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)

The Hubris of Billionaire Philanthropy and the Damage Wrought by the Common Core Standards

Hubris is definitely the tragic flaw in the modern, technocratic tragedy of educational experimentation by mega philanthropy. But there will likely be no tragic fall for a noble hero. The plot doesn’t operate like a classical tragedy. Bill and Melinda pose as our humble hero and heroine, sitting in front of a bookcase and dressed in nothing fancier than plain cashmere sweaters. There is no blood and no sensation. Today the weapon is billions of American dollars buying access to power and purchasing armies of ideological policy wonks. Most people haven’t even noticed the sins of our hero and heroine and there’s no hint of their impending downfall. The plot rises and falls and rises again when the perpetrators just start over with another massive experiment on the 50 million students in America’s public schools and their teachers. But the sin is hubris.

In a February report on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual letter, the Washington Post‘s  Valerie Strauss summarizes the three acts so far in the drama of Gates Foundation-funded school reform: “The Gates Foundation began its first big effort in education reform two decades ago with what it said was a $650 million investment to break large failing high schools into small schools, on the theory that small schools worked better than large ones… Bill Gates declared in 2009 that it hadn’t worked the way he had expected…. The next project for the foundation was funding the development, implementation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards initiative, which was supported by the Obama administration. It originally had bipartisan support but the Core became controversial, in part because of the rush to get it into schools and because of what many states said was federal coercion to adopt it… Meanwhile, Gates, while pushing the Core, showered three public school systems and four charter management organizations with hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and implement teacher assessment systems that incorporated student standardized test scores. School systems and charter organizations that took the foundation’s money were required to use public funds on the project, too.  By 2013, Bill Gates conceded that the Core initiative had not succeeded as he had expected, and a 2018 report concluded that the teacher evaluation project had failed to achieve its goal of improving student achievement in any significant way.”

Many of us who were paying attention noticed the collateral damage. When they took Gates money to break up big high schools, school districts had to hire a separate set of administrators and counselors for each small school—a very expensive proposition that ate up far more money than Gates provided. And students scheduled within their small schools struggled to find access to the advantages of a comprehensive high school—a journalism class, band and orchestra, arts electives like photography, technology courses. The experiment on evaluating teachers by students’ test scores and rewarding the teachers whose students posted high scores with financial bonuses collapsed after school districts had to absorb much of the cost.  In Hillsborough County, Florida, the district ended up using public revenues to cover $124 million that should have been spent on the ongoing education needs of the district’s students.

Strauss published part of the Gates Foundation’s 2020 annual letter, in which Melinda Gates describes the strategy of the Foundation’s education giving: “Consider this: The average American primary school classroom has 21 students. Currently, 18 of those 21 complete high school with a diploma or an equivalent credential… but only 13 start any kind of postsecondary program within a year of graduating. Only seven will earn a degree from a four-year-program within six years. It gets worse when you disaggregate by race. If every student in our classroom is Latinx, only six will finish their four-year degree program within six years. For a classroom of Black students, the number is just four. The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though. Just the opposite. We believe the risk of not doing everything we can to help students reach their full potential is much, much greater. We certainly understand why 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. But one thing that makes improving education tricky is that even among people who work on the issues, there isn’t much agreement on what works and what doesn’t.”

Notice that Melinda Gates assumes that “failing” schools are the causes of disparities in educational outcomes and that fixing the schools themselves—small high schools, grading teachers on students’ scores and offering financial incentives to successful teachers, and the Common Core standards—will somehow address the much deeper injustices for America’s children. There are libraries filled with research demonstrating that family and community economic circumstances compounded by racial and economic segregation and chronically inequitable school funding are the primary drivers of educational inequality, but the Gates Foundation has always dabbled in technocratic fixes and always failed to improve students’ outcomes.

On Monday, Valerie Strauss reprinted with the author’s permission some of Harvard education professor, Tom Loveless’s new book, Between the State and the Schoolhouse: Understanding The Failure of Common Core, a new followup examination of one of Gates’ three failed initiatives.

