Bill and Melinda Will Divorce, but the Gates Brand of Venture Philanthropy Will Continue On

A month ago, this blog suggested that hubris is at the heart of today’s billionaire philanthropy but noted that Bill and Melinda Gates have so much power that, despite the tragic blindness of their privilege, there will be no tragic fall and no consequences. Now, with Bill and Melinda announcing their divorce, we continue to learn even more about how privilege in an unequal America insulates the super-rich who have the power to drive the public policy that shapes the institutions on which we all depend

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss seized the occasion of the Gates’ pending divorce as an opportunity to review the ways Bill and Melinda have used their influence and their money to shape public education policy at the federal level and across the states: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent billions of dollars on numerous education projects—such as creating small high schools, writing and implementing the Common Core State Standards, evaluating teachers by standardized test scores—and the couple has had enormous influence on what happened in classrooms across the country. Their philanthropy, especially in the school reform area, has been at the center of a national debate about whether it serves democracy when wealthy people can use their own money to drive public policy and fund their pet education projects. The foundation’s financial backing of some of the controversial priorities of the Obama administration’s Education Department put the couple at the center of this national conversation. Critics have said that many of the foundation’s key education projects have harmed public schools because they were unworkable from the start and consumed resources that could have been better spent.”

Strauss doesn’t even mention some of the details. For example, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan wanted to encourage states to apply for Race to the Top Grants back in 2009—grants for which states could qualify only if they would agree to adopt Duncan’s (and the Gates’) favorite policies like removing caps on the authorization of new charter schools, adopting state standards, and evaluating teachers by students’ test scores—the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave each state that wanted to apply $250,000 to hire experienced grant writers to prepare their federal applications.

And Tampa’s WFLA, News Channel 8 reported two weeks ago about the long term impact for Florida’ Hillsborough County School District of a 2009 Gates project to evaluate teachers by students’ standardized test scores and then provide bonuses to the best teachers. The Gates Foundation gave up on the experiment midstream: “The Hillsborough County Public School system is in a budget crisis. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has given the school board just days to come up with a financial plan to fund an emergency reserve account…. to be used in case of emergency or disaster. Some school board members estimate the account will be more than $100 million dollars short this year. Now, some school board members are blaming a 2009 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for putting the county on a path to have a budget shortfall… When the grant was announced, the county understood they would receive 100 million dollars if the county put up matching funds. When the grant expired in 2016, the Gates Foundation had only provided 80 million dollars, the county put up 124 million dollars… After further review, the foundation said they found bonuses to teachers didn’t improve the quality of education for students.”

Strauss explains further that Bill and Melinda Gates have been candid about admitting mistakes which had repercussions for children, teachers and public school budgets but which had no real consequences for the Gates themselves: “In 2013, Bill Gates said, ‘It would be great if our education stuff worked. But that we won’t know for probably a decade.’ It didn’t take 10 years for them and their foundation to acknowledge that key education investments didn’t turn out as well as they hoped. In the Foundation’s 2020 annual letter, Melinda Gates said, ‘The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though.  Just the opposite.’  That same annual letter had a rather remarkable statement from Melinda Gates about the role of the wealthy in education policy…. ‘We certainly understand why so many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy. Frankly, we are, too. Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers, and community leaders.'”

Except that Melinda’s description isn’t how Gates’ philanthropy has worked. The Gates Foundation has regularly been the generator of the ideas.

Back in June of 2003, for example, their foundation put out a press release: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced a $22 million investment in the NewSchools Venture Fund to increase the number of high-quality charter schools around the country by creating systems of charter schools through nonprofit charter management organizations.” Certainly this was a Gates Foundation-initiated project, and we know how those nonprofit chains of charter schools have morphed today in too many instances into giant for-profit CMOs.

Despite their pending divorce, Bill and Melinda Gates both plan to continue as co-chairs and trustees of the Foundation. Is there a chance that their pending divorce will cause Bill and Melinda to reconsider the danger of their own power?  It doesn’t look like it. In a NY Times interview last December, Melinda Gates acknowledged that venture philanthropy does shape policy these days, but Melinda seems to have convinced herself that the partnership of philanthropy and government is a form of collaboration. What she misses is that Gates’ investments have regularly involved the wielding of vast sums of money to purchase public policy. The reporter asks: “Do you accept the line of criticism that says big philanthropy has too much power right now, that individuals, not governments, are making decisions that shape educational policy and public policy?”

Melinda answers: “I think that’s a critique that is well worth listening to and looking at. In our philanthropic work, there isn’t a single thing that we don’t work on in partnership with governments. Because at the end of the day, it is governments that scale things up and that can help the most people. There is a healthy ecosystem that needs to exist between government, philanthropy, the private sector and civil society… You know, if Bill and I had had more decision-making authority in education, maybe we would’ve gotten farther in the United States. But we haven’t. Some of the things that we piloted or tried got rejected, or didn’t work, and I think there’s a very healthy ecosystem of parents and teachers’ unions and mayors and city councils that make those education decisions. I wish the U.S. school system was better for all kids.”

Notice that Melinda Gates seems to consider the role of government as merely a check on the education reforms the Gates Foundation chooses to launch. Although, a long time ago, organizations used to apply for grants from philanthropies to meet specific needs envisioned by the applicants, today venture philanthropists themselves imagine how they want to disrupt existing institutions—designing, starting up, implementing, and marketing new ideas. Then the foundation’s staff evaluates the projects according to the foundation’s specifications to see whether the foundation will choose to continue the projects. Melinda Gates is correct that citizens working with government have sometimes stopped a Gates project, but in education, for example, the process of protecting public schools from damage has sometimes taken years.

Melinda Gates talks around the problem but fails to recognize how her vision and experience—from a  perch that the NY Times’ Nicholas Kulish, Rebecca R. Ruiz and David Gelles describe as the Gates’ 66,000-square-foot home on the shore of Lake Washington, with a foundation staff of 1,600—may leave her unable to grasp the realities where all the rest of us live. The reporters characterize the foundation as working on an ever growing and massive to-do list and describe policy wrestling between Bill and Melinda, who both have personal priorities. Maybe as Bill and Melinda Gates divorce, they will pursue different priorities and give up on corporate, accountability-based school reform. We can only hope!

But it appears that not much has changed in the eleven years since, in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch explored venture philanthropy’s role in launching corporate school reform: “Foundations themselves may not engage in political advocacy, but they may legally fund organizations that do. They may also support research projects likely to advance the foundation’s goals… There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people… These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are, after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. 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. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 197-201)

What’s with Cuomo and Others Advocating for a “Shock Doctrine” Shift to Online Education?

We need to figure out a way to open public schools in the fall.

Parents are going to need to go back to work, and children need supervision, routine, intellectual stimulation and the socialization that comes with going to school.  And, as we have been observing during these recent months, for millions of children, the public school is the only institution positioned to provide opportunities that may be unavailable at home.

A lot of what I am reading about reopening schools and childcare centers, however, addresses some important needs of adults without carefully considering the developmental needs of the children who will be served.  And some of what is being promoted addresses the priorities of the promoters themselves without considering what is needed for the students.

