Misguiding Public School Policy: The Role of Giant Philanthropy and Technocracy

This blog will take Memorial Day off.  Look for a new post on Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

Several years ago, I was privileged to receive an invitation from a school psychologist at our local high school to visit the school and write about what I saw during that visit. The most memorable experience  was a social science elective class open to high school juniors and seniors—a high school level course introducing political philosophy.  The students were discussing Voltaire’s Candide, and the teacher began by presenting the class with a list of questions for discussion and asking the students to choose where to begin. By challenging the students to begin with the hardest question, which would help them explore what they were struggling to understand, the teacher disarmed the students’ anxieties and gave them the freedom to participate actively. In the discussion that followed—which the teacher struggled to wrap up even as students had to move on to the next class—students engaged each other, the teacher probed the students’ understanding of the book, and students demanded background to fill in their limited experience with this sort of reading. One girl, sitting in a chair at the back of the room near the windows, became so engaged that she climbed up to sit on top of a radiator in order to be able to see everyone who was talking and participate more actively in the conversation.

This is the best high school class I have ever observed. The engagement—between the teacher and students and the students with each other— was spontaneous, emotional, and intellectual. I don’t think that experience could really have happened on Zoom, though I’m sure that same teacher has done his best in these past two months to engage his students in this year’s version of that class.  We all do the best we can in an emergency.  In our current emergency, Zoom and other programs like it are all we have.

I thought about that high school political philosophy class when I read that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has sought the help of Bill Gates to realize Cuomo’s latest proposal—“The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state; all these buildings, all these physical classrooms… why, with all the technology you have?”  These days, so many of us are considering all the ways in which online encounters with our friends and relatives—and children’s virtual discussions with their peers and their teachers—aren’t quite the same as the real live connection we feel when we can sit down and talk or feel the energy that flows among a group of students all together in a classroom.  It feels bizarre that so-called experts and their politician friends are trying to convince us that virtual schools are going to be the future of public education.

Why is Cuomo considering the advice of Bill Gates instead of consulting New York’s teachers who know how to create the kind of engaged high school class I visited all those years ago?  One contributing factor has been the growing role of mega-philanthropy driving education policy.  In a 2014 study, published by the American Educational Research Association, Michigan State University’s Sarah Reckhow and Jeffrey Snyder describe the ways giant philanthropic investment has increasingly shaped public policy across America’s public schools.  Reckow and Snyder document that in the decade from 2000 to 2010, grants from major foundations vastly increased policy advocacy by national  organizations with paid staff who produce reports and have a presence in Washington, D.C.: “As education philanthropy evolves, funds flow increasingly toward national advocacy.  Many of these groups are highly active in policy debates on issues such as common standards and charter school expansion.  Moreover, foundations are finding new strategies to link nonprofit work with advocacy.”

The growth in philanthropic funding for education policy has neither supported traditional public schools nor traditional professional training for teachers and administrators: “Major foundations in education have simultaneously shifted away from funding traditional educational institutions towards support for organizations that could create competition for the public sector. This suggests a pattern of convergence in grant making—major foundations supporting the same kinds of activities and policy priorities.  If foundations are not only funding organizations with similar functions, but also providing financial support for the same organizations, this would indicate significant overlap in the agenda and policy goals of top education funders.”

Reckow and Snyder conclude: “Philanthropy is commonly viewed as a charitable activity, and philanthropists have traditionally approached political advocacy tentatively, if at all.  Yet major education foundations are increasingly politically engaged.  Their work includes supporting groups involved in policy advocacy, funding organizations that promote competition with public sector institutions, and providing convergent funds to key groups advancing favored policy priorities.  Coordinated policy-focused and advocacy-oriented philanthropy provides an important pathway for political influence among foundations… Foundations have simultaneously invested greater sums into jurisdictional challengers while divesting from more traditional educational institutions… Philanthropists have acted as patrons for new voices in education politics, funding increasing numbers of national advocacy groups… Philanthropic support for jurisdictional challengers suggests strong alignment of funding for research, advocacy, and implementation to advance a policy agenda.”