Loveless explains: “The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) represent one of the most ambitious American education reforms of the past century.  Developed in 2009 and released in June 2010, the standards were designed to define what students should learn in mathematics and English language arts… from kindergarten through the twelfth grade… By the end of 2010, more than forty states and the District of Columbia had adopted the CCSS as official K-12 standards… A decade later, scant evidence exists that Common Core produced any significant benefit. One federally funded evaluation actually estimates that the standards had a negative effect on student achievement in both reading and math. Fortunately, the overall impact is quite small.”

The federal government is, by law, not permitted to establish a national educational curriculum, but Arne Duncan figured out how to skirt the law. The Gates Foundation paid for the development, implementation, and promotion of the standards; Duncan merely incentivized the states to adopt them when he made the adoption of educational standards a requirement for applying for a Race to the Top Grant.

Loveless continues: “If we conclude that CCSS had a minimal impact on student learning, perhaps the standards changed other aspects of education in a productive manner. Even if such a possibility is conceded, the policy’s extraordinary costs and the ferocious debate that it engendered outstripped such meager benefits. Billions of taxpayer dollars, from both federal and state coffers, were poured into making CCSS a success. Prominent philanthropies, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, funded a public relations campaign to fight back against political opposition. The nation’s three-million-plus public school teachers were asked to retool their instruction and use new curriculum materials aligned with Common Core; large numbers of students began failing new Common Core-aligned assessments; and many parents struggled to understand the strange new homework assignments that students were bringing to the kitchen table.”

Loveless summarizes what he says are the many lessons of the sad adventure of Gates’ purchase of public education policy via the Common Core. What was it that Gates Foundation policy wonks and Arne Duncan’s education department failed to consider? Please read Loveless’s careful analysis, but here are some of his conclusions: “Implementation of large-scale, top-down education policy transpires in a complicated system that is multilayered and loosely coupled in terms of authority and expertise. Common Core is not a federal policy, although it received crucial support from the federal government during the Obama administration but it is national in scope, originally involving more than forty states and Washington, DC. States have their own political offices and educational bureaucracies, of course, but consider some ballpark numbers for the nodes of political and organizational authority situated below the state level: approximately 13,600 school districts… 98,000 schools, and more than three million teachers…..  Navigating the vertical complexity of the K-12 educational system is daunting… the main lesson of the study was that schools shape state policies to fit local circumstances.”

Further, “Curriculum and instruction are particularly important because they constitute the technical core of the educational enterprise… They sit at the bottom layer of the system. Writing and adopting standards takes place at the top of the system, in the domain of politicians and educational officials… Successful implementation of standards not only depends on the willingness of implementers but also on the quality of the curriculum and instruction that local educators use to enact the standards… The publisher of a terrific K-8 math series may also publish a terrible reading series; a math program with strong second and sixth grade texts may be weak in first and fourth grades…  The two subjects that Common Core tackles, mathematics and English language arts, have long histories of ideological debates between educational progressives and traditionalists.”

In their hubris, Bill and Melinda and their foundation latched onto one big educational reform, but in their hurried launch, they forgot about a carefully coordinated and internally evaluated rollout of the standards and the high-stakes tests that were paired with the standards. They also neglected working at each level of the system with the professionals they assumed would grab on to their idea and make it work. Loveless considers what was left out of the process: “Once governments have decided on a policy decision, how does it become enacted in schools? Exploring that question compels an examination of the school system’s organizational structure and the flow of policy downward from policymakers to practitioners.” That is, of course, separate from another important issue: whether Gates’s experts developed and promoted the right standards.

Rand Corp. Report Says Grading Teachers by Student Scores Doesn’t Work; Ohio Law Will Diminish Use of Student Scores for Evaluating Teachers

In 2009, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched a huge project to demonstrate that evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores would improve education and especially the education of “low-income, minority” students. Now the Gates Foundation has paid for a huge Rand Corporation study that showed its original experiment didn’t work. Although the Gates Foundation can move on to testing another hypothesis, its prescription for grading teachers has done immeasurable damage by injecting econometric teacher evaluation into the laws of many states. It will take a long time for the 50 state legislatures to clean up laws based on a mistake.

Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum describes the original plan: “Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address reflected the heady moment in education. ‘We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,’ he said. ‘A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.’ Bad teachers were the problem; good teachers were the solution. It was a simplified binary, but the idea and the research it drew on had spurred policy changes across the country, including a spate of laws establishing new evaluation systems designed to reward top teachers and help weed out low performers.  Behind that effort was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation… Now, new research commissioned by the Gates Foundation finds scant evidence that those changes accomplished what they were meant to: improve teacher quality or boost student learning.  The 500-plus page report by the Rand Corporation… details the political and technical challenges of putting complex new systems in place…”

The Gates Foundation not only launched a giant experiment without an adequate research base, but it also leveraged the investment of public dollars and used its own lobbying might to influence public policy. The Obama administration conditioned qualification for Race to the Top grants on the use of students’ standardized test scores in teachers’ evaluations and later made the same requirement for states to qualify for No Child Left Behind waivers.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss details the history: “Put this in the ‘they-were-warned-but-didn’t-listen’ category.”  She describes the project launched in Hillsborough County (Greater Tampa), Florida, Memphis, and Pittsburgh along with four charter management organizations: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pumped nearly $215 million into the project while the partnering school organizations supplied their own money, for a total cost of $575 million.”  Federal policy makers jumped into the mix: “The Obama administration, through its Race to the Top initiative, dangled federal funds in front of states that agreed to establish teacher evaluation systems using test scores to varying extents.  And Gates funded his ‘Empowering Effective Teachers’ project with the aim of finding proof that such systems could improve student achievement…  (M)ost states adopted test-based teacher evaluation systems.  In a desperate attempt to evaluate all teachers on tested subjects—reading and math—some of the systems would up evaluating teachers on subjects they didn’t teach or on students they didn’t have. Some major organizations questioned them, including the American Statistical Association…. And so did the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council.”

Strauss quotes the conclusion of the Rand Corporation’s huge new assessment of the experiment: “Overall, the initiative did not achieve its stated goals for students, particularly LIM (low-income minority) students. By the end of 2014-2015, student outcomes were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not participate in the IP (Intensive Partnerships) initiative. Furthermore, in the sites where these analyses could be conducted, we did not find improvement in the effectiveness of newly hired teachers relative to experienced teachers; we found very few instances of improvement in the effectiveness of the teaching force overall; we found no evidence that LIM students had greater access than non-LIM students to effective teaching; and we found no increase in the retention of effective teachers, although we did find declines in the retention of ineffective teachers in most sites.”

What the Rand Report fails to calculate is the collateral damage. It is well known that, in Hillsborough County, Florida, the Gates Foundation suspended its study before it had been completed—leaving the school district itself to cover a significant part of the cost. But beyond Hillsborough County, the consequences were long lasting as state legislatures, lured by Race to the Top funding and the need to qualify for No Child Left Behind waivers, passed laws basing teachers’ evaluations on students’ standardized test scores. When, in December of 2015, Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act, it removed the requirement that states use  students’ test scores in teachers’ evaluations, but the laws the states had put in place to meet federal requirements remained.

For example, only last week did the Ohio Legislature act to reduce the role of students’ test scores in the state teacher evaluation system. Finally—before going on a 2018 summer recess, the Ohio lawmakers passed a new statute reducing the weight of students’ standardized tests in the formal evaluation of teachers. The law passed with bipartisan support, and it is hoped that Governor John Kasich will sign it.

Last Sunday, the Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel reported that Ohio has been basing 50 percent of teachers’ ratings on students’ standardized  test scores .  Keep in mind that it is now 2018, and Ohio, like many other states, has still been using a plan that the Rand Corporation has now declared ineffective for measuring the quality of teachers.

Siegel quotes Jonathan Juravich, the 2018 Ohio Teacher of the Year, describing the new system: “No longer… (will) student growth measures be used as a disconnected evaluation factor linked to an arbitrary weighted percentage.”

Ohio is also finally doing away with “shared attribution,” according to Siegel: “Changes include doing away with shared attribution—growth measures attributed to a group of teachers that, critics say, does not accurately measure individual performance….”