The agenda of Jeb Bush, Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates falls in that last category.  Back in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Naomi Klein published a book about promoters and philanthropists who took advantage of the New Orleans disaster by pushing desperate politicians to adopt public policies that would benefit the promoter’s ideological obsession or, in some cases, the promoter’s bottom line.  In The Shock Doctrine, Klein explains: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)   You will remember that the state’s seizure of New Orleans’ public schools and the eventual creation of an all-charter school district experiment was helped along by a big grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with grants from several other foundations.

This same sort of temptation to repurpose a catastrophe seems to have taken possession of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Last week he announced a plan to work with with Bill Gates to create a gigantic statewide experiment with online learning.  Announcing his plan to “reimagine” public education, Cuomo declared: “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?”

And it’s not only Andrew Cuomo who has fallen for the lure of technology. All month, Jeb Bush—Florida’s former governor and chair of the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (a pro-privatization think tank that Jeb founded in 2008)— has been promoting a similar agenda. Despite that states are in desperate need of an infusion of federal support to keep teachers employed and class size reasonable, Jeb warns that just using the money to get schools back up and running will be a wasted opportunity: “There will be no end to ways to spend the money: Education is expensive, and there will be plenty of claims on the money. Teacher pensions are depleted. School workers—bus drivers, support staff, administrators—all will want CARES funds to fill gaps in their budges. Then there are public colleges that have lost out on tuition dollars. Trying to spread the money among all these causes would mean not accomplishing much on any of them… (W)ith this pot of money, it is far better to try to make a lasting impact on one big initiative. Governors should entertain what I call ‘long runway’ ideas—areas where the investment will pay off over a long period of time. Think about what has the best payoff: patching a lot of potholes, or rebuilding a major bridge?”

Jeb Bush has four “long-runway ideas” and the first, of course, is digital learning—eliminating the digital divide. Bush expands on this idea: “The digital divide is real. Only two-thirds of rural homes have broadband; low-income families typically lack access to Internet-enabled devices beyond smartphones. But stopping distance learning over equity concerns is a false choice. Many school districts, state leaders and others have figured out how to keep instruction going. Some opened access to virtual schools. Some, supported by private donations, have given laptops and tablets to students who need them… It’s time to learn the lessons from these heroic efforts and plan for a future in which public education can continue without access to classrooms—not just because of a pandemic but because that’s the future of learning… Longer term, all K-12 schools need to adapt to distance learning. Already, one third of college students take courses online.”

Naomi Klein herself reminds us that her “Shock Doctrine” theory is becoming operational in the midst of the current pandemic crisis.  Klein reports that New York’s Governor Cuomo has been seeking guidance not merely from Bill Gates, but also from Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google. While Cuomo asked Gates to lead the effort to “reimagine” New York’s schools, he followed up by inviting Schmidt to lead “a blue-ribbon commission to “reimagine” New York state’s post-Covid reality—with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life. Klein quotes Schmidt: “The first priorities of what we’re trying to do… are focused on telehealth, remote learning, and broadband… We need to look for solutions that can be presented now, and accelerated, and use technology to make things better.”

Klein concludes” “It has taken some time to gel, but something resembling a coherent Pandemic Shock Doctrine is beginning to emerge. Call it the ‘Screen New Deal.’  Far more high-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent—and highly profitable—no-touch future.”

The Nonprofit Quarterly‘s Martin Levine is aghast: “Cuomo saw a crisis too good to waste… His framework for change is to fully harness the marvels of technology and create a public education system highly reliant on a new and untested form of education… He didn’t choose to take on problems known to plague public education, making sure that New York’s schools are properly funded, fully staffed, and well equipped. Nor did he choose to address the critical impact of racism and wealth inequality on student success. Instead, he seeks a magic-bullet cure in technology.  Following the path taken by the foundations and mega-philanthropists… he seems willing to try one more experiment out on his state’s children.”

Levine quotes a statement from Andy Pallotta, the president of the New York State United Teachers, in response to Governor Cuomo’s choice of Bill Gates to lead a “reimagining education” initiative. Cuomo put only two schoolteachers on his practitioners’ panel to help “reimagine” education in New York.  Pallotta represents the state’s teachers who are much closer not only to the needs of children and families but also to the realities of daily life in a public school: “New York State United Teachers believes in the education of the whole child. Remote learning, in any form, will never replace the important personal connection between teachers and their students that is built in the classroom and is a critical part of the teaching and learning process — which is why we’ve seen educators work so hard during this pandemic to maintain those connections through video chats, phone calls and socially distant in-person meetings. If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state. Let’s secure the federal funding and new state revenues through taxes on the ultrawealthy that can go toward addressing these needs. And let’s recognize educators as the experts they are by including them in these discussions about improving our public education system for every student.”  What is striking in Pallotta’s recommendations is a plea for the kind of human connectedness that defines traditional public schools and is so essential for the health and development of children.

I give Governor Cuomo credit for wanting to improve online learning and to ameliorate the alarming digital divide among wealthy and poor New York families. Presumably he wants to ensure that the city is better prepared should a second wave of Covid-19 illnesses require a second shutdown.  But his rhetoric—“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?”—tells a bizarre and very different story. Does Cuomo imagine New York’s children sitting quietly, locked in their apartments with their tablets or at their computers while their parents are at work?  Does he believe a machine can keep Kindergartners engaged and on task? Does he believe such a life is desirable for a five-year-old?  Will computer connections online keep kids company and keep them fed? And what about adolescents—young people capable of doing more sophisticated work online and even research—but also known to lack good judgement. Wouldn’t the streets and subways fill up with kids wandering the city on their own?

Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen believes our society is capable of preparing to open public schools next fall if we collectively undertake to make it happen safely. Allen defines the problem not as a technological challenge but instead as political: “There is still time to build testing and contact-tracing programs throughout the country to try to decelerate the spread of COVIC-19 and drive the disease to low enough levels that schools can open safely…  We need schools to be open so that student learning doesn’t suffer further….  We need schools to open so that parents can go back to work fully….  We need schools to be open so that routine provision of food and health resources to needy students… can resume fully….  We need colleges and universities… to be open in the fall so that the many vulnerable institutions among them don’t fail and wipe out a key pillar of our civil society and intellectual infrastructure….  Brown University and the University of California San Diego have begun building infrastructures to conduct routine testing and to run contact-tracing programs on their campuses.  It is not enough, however, that some schools may be able to run programs on their own.”

Allen concludes: “Achieving security in the face of this pathogen should… be a public, not private, endeavor.  Before the start of the school year, we have time to build broad public testing and contact tracing to follow chains of transmission, finding every COVID case, and supporting people in voluntary isolation…. Let’s not waste the rest of the time we have.  If we do, our political institutions will have flunked a basic requirement of governance.”

New Report: How Big Money Has Been Swinging Elections Against Public Education

In a fine new report, the Network for Public Education Action exposes, “how the super rich buy elections to undermine public schools.” The report presents nine case studies—in Newark, New Jersey; Washington state; Los Angeles; Perth Amboy, New Jersey; Louisiana; Rhode Island; Minneapolis; New York; and Denver—where billionaire dollars have been carefully invested to buy elections and promote the privatization of public education.