On Monday of this week, the University of Wisconsin’s Kathryn Moeller and Penn State’s Rebecca Tarlau pick up the same theme in an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.  Commenting on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new partnership with Bill Gates to “reimagine” public education in New York, Moeller and Tarlau declare: “Gates Foundation’s tactics to remake public education during pandemic are undemocratic.”  Describing the role of today’s education philanthropy, they write: “Powerful foundations like the Gates Foundation do not simply impose policies on governments like New York State… Rather, they influence state officials’ consensus about which policies to adopt by positioning themselves as experts on education, garnering widespread support for their policy proposals, and offering economic and organizational support to put those policies in effect.  In our research, we refer to this as a process of ‘philanthropizing consent’ for highly controversial policy solutions.”

While Reckow and Snyder describe the recent philanthropic preference for jurisdictional challengers—charter schools rather than traditional public schools or alternative and quick teacher certification programs like Teach for America— Moeller and Tarlau describe an additional trend in today’s philanthropically driven education policy: (R)esearch shows that philanthropic experts often work to find technical solutions to systemic inequities without addressing their underlying causes.”  The threat to the public operation and governance of public schools is not merely because foundations lack public accountability, but also because their proposed solutions are likely to replace democratic institutions with technocracy.

In an essay “Pangloss, Pandora, or Jefferson,” which was a chapter in the 1998 book of essays, A Passion for Democracy, and reprinted here, the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber considers the problem of rapidly accelerating technology as a potential threat to democracy itself.  Barber reminds readers: “Henry Adams… observed at the beginning of this century that between the years 1800-1900, ‘measured by any standard known to science—by horsepower, calories, volts, mass in any shape… the tension and vibration and volume and so-called progression of society were fully a thousand times greater.’ … The internal combustion engine, and the typewriter came of age between the two World Wars, and television, microchips, and lasers are still more recent. The first computer built after the war filled a large room and performed less complex calculations for its ardent cybernetic attendants than a handheld instrument performs for students today.”

In the more than two decades since Barber published his essay, we now do have the technology to put New York state’s public schools entirely online, which Governor Cuomo seems to believe would cheaper, more efficient, and safer if another wave of the pandemic should hit his state. My sense, however, is that Barber would caution Cuomo about entirely turning over what are today’s democratically governed and operated New York public schools to the technological wizards and tech philanthropists. Barber would worry about our society’s capacity to meet the needs and protect the legal rights of all students if the technocrats were put in charge.

Barber warns: “There are, in fact, at least three prospects for the future of technology and democracy—three scenarios of their relationship—that are within the realm of technological possibility. I will call them, rather fancifully, the Pangloss scenario, which is rooted in complacency and is simply a projection of current attitudes and trends; the Pandora scenario, which looks at the worst possible case in terms of the inherent dangers of technological determinism, and the Jeffersonian scenario, which seeks out the affirmative uses of the new technology in the nurturing of modern democratic life.”

The students in the high school political philosophy class that I observed knew about Dr. Pangloss, Candide’s tutor, who, in any situation saw, “the best of all possible worlds.” Barber explains: “Anyone who reads good-time pop-futurology knows the penchant of the future mongers for Panglossian parody.  Their view of the future is always relentlessly upbeat and ahistorical, mindlessly naive about power and corruption as conditioners of all human politics.  They assume that the technological present and the future it will naturally produce are wholly benevolent and without costs.”  Governor Cuomo, turning to Bill Gates to create an educational future all online to replace “all these buildings, all these physical classrooms,” is a Dr. Pangloss.

The second scenario involves Pandora, the mortal woman created by the Greek gods and given many gifts. One gift was a box she was forbidden to open. Subject to curiosity, Pandora opened the box and released all the plagues, miseries and sorrows of mankind.  Describing the lure of today’s technology, Barber explains: “Pangloss is a peril to every society, but the greater danger to democracy comes form Pandora’s scenario, which envisions what might happen if a government consciously set out to utilize the new technologies for purposes of standardization, control, or repression.”

Of course, Barber prefers what he calls the Jeffersonian scenario: “Despite the potential of the… technology… for abuse, the new technologies, in themselves, can also offer powerful assistance to the life of democracy… In this sense, a guarded optimism is possible about technology and democracy, but only if citizen groups and governments take action in adapting the new technology to their needs.”  However, “In considering the Jeffersonian scenario we do not want to fall into Pangloss’s error and persuade ourselves that technology, properly used, can solve all the problems of democracy. Next to Pangloss, Pandora and Jefferson lurks Icarus, to remind us of the ultimate limits of all human technology—the modern extension of human hubris… Democracy can be reinforced by technology and it can be corrupted by technology, but democracy’s survival depends on human not machine inspiration.”

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