Bill and Melinda Gates just released this year’s Gates Foundation’s Annual Letter on the foundation’s giving.
Here are some principles I fall back on when I sit down to read such a letter.
First I think about the serious warnings we’ve had over the years about the power of today’s mega philanthropies, larger and more far reaching than in previous decades in their efforts to insert themselves into public policy, but without democratic checks and balances of any kind. Here is Diane Ravitch in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: “(I)t is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations. There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review…. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state.” (pp. 200-201)
Second, foundations are not supposed to be overtly political; after all, the funds invested in foundations by their billionaire founders are deemed tax-free and charitable. As charitable gifts, the funds donated to foundations are not taxed, but these dollars have been too frequently privately invested by foundations to underwrite so-called pilot programs in public school districts, programs that have been overtly designed to shape public policy.
Third, foundation-funded projects are experimental but the foundations don’t have to take any responsibility when their experiments fail. The school districts and schools at the heart of the experiment, however, and the students and teachers in those schools are often seriously negatively impacted when the experiment fails. Back in 2011, in a much read article about the power of the venture philanthropies—the Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations, Joanne Barkan traced the history and consequences, for example, of the Gates Foundation’s small high schools experiment: “In 2000 the foundation began pouring money into breaking up large public high schools where test scores and graduation rates were low… The foundation didn’t base its decision on scientific studies showing school size mattered…. In November 2008, Bill and Melinda gathered about one hundred prominent figures in education at their home outside Seattle to announce that the small schools project hadn’t produced strong results. They didn’t mention that, instead, it had produced many gut-wrenching sagas of school disruption, conflict, students and teachers jumping ship en masse, and plummeting attendance, test scores, and graduation rates. No matter, the power couple had a new plan: performance-based teacher pay, data collection, national standards and tests, and school ‘turnaround’ (the term of art for firing the staff of a low-performing school and hiring a new one, replacing the school with a charter, or shutting down the school and sending the kids elsewhere). To support the new initiatives, the Gates Foundation had already invested almost $2.2 million to create The Turnaround Challenge, the authoritative how-to guide on turnaround. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called it ‘the bible’ for school restructuring.” We now know, of course, the fate of the turnaround challenge as it was adopted by Duncan’s Department of Education—an example of mega-philanthropy driving public policy by producing and promoting the research adopted by the Secretary of Education as the basis for federal policy.
In 2009, the Gates Foundation invested in a teacher evaluation and merit pay experiment in Hillsborough County (greater-Tampa) Florida, an experiment designed around offering bonuses to reward better teaching. The public school district certainly bought in to participating in the experiment that Gates launched; it did not, however, expect to be left holding considerable debt. Here is the Tampa Bay Times‘ Marlene Sokol: “The Gates-funded program—which required Hillsborough to raise its own $100 million—ballooned beyond the district’s ability to afford it, creating a new bureaucracy of mentors and ‘peer evaluators’ who don’t work with students. Nearly 3,000 employees got one-year raises of more than $8,000. Some were as high as $15,000, or 25 percent. Raises went to a wider group than envisioned, including close to 500 people who don’t work in the classroom full time, if at all. The greatest share of large raises went to veteran teachers in stable suburban schools, despite the program’s stated goal of channeling better and better-paid teachers into high-needs schools. More than $23 million of the Gates money went to consultants. The program’s total cost has risen from $202 million to $271 million… The district’s share now comes to $124 million… And Gates is withholding $20 million after deciding it does not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses—a major change in philosophy.”
Then, of course, there has been the Gates Foundation investment in the Common Core—investment in the development of national standards and support for the development of the Common Core tests. Last June the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times quoted the Gates Foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellman on this failure: “Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well equipped to implement the standards… We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators—particularly teachers—but also parents and communities, so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning. This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.” The LA Times editorial adds, however that Gates “is now working more on providing Common Core-aligned materials to classrooms, including free digital content that could replace costly textbooks.” Gates has not given up on the Common Core, despite widespread unpopularity.
In this year’s 2018 Annual Gates Foundation Letter, Bill Gates describes the purpose of the Gates Foundation’s investment in education as “ultimately about helping low-income students and students of color get the same opportunities as everyone else… The issues of economic mobility in America are deeply intertwined; education, employment, race, housing, mental health, incarceration, substance abuse.” You will notice, however, that Gates Foundation investments have not, so far, been aimed at addressing the nexus of poverty and education in the United States. Instead Gates has experimented with technocratic governance changes, standardized curriculum, and teacher evaluation and merit pay.
What does Bill Gates claim the Foundation has accomplished? Well it isn’t really about addressing the root causes of educational inequality. In the new letter Bill Gates describes drawing attention to a flaw in the calculation of high school graduation rates, supporting small new secondary schools, and improving the quality of teaching by helping “educators understand how to observe teachers, rate their performance fairly, and give them feedback…” He claims to have learned “that it’s extremely hard to transform low-performing schools.” Finally, he emphasizes: “For any new approach to take off, you need three things. First you have to run a pilot project showing that the approach works. Then the work has to sustain itself. Finally, the approach has to spread to other places.” So far most Gates’ experiments have failed the first test.
Bill and Melinda Gates claim that in the future, the Foundation will be driven more directly by input from teachers: “We will work with networks of middle and high schools across the country to help them develop and implement their own strategies for overcoming the obstacles that keep students from succeeding. We will help these networks with the process: using key indicators of student success like grades and attendance to drive continuous learning and improvement… We’re acutely aware that some development programs in the past were led by people who assumed they knew better than the people they were trying to help. We’ve learned over the years that listening and understanding people’s needs from their perspective is not only more respectful—it’s also more effective.”
After over fifteen years of investing in what, it is now clear, are failed interventions in education, it is nice that the Gates Foundation plans to work more closely with the teachers in the public schools. Ultimately, however, due to a long history of educational inequality exacerbated in the past decade by reduced state and federal funding, the greatest challenge for public schools today involves lack of resources—particularly for the schools in the poorest communities. When the Gates Foundation talks with teachers, its staff will likely discover they cannot provide what is needed—especially in the poorest school districts serving student populations where poverty is concentrated. Although more tax dollars would enable our society to buy smaller classes or more school nurses or counselors or psychologists or the addition of advanced curriculum or enrichments like school music, foundations are not set up to undertake ongoing operating expenses. Neither Gates nor any other foundation is set up to be responsive to these basic operating needs that teachers will surely identify.