Who are the people investing their fortunes in privatizing public schools? The report, Hijacked by Billionaires, begins with profiles of the people who have either donated more than a million dollars to candidates or political committees or have contributed to at least three of the nine elections profiled in the case studies. The report’s index of billionaires includes Netflix’s Reed Hastings; the Walton family, founders of Walmart, and including Alice Walton, Jim Walton, Carrie Walton Penner, Greg Penner, and Steuart Walton; Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of The GAP; the Bloomberg family including former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and his daughter Emma; Microsoft founder Bill and his wife, Melinda Gates (The report tracks personal, not Gates Foundation gifts.); California businessman Eli Broad; co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen and his Vulcan Inc.; California businessman William Bloomfield; Lane Grigsby and Cajun Industries, the Louisiana construction company; former ENRON trader John Arnold and his wife Laura; the Bezos family including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his parents Jackie and Mike; venture capitalist Nick Hanauer; Samson Oil heiress Stacy Schusterman; SiliconValley venture capitalist Arthur Rock; Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs and the Emerson Collective LLC; Eagle Capital Management’s Ravenel Boykin Curry IV and his wife Elizabeth; Purdue Pharma’s Jonathan Sackler; and Katherine Bradley, who is connected with three of the case studies and whose husband chairs Atlantic Media Group.

So… what’s in it for these people? “Many of the big charter chains have boards that include billionaires—allowing those who would never dream of sending their own children to a charter or neighborhood public school to direct the education of thousands of disadvantaged children. For some billionaires, charter directorship has become a source of pride and prestige. Other billionaires despise teacher unions (and all unions) and blame them for the struggles of poor students. They prefer charter schools, because more than 90% of them have no unions… Others have true disdain for democracy and believe if ordinary people govern their schools, corruption is inevitable. Still others believe that only the marketplace and consumerism can produce quality. If the marketplace and competition made them and their business successful, then surely that will work for schools too. All are united by the belief that education cures poverty and that their enormous wealth has little to do with the economic injustice and generational poverty that plagues our cities and rural communities… The billionaires’ refusal to confront the importance of poverty and its negative effects on school performance suggests that their focus on school choice is meant to distract us from policy changes that would really help children, such as increasing the equity and adequacy of (public) school funding, reducing class sizes, providing medical care and nutrition for students, and other specific efforts to meet the needs of children and families.”

Here are brief summaries of three of the report’s case studies:

After a string of failures, Washington State finally passed a ballot initiative to permit charter schools: “In November 2012, Washington State voters passed the Charter School Ballot Initiative 1240, which provided for the establishment of up to 40 charter schools within five years.  It passed by a very slim margin, 50.69% in favor, to 49.31% opposed. This was Washington State’s fourth charter school ballot initiative with the first three attempts having failed in 1996… 2000… and 2004…  In addition to ballot initiatives, pro-charter legislation had been proposed and failed.”  Who were the billionaires who invested enough to get the initiative passed in 2012? The largest investors from within Washington were Paul Allen and Bill Gates, the co-founders of Microsoft; venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer; and Jackie and Mike Bezos, parents of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Large out-of-state investment came from Netflix’s Reed Hastings and Education Reform Now, based in New York, the 501(c)(4), dark-money affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. The report lists other investors, including $1.1 million from Alice Walton.

In 2011, a huge influx of out-of-state money tipped the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education: “John White spent two years as a teacher with Teach for America. He later became an executive director of TFA in both Chicago and New Jersey and a deputy superintendent in New York City under ‘reform’ chancellor Joel Klein. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal decided he wanted White as his state superintendent… The only problem was that Jindal did not believe that Louisiana’s then current state board, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), would deliver enough votes in support of White.  In Louisiana, the state superintendent is determined by a supermajority of BESE members—at least eight out of the total eleven must vote a candidate into office….”  Jindal reached out to his friend Jeb Bush and the political influence of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and an alliance of pro-corporate-reform state school superintendents Jeb had convened—Chiefs for Change.  Members of both groups reached out to key allies to help fund the 2011 BESE election: Michael Bloomberg, Eli Broad, John and Laura Arnold, Alice and Jim Walton, and Carrie Walton Penner.  Smaller gifts came from Arthur Rock, Reed Hastings, and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.  From within Louisiana, the Grigsby family and Cajun Industries donated a quarter of a million dollars. BESE was flipped to Jindal’s satisfaction, and John White, Jindal’s favorite candidate for state superintendent—the guy favoring Teach for America—was approved by the new BESE.

The third example among NPE’s case studies is of New York, a state where Wall Street money has made Governor Andrew Cuomo a strong supporter of charter schools: “Since his first gubernatorial campaign in 2010, Andrew Cuomo received generous contributions in exchange for his support of charter schools…  When Cuomo sought money from the hedge fund community, it was made clear that he needed to support their pro-charter agenda… In exchange for Cuomo’s support of charters, charter board members became extraordinarily generous to the Cuomo campaign. One donor was the Great Public Schools PAC, started by the controversial Success Academy Charter School leader, Eva Moskowitz.” Success Academy Charters’ board members have been primary contributors: Dan Loeb, Bruce Kovner, Joel Greenblatt and his wife Julia, Bryan Binder, Daniel Nir and his wife Jill Braufman, Andra and Dana Stone, Kent Yalowitz, Catherine Shainker, Jarret Posner, Suleman Lunat, and John Petry.  The list of New York and Connecticut donors to Cuomo campaigns—people who are connected with charter schools, and even in some who own construction companies that build charter schools—continues for three pages.  In Cuomo’s 2014 bid for reelection, “All the efforts and contributions made by charter advocates paid off.  In the final two months of the election, Andrew Cuomo outspent his Republican gubernatorial opponent… five to one… Post-election, Andrew Cuomo Inc., was left with about $9 million for his next campaign.”

The Network for Public Education Action urges readers to follow the money in their own states. “Education reform billionaires are trying to buy elections across the country… The Citizens United decision allows corporations and other groups and individuals to form Super Political Action Committees (Super PACs) called Independent Expenditure Committees (IECs). These IECs are allowed to ‘spend unlimited sums of money on ads and other communications designed to support or oppose a candidate.'” However, because Independent Expenditure Committees are required to report their contributors to the Federal Election Committee, the report’s authors were able to document many of the names of contributors.

NPE Action’s new report that tracks an enormous web of wealthy givers trying to undermine public schools across the states is disturbing.  The report traces the massive political power of people whose fortunes have grown with today’s exploding inequality.  In his new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas worries about the same trend. Giridharadas challenges the power of money in our modern Gilded Age: “What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things, but first things first, seek to protect themselves… We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.” (pp. 10-11) (This blog explored Giridharadas’s new book here.)

What Nicholas Kristof Left Out in Column Promoting Bridge International Academies

Over the weekend, the NY Times published Nicholas Kristof’s puff piece about Bridge International Academies (BIA), the private, for-profit education start-up trying to get a foothold in Africa and India. Kristof has definitely read the material provided by Bridge’s communications arm, and he was impressed when he visited some schools.

