental fatigue of my last period classes.  Things are different every year, semester, quarter, week, day, and period when you teach.  No matter how set in your ways you become—which is a danger in any profession, but seems especially problematic in teaching—the constant fluctuations in everything means that a certain flexibility is crucial to any effective teacher.  And that means Bill’s “phenomenal support” will only be phenomenal if it matches what teachers want, which is fluid, based on how things change.

Plus, it would be foolish to ignore the reality of how that wonderfully effective teacher is also subject to life changes that will alter how she/he does the job.  Part of the experience factor of teaching is that after doing the job for years (the exact time span will vary, although Bill will try to crack that code too, I’m sure), you just know how to do certain things that make your classroom effective and have jettisoned the things that weren’t, in corporate vernacular, “cost effective,” in terms of return (learning) for investment (time and effort).  And like all superior artists (be they athletic or performing), the effective teacher will make use of that experience to give the appearance of effortless artistry.  Having watched enough sports and listened to enough music in my time, I have come to accept the cliché that the great ones make it look easy.  Michael Jordan would probably be my generation’s shining example of an amazing performer who seemed to glide through his world with the greatest of ease.  Walter in his prime was the same way.  But given the mundane commonality of teaching as well as its significant cost, few can recognize the unique artistry that thousands of teachers have in their performance arenas.  Instead, we try to objectify and standardize what they do since we all contribute to their salaries and demand concrete results as if our kids were high-end automobiles still under warranty.

Which brings us back to Bill. His drive to figure out education hasn’t born much fruit so far.  Two of his major initiatives have essentially been dropped by any and all educational practitioners. (One of the saddest perversions in our etymological history is the sadistic abuse public education leaders have perpetuated on the word, “initiative.”  There is no message that generates more fear, anger, depression, and horror in any faculty cafeteria in America than the news that the school district is about to embark on a new “initiative.”)  The Gates Foundation’s Small Schools Initiative and its data-gathering plan, InBloom, had negligible impact despite tens of millions invested.  Rather than detail them, since they’re both essentially dead, I’ll let you read their autopsies (Small Schools and InBloom).  And now the foundation is pushing its Measures of Effective Teaching Project as the latest “savior” of public education.  Lord knows, most teachers are at best skeptical of most evaluation models, so one would hope this Gates initiative is more productive than the previous two billion or so the foundation has spent.  Thus far, however, there is little to support that it will do anything more than burn valuable work time as teachers go through the motions of jumping through Bill and Mindy’s hoops until this too passes into oblivion (and consumes even more than the $45,000,000 it already has.

In the most charitable analysis possible, the Gates Foundation has done very little to improve the lot of any students while expending billions that could have been used on more beneficial pursuits.  One day, perhaps, Bill Gates will understand how complex and individual teaching really is, and seek out ways to form partnerships with teachers to better the economic fundamentals which hurt so many families which don’t have the resources to focus enough on their children’s’ educations (for more on that, check out this article).  Until that time, the Gates Foundation will continue to use its extensive cache of cash to do little besides keeping Bill in the spotlight and distracting everyone from the real possibilities for improving public education which would entail encouraging every teacher to seek his/her own unique path to teacher effectiveness.  If you would like to read more on Bill’s educational exploits, you can check the following articles in the Seattle Times, Washington Post, and Washington Post again.

For more on freeing teachers to be the best they can be, check out my eBook Snowflake Schools.  You can read entire chapters here.

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