He also has such a dim view of children’s education in the developing world that any tech-savvy “solution” would be an improvement: “Imagine an elementary school where students show up, but teachers don’t. Where 100 students squeeze into a classroom but don’t get any books. Where teachers are sometimes illiterate and periodically abuse students. Where families pay under the table to get a ‘free’ education, yet students don’t learn to read.”

Fortunately, two in-depth pieces have been published recently to answer some questions about Bridge International Academies—who started it, what it is, where it operates, how its doing.  Diane Ravitch references both articles in her recent response to Nicholas Kristof’s piece.

Ravitch, an education historian, also raises the most basic question about Bridge International Academies, so we’ll start there.  Is it in the best interest of any society to turn over the education of its children to a for-profit company whose investors include the World Bank, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg? “I think Kristof is wrong because BIA is a short-term fix, not a solution.  It cannot possibly educate the hundreds of millions of children whose parents can’t afford to pay. By providing this ‘fix,’ the governments are relieved of their obligation to establish a universal, free public school system with qualified teachers. If teachers are sleeping in their classrooms, who should take responsibility? Who should supervise them and make sure that every child has a decent education?  That is the government’s job. Addressing the systemic problems of low-quality public education would accomplish far more than creating a for-profit corporation to offer scripted lessons to some. BIA is not a long-term solution…. This is a lifeboat strategy; instead of righting the ship, throw life preservers to a few (at a price).”

Over the last year, it has been difficult to track Bridge’s activities, as governments in Uganda and Kenya have withdrawn support, and then renegotiated the opening of Bridge schools.  Ravitch references two recent and carefully researched articles, the first from Peg Tyre in the NY Times Magazine and the second by Maria Hengeveld from a Dutch magazine and reprinted in translation at Alternet.  Both are very much worth reading.

Hengeveld’s deepest concerns are about the pressures on teachers and the financial hardship even a tuition of $6 or $7 per month places on families. Teachers are pressured to grow enrollment at the Bridge schools by actively recruiting. Hengeveld describes Anton, a teacher who no longer works for Bridge: “He was under too much pressure to attract new pupils and the ‘rigid payment system’ put him in uncomfortable waters with parents. Every month, about half of the parents couldn’t pay their fees on time, and would get upset with Anton when their children were, again, sent home from school. These tensions made it even more difficult to attract new customers and to persuade existing customers to bring in new ones.” Anton was eventually fired by Bridge for allowing three students to continue sitting in the classroom after their parents had failed to pay the fee. The students were discovered when Bridge administrators visited the school. Hengeveld describes hidden costs that parents are not told about in advance: “What’s more, Bridge is by no means as affordable as the company claims.  In Kenya, the cost per student is between US$9 and US$13 a month once exam fees, uniforms, books and administration costs are included.  The situation is similar in Uganda….”

Tyre provides some background about the students who attend the public schools in Kenya, the target student population from which Bridge International Academies is recruiting: “Wealthy Kenyans and foreigners send their children to private schools, which are taught in English and enjoy lavish resources. The working poor often opt to send their children to parochial or local private schools, known as informal schools, that take no money from the government but charge fees that are slightly higher than public school’s (fees)… Sending a child to Bridge was more expensive than the village public school, though less expensive than some informal schools.  The poorest families simply couldn’t afford the tuition and additional payments that Bridge required.” Tuition at Bridge is described as “a monumental obstacle” for many families.

Tyre traces Bridge International Academies’ history as an education-tech startup. “The company’s pitch was tailor-made for the new generation of tech-industry philanthropists, who are impatient to solve the world’s problems and who see unleashing the free market as the best way to create enduring social change.  Investors were impressed by… the audacity of (the founders’) plan.  The idea of doing ‘high quality at low cost was really interesting….” Currently Bridge has schools in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India.

As you might expect in a school founded by tech-savvy entrepreneurs and investors like Gates and Zuckerberg, Bridge International Academies is an experiment in blended learning. Tyre describes teachers using tablets with pre-programmed lessons: “(A) third-grade teacher was reading from a computer tablet, reciting a lesson script that had been transmitted from the Bridge headquarters in central Nairobi, a 45-minute drive away.  The instructor quietly spoke the lesson as he wrote on the chalkboard, explaining the math symbols that indicate ‘greater than’ or ‘less than.’  Twenty-three third grade students, all dressed in bright green Bridge uniforms, were doing their best to follow along.  Because Bridge schools are standardized… the teachers were working from the same synchronized lesson guide that was being delivered in hundreds of Bridge’s schools in Kenya, allowing the company to ensure that students everywhere were receiving a uniform curriculum.”

The programmed curricula makes it possible for the company to save money by hiring teachers who are not certified. Tyre describes the English language curriculum, designed by “charter-school teachers in Cambridge, Mass.,” and “loaded onto the e-reader in East African classrooms each day… Bridge has writers in Nairobi who create the lessons that are in Kiswahili, but many lessons, to be delivered in English, are written in America. And it is challenging to develop lesson plans for teachers and children from a different culture.”

But Hengeveld describes growing concern in the countries where BIA is operating.  In Kenya, “In August 2016, the Ministry of Education sent the company an ultimatum. Bridge was given 90 days to adapt the curriculum to Kenyan guidelines and ensure that at least half of the teachers had a diploma. If they didn’t meet those requirements, Bridge was at risk of having to close down all of its schools.”

Tyre describes a different reality in Liberia, where the Liberian government entered into a contract with Bridge.  Students would participate without fees and tuition as the government paid for the operation of 50 schools—with expansion anticipated if the experiment was deemed successful.  The government would provide school buildings and pay only Liberian-certified teachers, a condition imposed only after much protest from advocates who wanted to protect the interests of the nation of Liberia—its families and its children—from exploitation by a global giant. Justin Sandefur, an economist who was asked to evaluate the arrangement for the Center for Global Development in Washington, remains very concerned.  He recently told Tyre: “there was no longer a governance firewall between the interests of a commercial company and the Ministry of Education, which is supposed to be advocating on what is best for Liberian children.”  Despite the warnings of Sandefur and others, Tyre reports that the Liberian government has agreed to scale up its contracting with Bridge International Academies.

I wish Nicholas Kristof had explored these concerns in his recent NY Times column. He swallows the argument for technocratic efficiency and neglects to consider the colonialist dynamics of power and money.

Joanne Barkan Describes Bill Gates and the “Nuisance of Democracy”

Please do read Joanne Barkan’s fascinating and carefully written new piece in the Nonprofit Quarterly, Charitable Plutocacy: Bill Gates, Washington State, and the Nuisance of Democracy.

In the first place Barkan summarizes the history of the efforts by their proponents to launch charter schools in the state of Washington.  Twice this month, I’ve been part of conversations in which nobody knew whether charters are legal in Washington at this point, but it has been hard to find a coherent history of this effort that, according to Barkan stretches back more than 20 years.  Here is a summary of what Barkan tells us. 1995 — A bill is introduced and dies in the legislature. 1996 — A ballot issue is proposed and defeated 64 percent to 36 percent in the November election. House bills are introduced in 1997, 1998, and 1999 are all defeated in the state senate.  2000 — Ballot issue proposed; billionaire supporters outspend opponents 309-1, but charters are defeated on election day.  2004 — Washington legislature passes a bill authorizing charter schools, but the law is repealed by referendum by a large margin despite huge spending by billionaire charter supporters.  2012 — A charter school bill is introduced; the bill dies in committee when leadership in both houses of the legislature opposes it.  2012 — Wealthy charter school supporters launch another initiative campaign and invest millions to get it passed. (Barkan explains: “The vote on Washington’s Initiative 1240 stands out for this reason: despite outspending their opponents more than 12 to 1, the philanthropists barely eked out a victory. The final tally was 50.69 percent in favor, 49.31 percent opposed.”)  2014 — The first Washington charter school opens.  2015 (September 4) — Washington Supreme Court declares charters unconstitutional. (Barkan summarizes the court’s argument: “The state constitution stipulates that only common (public) schools can receive government funding, and all common schools in the state must be subject to local voter control.  Because charter schools are run by appointed boards or private organizations, they are not common schools and do not qualify for government funding.”)  March 2016 — The legislature passes a new bill that, in an attempt to satisfy the constitutional standard,  funds charter schools out of proceeds of the state lottery, not the state’s general fund.  Governor Jay Inslee allows the law to go into effect without his signature.

What I have left out in this summary is Barkan’s careful history of the growing impact over two decades of the money of billionaires who like the idea of having charter schools in the state of Washington. Most of this money comes from Bill Gates, but his partners along the way have included Paul G. Allen (another Microsoft founder), John T. Walton, Donald Fisher (The Gap), Alice Walton, Mike and Jackie Bezos (parents of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos), Nicolas Hanauer, Katherine Binder, and Reed Hastings (Netflix), along with pro-charter national organizations such as Stand for Children and the League of Education Voters.  Barkan also names the organizations that have supported efforts to defeat charters in Washington: the teachers unions, the League of Women Voters, the Seattle NAACP, El Centro de la Raza, the Japanese American Citizens League Board, the Washington State PTA, the Association of Washington School Principals, district and county Democratic Party organizations, and the Washington State Labor Council.  It is a stunning contrast: plutocrats vs. the people of Washington.

Barkan isn’t alleging that the charitable foundations of wealthy individuals invested heavily in politics: “When philanthropists finance political campaigns, they act as individual citizens spending their personal wealth, not as the heads of tax-exempt, charitable foundations.  Federal and state laws bar private foundations from political activity.  Although the regulations have ambiguities and loopholes, high-profile philanthropists are usually careful….”

But huge fortunes yield enormous power today for America’s wealthiest citizens: “Today’s multi-billionaires are a different species of philanthropist; they keep tight control over their foundations while also operating as major political funders—think Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, or Walmart heiress Alice Walton. They aim to do good in the world, but each defines ‘good’ idiosyncratically in terms of specific public policies and political goals… Call it charitable plutocracy—a peculiarly American phenomenon, increasingly problematic and in need of greater scrutiny.” Twenty years of relentless investment by wealthy investors to promote charter schools in Washington state finally paid off.

Barkan describes a fascinating and troubling comment by Bill Gates in a panel discussion aired in 2015 by CNBC, in which Gates describes his frustration when democratic institutions that tolerate debate and difference of opinion have complicated the realization of his goals: “It’s not easy. School boards have a lot of power so they have to be convinced. Unions have a lot of power, so teachers need to see the models that are working… We’re not making as much progress as I’d like.  In fact, of all the foundation areas we work in, I’d say this has proven to be the most difficult…  It’s a very big system… very resistant to change. The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of the school system.  So you have one executive, and the school board isn’t as powerful.”

If you sometimes wonder how the national conversation about public education has tilted so sharply since 1995—away from the value of public schools that are owned and operated by the public and accountable to the public and lately focused on the merits of the introduction of competition from a charter school sector implemented by grant-funded social entrepreneurs—Barkan explains the role of today’s plutocrats: “The education-reform movement in general, and charter schools in particular, attracted a new wave of philanthropists, many of whom had made fortunes in high-tech industries and finance. Although they had no experience as educators, they aimed to ‘disrupt’ and rebuild public schooling for urban low-income and minority children. They embraced the idea that giving grants to K-12 reform projects corresponded with investing capital in a business. They described their philanthropy in terms of strategic investments to maximize returns and data collection to verify results.  Having succeeded in business, they reasoned, they would succeed in education. They came to see funding education reform candidates and ballot initiatives as part of the same effort.”

Liberia to Outsource Its Entire Education System to For-Profit Bridge International Academies

While this blog covers issues of justice in American public education and almost never examines international issues, today is an exception.  Over the weekend, a friend with ties to education in Liberia sent me a shocking article from Main & Guardian Africa about Liberia’s plans to outsource its entire education system to a private, for-profit American firm.

Here are the facts as reported by Main & Guardian Africa reporter, Christine Mungai: “In January, Liberia’s minister of education made a far-reaching announcement, which nevertheless has largely flown under the radar—until now, when a top UN official has come out strongly in opposition to it.  Liberian education Minister George Werner announced that the entire pre-primary education system would be outsourced to Bridge International Academies to manage.  The deal will see the government of Liberia pay over $64 million over a five-year period; public funding for education will support services subcontracted to the private, for-profit, US-based company.  Under the public-private arrangement, the company will design curriculum materials from April to September 2017, while phase two will have the company roll out mass implementation over 5 years….”  Mungai adds: “It would possibly be the largest, and most ambitious privatisation attempt in Africa’s recent history, and the move has elicited mixed reactions, for good reason.”

A little research showed me that I should already have known about efforts to privatize education in Africa.  Late last summer in her blog, Diane Ravitch reported that the World Bank has been advocating the privatization of education in Uganda and Kenya.  At that time, Ravitch referenced an article from Mint Press News reporter Billy Briggs about growing alarm over the World Bank’s education priorities: “Private, for-profit schools in Africa funded by the World Bank and U.S. venture capitalists have been criticized by more than 100 organizations who’ve signed a petition opposing the controversial education venture… The schools project is called Bridge International Academies and 100,000 pupils have enrolled in 412 schools across the two nations (Kenya and Uganda).  BIA is supported by the World Bank, which has given $10 million to the project, and a number of investors, including U.S. venture capitalists NEA (New Enterprise Associates) and Learn Capital. Other notable investors include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Pierre Omidyar and Pearson, a multinational publishing company.”  Briggs explains that the World Bank’s Jim Kim praised Bridge International Academies for raising average test scores in reading and math but adds that the data supporting such a conclusion came from “a study conducted by BIA (Bridge International Academies) itself.”

Briggs reported last summer that the cost for attending a Bridge International Academies school would represent more than two-thirds of the monthly income of a family in Kenya or Uganda.  Christine Mungai’s report last week from Liberia indicates that the Liberian government will cover the fees without cost to each family.

Even if Liberia’s government covers the cost, one wonders about the flow of capital out of an economy in need of internal growth. In a March 22, 2016 press release from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Kishore Sing, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the right to education, declared: “It is ironic that Liberia does not have resources to meet its core obligations to provide a free primary education to every child, but it can find huge sums of money to subcontract a private company to do so on its behalf.”  He advocates investing in building Liberia’s own educational capacity, calling on Liberia “to approach the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for technical assistance and capacity building, instead of entering into such partnerships with for-profit providers in education….” “Before any partnership is entered into, the Government of Liberia must first put into place legislation and policies on public private partnerships in education, which among other things, protect every child’s right to education.”

One must question the wisdom of Liberia’s reliance on an a single American for-profit company to shape and provide education, a plan that will slow Liberia’s strengthening its own educational infrastructure and apparently halt the nation’s development of a well-trained and credentialed teaching profession.  Mungai explains: “Bridge’s model is ‘school in a box’—a highly structured, technology-driven model that relies on teachers reading standardized lessons from hand-held tablet computers.  Bridge hires education experts to script the lessons, but the teacher’s role is to deliver that content to the class.  This allows Bridge to hold down costs because it can hire teachers who don’t have college degrees—a teacher is only required to go through a five-week training programme on how to read and deliver the script… Bridge depends on large class sizes. An ideal class size is 40 to 50 pupils, but the classes can get upward of 70 students.” Mungai adds: “But the back-end—the technology running it all—is sophisticated indeed, relying on Big Data, algorithms, and automation of most school administrative tasks.”

Liberia, reports Mungai, may be ripe for such experimentation after a 14-year civil war and devastation by the Ebola epidemic. She describes growing concern, however, in the international educational community.  She quotes the recent statement of the United Nations’ Kishore Singh, calling Liberia’s deal with Bridge International Academies “unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed and violate(ing) Liberia’s legal and moral obligations.” She quotes Singh defining the provision of education as a core function of the state: “Abandoning this to the commercial benefit of a private company constitutes a gross violation of the right to education.”

One must also examine the motivation of some of the so-called investors described as backing the work of Bridge International Academies, for example Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Are these tech-philanthropists supporting such an international education venture as part of their philanthropic aid work or is the purpose to expand the worldwide market for the kind of education technology that has created their personal fortunes?  One of the other primary investors listed, Pearson, the world’s biggest education publisher and developer of standardizied testing,  has a clear interest in enlarging its markets worldwide.

A CEO’s Point of View: Children as Products for Corporate Consumers

Business Gets Schooled, a long piece in the January 1, 2016, issue of Fortune, perches the reader as a fly on the wall of the corporate board room during a conversation among CEOs about public education.  This blog has argued that while public schools are the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent, education policy is being made by the One Percent.  Business Gets Schooled explains how that works.

The reporter, Peter Elkind—whose point of view dovetails nicely with the thinking of the business executives he is profiling—describes the involvement of Bill Gates, Exxon Mobil’s Rex Tillerson, and IBM’s Lou Gerstner, without even wondering what these people know that qualifies them for imposing the Common Core standards on the schools. One wonders if the corporate giants who hatched the standards ever leave their offices to spend time with their own children or grandchildren. As profiled in this piece, they do not acknowledge the existence of a credentialed education profession or of a vast body of academic literature on child and adolescent psychology or learning styles or the role of family economics in educational success. Neither does Elkind seem to know about any of this.

Exxon Mobil’s Tillerson stands out. For him schools are a kind of machine:  “I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer… What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation… Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it?  Or is it defective, and we’re not interested? (American schools) have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future.  Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings.  So it’s really serious.  It’s tragic.  But that’s where we find ourselves today.”

Here is how Elkind desribes the genesis of the Common Core Standards: “In truth, Common Core might not exist without the corporate community.  The nation’s business establishment has been clamoring for more rigorous education standards—ones that would apply across the entire nation—for years.  It views them as desperately needed to prepare America’s future workforce and to bolster its global competitiveness.  One measure of the deep involvement of corporate leaders: The Common Core standards were drafted by determining the skills that businesses (and colleges) need and then working backward to decide what students should learn.”  “When it came time to draft the provisions, career readiness was a central focus.  The writers spent their first two months learning what colleges and businesses wanted high school graduates to know by the time they arrived on their doorstep.  From there, the writers ‘back mapped,’ crafting grade-by-grade benchmarks to get them there.”

We learn in this piece that Achieve, Inc. the non-profit that has faithfully promoted the corporate reform agenda, was founded in 1996 with help from Lou Gerstner, IBM’s CEO: “To CEOs, the issue has always been a no-brainer.  In an increasingly global economy, what sense does it make for America to have 50 different sets of education standards?  Gerstner helped establish a nonprofit called Achieve Inc. in 1996 to promote education reform.  With a board filled with governors and CEOs, the group served over the next two decades as a sort of lab for the national standards movement.”

Threading through Elkind’s piece is documentation of the role of Bill Gates and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation : “The Gates Foundation would help bankroll virtually every aspect of Common Core’s development, promotion and implementation.  ‘This is like having a common electrical system,’ Gates told the Wall Street Journal in 2011.  ‘It just makes sense to me.'” The Gates Foundation is described as having spent more than $220 million over the years on in the entire development and roll-out of the Common Core. We learn that the Gates Foundation invested $27.9 million on the Collaborative for Student Success, a public relations firm whose purpose was, “to spin news about Common Core and respond fiercely to opponents’ charges.”  The Gates Foundation even paid a think tank for a positive evaluation of the program being developed: “The most detailed appraisal (funded with $959,116 in Gates Foundation money) was conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute…. Its 370-page analysis found the Core standards ‘clearly superior’ to those in place in ‘the vast majority of states.'”

There are a lot of scary assumptions in this article.  But what frightens me most is realizing that the conversation in the corporate board room and the conversation in the education establishment—the public schools and the universities where educational research is conducted and published and where teachers are trained—do not overlap at all.  This report makes it pretty clear that the One Percenters using their power and their money to shape the public schools that serve 50 million of our children have very little understanding of the operation of schools or the realities that challenge educators.

Phew! At Least Bill Gates Didn’t Announce Another Big Experiment on Our Children

Bill Gates presented the keynote at the U.S. Education Learning Forum, an event this week described by Education Week‘s Alyson Klein as “meant to mark the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s 15th year playing in the education field.”  In his remarks Bill Gates is reported by Liana Heitin of Education Week to have, “recommitted the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to its current work in supporting the use of high academic standards and helping teachers improve through evaluation systems that provide useful feedback… Test scores should be a part of teacher evaluation systems, Gates said, but just a part.”   We can breathe one sigh of relief.  The Gates Foundation is not launching another new and different social experiment on our public schools.

It is reassuring to have Education Week‘s reporter parse Gates’ words, which are a little more flowery and not quite so transparent.  Gates explains the Foundation’s priorities: “I believe we are on the right track.  For today, and for the coming years, this is our vision: 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.”

In other words, the Gates Foundation will continue to support implementation of the Common Core, to support teacher effectiveness through evaluations that incorporate students’ test scores, and to support what the Foundation calls ‘personalized’ learning that involves computers.

Gates confesses that his foundation’s work has been experimental: “Early on, we thought smaller schools were the way to drive up college-ready rates.  We set out to build the model of a successful school by breaking large high schools into new, smaller ones.  Those efforts did raise graduation rates.  But only some of the smaller schools also raised college-readiness rates—and the ones that did put a huge focus on training skilled teachers.  So we weren’t going to reach our goals simply by changing the size of the school.  We needed to look much closer at what happens inside the classroom…. A growing body of evidence told us that teacher effectiveness is the single most important in-school factor in student achievement….”  Hence the foundation’s decision by 2008 to abandon its support for breaking up big high schools into smaller schools and to shift focus.

Notice that Gates seems to understand the consequences as pertinent to the research experiment; he pays less attention to the impact on the students, the teachers, the school, and the community. Not so much thinking about the expense for school districts when high-paid principals and assistant-principals of several small schools were located into one building. Not so much thinking here about the students whose futures were affected by the inevitably diminished curricula in the small schools that, because they had lost their economies of scale, could no longer afford so many advanced classes or enrichments. Not much thinking about the politics that would arise around the undoing of the Foundation’s experiment, as communities and teachers who had become loyal to their small schools struggled to come back together as comprehensive high schools were reconstructed.

Why does one philanthropy’s choice of priorities matter so much?  It matters in this case because the Gates Foundation has spent billions of dollars promoting its priorities over the years — so much money that its goals have been driving policy in the U.S. Department of Education, which Arne Duncan filled with staffers directly from the Gates Foundation.  It matters because huge Gates Foundation grants have “incentivized” states and school districts to adopt the Foundation’s strategies. Diane Ravitch reported in The Death And Life of the Great American School System that the Gates Foundation  invested approximately $2 billion into its initiative to break comprehensive high schools into smaller schools between 2000 and 2008. (p. 205).  Even though foundations cannot explicitly lobby, the Gates Foundation has wielded its power by investing in academic research to support its priorities through such think tanks as the Center on Reinventing Public Education.  It endorsed federal programs through the quarter-million dollar grants it made to states to hire grant writers to prepare Race to the Top applications, for example.  It has sponsored publicity and media presentations that favor Gates priorities such as its partnership with NBC to produce that network’s Education Nation series and to help produce the film Waiting or Superman.  It has supported not-for-profits that promote Gates’ priorities; Joanne Barkan has exposed the way Gates dollars supported a group called Learn-NY to promote mayoral governance in New York City, for example.

In his keynote address this week, Bill Gates devotes a lot of time to describing the research the Gates Foundation has recently invested to identify “the best lever for raising student achievement.” Gates explains that: “Our work is grounded in the findings of our Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, which we launched in 2009.” “(T)he field did not have a clear view on the characteristics of great teaching. Is it all about how a teacher manages the classroom?  Is it all about how a teacher asks questions or leads a discussion?  We didn’t know and neither did anyone else. That made it almost impossible to create a great system for giving feedback to teachers that helps them improve.  So we set out to learn… First: Everything we have seen in the past seven years tells us that the strategy we settled on in 2008 remains the best lever for raising student achievement.  Effective teachers raise student achievement, and strong teacher feedback and improvement systems help create and support effective teachers.” So what did the Foundation discover and what is the strategy it is promoting?  “It turns out that they (good programs to improve teaching) excel at supporting teachers.  They use multiple measures of effectiveness that are backed by evidence.  They train and certify classroom observers.  They provide teachers with instructional tools aligned to the Common Core standards.  And—this is crucial—they focus their feedback and evaluations on activities that help the teacher get better in the classroom. For example, Denver uses a measure that combines teacher observations, student perception surveys, and evidence of how much students are learning.”  That evidence is provided, of course, by test scores, a long priority of the Gates Foundation.

There is surely nothing wrong with the Gates Foundation’s sponsoring research to explore how to evaluate and support teachers.  There are several things, however, that ought to catch our attention in Bill Gates’ analysis of the Foundation’s work.  First there is the assumption that the Gates Foundation has discovered, through research it funds, a single method—a lever—for evaluating and supporting teachers that is superior to what continues to be suggested by the professionals in the nation’s colleges of education, who would also endorse observing teachers in the classroom and helping them be more effective.  Then there is the ever-present, but quiet inclusion of students’ standardized test scores in the evaluations, despite that extensive research including a major report from the American Statistical Association has discredited the use of Value Added Modeling as too unstable to be reliable. Gates does at least admit that the MET teaching project confirmed, “that growth in test scores tells you something about a teachers’ effectiveness—but far from everything.  It has to be balanced by other factors, like classroom observations and student surveys.”

Finally there is something Gates does not mention in his address this week, in which he emphasizes helping teachers improve.  In fact the kind of evaluation system he advocates continues to be used to promote the idea that we can fire our way into better student achievement—the teacher-blaming agenda of politicians who, for example, declared that when 70 percent of children failed Common Core tests in New York state, it was the fault of the teachers who must be fired.  These politicians neglect to mention that New York’s Commissioner John King and the NY Board of Regents set the cut score at a level where 70 percent of children would fail.  Setting cut scores is a political, not a scientific endeavor.  Neither does Gates explain where we are going to find the mass of “effective” teachers to replace those who are to be fired for producing low scores among their students.

In his address, Gates  endorses the Common Core standards, a long Foundation priority.  According to the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton, the Gates Foundation has invested “more than $200 million in a campaign to create the Common Core States Standards and get them adopted by 42 states as well as the District of Columbia.”  He also endorses charter schools, particularly those “where teacher feedback systems are driving big student gains.”   He concludes: “Building effective teacher feedback and improvement systems everywhere is the most important movement in American education today.”

At least in his big speech, Gates reassures us that the Gates Foundation isn’t changing course to launch a brand new gigantic experiment.  Some people had worried about that in recent weeks, especially after what just happened in Florida.

The Tampa Bay Times reported on September 21st that the Gates Foundation has definitely shifted direction in Hillsborough County, Florida, where in 2009 Gates promised $100 million if the district would put up $102 million to pay for a merit pay experiment called “Empowering Effective Teachers.”  Marlene Sokol, the Tampa Times reporter, explains: “A seven-year effort to put better teachers in Hillsborough County schools is costing the system millions of dollars more than officials projected.  And the district’s partner in the project, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is spending $20 million less than expected.”  “Much of the disagreement amounted to a change in Gates’ philosophy.” Anna Brown, manager of the Gates grant for the school district, explains that the Gates Foundation recently told the school district: “After a few years of research they believed there was not enough of a connection between performance bonuses and greater student achievement.” Unfortunately, according to Brown, it is not possible to abandon the project because Florida state law has now made Gates’ former priority, merit pay, part of the state’s system to evaluate teachers: “Enacted a year after Hillsborough launched its project, Senate Bill 736 in the Florida Legislature phased out teacher tenure and tied pay to supervisor evaluations and student test scores.”  The reporter continues: “Since 2009, key components of the Gates program (in Hillsborough County) have changed.  The original proposal and a 2010 timeline called for the district to fire 5 percent of its teachers each year for poor performance. That would amount to more than 700 teachers. The thinking was they would be replaced by teachers who earned entry level wages, freeing up money to pay the bonuses for those at the top. But the mass firings never happened. While an undetermined number of teachers resign out of dissatisfaction or fear that they will be fired, only a handful of terminations happen because of bad evaluations.”

Anthony Cody, who has studied the role of the Gates Foundation’s investment in public education policy warns: “There ought to be a much higher wall between the influence of philanthropies and our public institutions.  School boards and other elected bodies exist to guard the common good, and even in times when money is scarce, ought to be vigilant, and not allow policy to be set by philanthropists with deep pockets and big ideas.”

Bob Herbert Explains “How Millionaires and Billionaires Are Ruining Our Schools”

Did you see Bob Herbert’s wonderful new article, The Plot Against Public Education, in Politico Magazine?  If not, you should read it.  Bob Herbert was a regular New York Times columnist between 1993 and 2011, when he left to join Demos and to write the book, Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America, from which this article is excerpted.  The book was published this week.

Herbert’s subject is the role of money and the power of elites to shape education policy in America these days.  Herbert skewers Bill Gates: “When a multibillionaire gets an idea, just about everybody leans in to listen.”  And he notes that when  Bill Gates’ “small high schools” experiment utterly failed, there weren’t the kind of consequences we might see if a public school district, for example, failed in a similar school restructuring. “There was very little media coverage of this experiment gone terribly wrong. A billionaire had an idea. Many thousands had danced to his tune. It hadn’t worked out. C’est la vie.

“This hit-or-miss attitude—let’s try this, let’s try that—has been a hallmark of school reform efforts in recent years… But if there is one broad approach… that the corporate-style reformers and privatization advocates have united around, it’s the efficacy of charter schools…  Corporate leaders, hedge fund managers and foundations with fabulous sums of money at their disposal lined up in support of charter schools, and politicians were quick to follow.  They argued that charters would not only boost test scores and close achievement gaps but also make headway on the vexing problem of racial isolation in schools.  None of it was true. Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools.  In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes. And the levels of racial segregation and isolation in charter schools were often scandalous.”

Acknowledging Bill Gates’ good intentions, Herbert then tells the story of a number of school “reformers” who have been in it for greed—including Ron Packard the CEO of K12 on-line learning, a company whose founding was underwritten by Michael Milken, the junk-bond king.  And there are others.  “It was easy to lose sight of the best interests of children as corporations throughout the country did all they could to maximize profits from public education. Consider for example, the Rupert Murdoch-Joel Klein connection.”  And there is Jeb Bush, who with former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, “started an organization called Digital Learning Now!, which took on the task of persuading state legislators to make it easier for companies to get public funding for virtual schools and for the installation of virtual classrooms in brick-and-mortal schools.”  We are also reminded about Cathie Black, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hapless schools chancellor, a socialite who served for 91 days until it became clear that running a school district with 1.1 million children might be complicated. “Black had had no previous experiences with the public schools.  She hadn’t attended them… She hadn’t taught in them.  She hadn’t sent her children to them.  In one of her first public appearances after the appointment, she said, ‘What I ask for is your patience as I get up to speed.'”

Herbert concludes: “The amount of money in play is breathtaking.  And the fiascos it has wrought put a spotlight on America’s class divide and the damage that members of the elite, with their money and their power and their often misguided but unshakable belief in their talents and their virtue, are inflicting on the less financially fortunate.  Those who are genuinely interested in improving the quality of education for all American youngsters are faced with two fundamental questions: First, how long can school systems continue to pursue market-based reforms that have failed year after demoralizing year to improve the education of the nation’s most disadvantaged children?  And second, why should a small group of America’s richest individuals, families, and foundations be allowed to exercise such overwhelming—and often toxic—influence over the ways in which public school students are taught?”

The Billionaire Boys: Reinvesting A Small Percent of the Spoils of Capitalism

The political philosopher Benjamin Barber may be a little theoretical for the general reader, but he really gets what’s happening these days:   “We can be glad Carnegie built libraries, glad that the Gateses are battling AIDS, but inequality will not end because billionaires give back some of the spoils of monopoly.” (Consumed, p. 77) “Philanthropy is a form of private capital aimed at achieving public outcomes, but it cannot substitute for public resources and public will in confronting public calamities… Rescuing victims through individual philanthropy cannot be a substitute for helping citizens avoid victimization through effective public governance in which citizens share real power.” (Consumed, p. 131)

In his blog this week, the Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, examines the role of mega-philanthropy and the power of the people the education historian Diane Ravitch has dubbed “the Billionaire Boys Club.”

Rev. Thomas names the ethical contradiction embedded in today’s venture philanthropy: “First, the concentration of philanthropic capacity in the hands of a relatively few white men is fueled, in significant measure, by tax policies that favor the already wealthy at the expense of public coffers, policies that are enacted by politicians beholden to the gifts of those same wealthy few… In addition, these policies are frequently fronts for an anti-government and anti-union bias which dismisses the role of public initiatives… in favor of a benevolent paternalism.”  One reason the Billionaire Boys have so much to invest through their mega-foundations is that tax cuts at the federal and state level have been tilted to favor the extremely wealthy and burden those whose incomes are far lower, exacerbating inequality and the plight of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Rev. Thomas identifies three problems embedded in venture philanthropy. (Rev. Thomas attributes the identification of these problems to Lester M. Salamon,  Director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at The Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.)   The first is philanthropic particularism, which Rev. Thomas defines as: “the tendency for givers to  focus on particular groups that appear to be ‘deserving.’ But of course that calculation is colored—let’s use this term deliberately—by social location.”  Rev. Thomas is very clear about the social location of the wealthy white men who control this conversation.

The second is philanthropic paternalism.  Rev. Thomas writes: “Philanthropists today focus on the outcomes they deem appropriate or interesting, either creating the organizations that will advance those outcomes, or bending the traditional missions of established institutions to fit their agendas.  As control of philanthropic resources is more and more concentrated… money is more and more channeled toward the passions of a few individuals….”

And finally, there is philanthropic insufficiency.  According to Rev. Thomas:  “Particularly in times of economic recession, and an attendant agenda of government austerity, the voluntary sector becomes incapable of matching what has been lost by the deliberate gutting of the public treasury to be used for broad purposes.” However well intentioned, charity cannot replace systemic justice.

Writing for Dissent Magazine, Joanne Barkan has detailed how all this affects public education: “The cost of K-12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year.  So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum?  Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels.  In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck… But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad… Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field…  Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the reforms are not working… Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation’s most extensive and aggressive school reform programs—in Chicago and New York City—but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.” (Just last month this blog covered  Lindsay Layton’s Washington Post piece exposing the role of the Gates Foundation in underwriting all aspects of the development and promotion of the Common Core Standards and tests.)

Barkan describes the interests and passions in which the three giants of education philanthropy have been dabbling: “choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision making.  And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher.”

The fact that the Billionaire Boys can buy an extensive and long-running public relations and media campaign is one reason we haven’t had a thorough public conversation to compare the experiments of the philanthropists with our historic system of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public.  We ought to be asking which sort of schools do a better job of balancing the needs of each particular child and family with the capacity to secure the rights and address the needs of all children.