State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria is quoted describing the new law: “Most importantly, we want our teachers on a path of continuous improvement, and with these changes the system places a greater focus on improvement in teacher practices that lead to better outcomes for students.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Obama administration’s collaborative scheme to evaluate teachers econometricaly has undermined the morale of school teachers and contributed to a climate in which teachers have been blamed unfairly when test scores don’t rise. Contrast the Gates theory, now rejected by the Rand Corporation report, with the research of Harvard’s Daniel Koretz, who explains how the test scores—so central to the school accountability movement—don’t really measure the quality of the schools or specific teachers, but instead primarily reflect the aggregate economic level of a school’s families and neighborhood:

“One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

Ohio is now joining other states trying to undo the damage. Writing for the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker, a columnist and attorney for the Education Law Center, explains: “Technology writer Eugene Morozov coined the term ‘solutionism’: a pathology that recognizes a problem based on one criterion only… solvable with a simple, preferably technological, solution. Solutionists operate with a myopic hubris, believing that if they get their simple fix right, as the chair of Google once claimed, ‘we can fix all the world’s problems.'”

The story of America’s nine year experiment with rating teachers by their students’ test scores ought to teach us to beware solutionists with gobs of money and the power to seduce policy makers.

(This blog has tracked education philanthropy from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation here.)

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.”

“Public Schools Shakedown” Website Exposes Privatizers

The forces undermining public education don’t really take the trouble to publicize what they are doing.  It is all very quiet and very well funded. And if, in polite conversation, you mention the likes of ALEC—or Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education—or the role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, people may look at you as though you are spouting conspiracy theories.

But we must summon the courage to mention what is going on, and we need to get ourselves informed enough to be confident about the facts.  The Progressive, a Madison, Wisconsin magazine, helps us with a new project this autumn,  Public Schools Shakedown. Take a look at the in-depth background resources on this website.

Written by Brendan Fischer, the general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC’s Schoolhouse Rock is one of the best pieces I know about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  This is the secretive organization that pairs corporate lobbyists and state legislators to develop “model” laws that can be introduced in any state legislature. Fischer reports: “at least 139 bills or budget provisions reflecting ALEC education bills have been introduced in forty-three states and the District of Columbia in just the first six months of 2013.”  According to Fischer, “ALEC might best be described as a ‘corporate bill mill’ that helps conservative state legislators become a vessel for advancing special interest legislation.”  Fischer covers the agenda promoted by ALEC’s bills: vouchers, tuition tax credits for private education, the authorization of charter schools by appointed—not democratically elected—state agencies, parent trigger laws that permit parents through a petition process to take over their school and exit from the public school district, expansion of on-line blended learning in classrooms with bigger classes per teacher, and alternative certification programs.

Check out, Funding “Education Reform”: The Big Three Foundations.  This in-depth article and info-graphic demonstrate how the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations have supported privatization across the states.  Jonathan Pelto, a Connecticut writer explains, “The foundations themselves explain their goals and funding strategies through innocuous rhetoric.  For example, the Gates Foundation opines that: ‘We invest in programs with a common aim to strengthen the connection between teacher and student. To that end, we work with educators, policymakers, parents, and communities to expand and accelerate successful programs and identify innovative new solutions that can help unlock students’ potential.’  But the actual agenda becomes much clearer when one examines their actual list of grantees, which includes most of the country’s charter school management organizations, education reform “think tanks,” and advocacy organizations.”

Barbara Minor’s excellent  The Voucher Boondoggle in Wisconsin may at first seem specific to that state.  However, other states including Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana have followed Wisconsin’s lead by robbing the state public education budget for allocations to support private school tuition.  Minor is the wonderful writer who recently published the authoritative history of Milwaukee’s schools: Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City.  You will also find an excellent info-graphic, Meet the Bullies, that diagrams the influence of particular philanthropists who have been underwriting advocacy for vouchers and privatization.  Many of them are very likely active in your state.

Power of Private Philanthropy Endangers the Public

Back in 2006 as part of a pledge to “give back” his accumulated wealth, investor Warren Buffett turned over $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and at the same time added to smaller foundations he had created for his three children.

This weekend in an extraordinary opinion piece in the New York Times, The Charitable-Industrial Complex, Buffett’s son Peter, a musician, describes what he calls his journey as a philanthropist.

“I noticed,” writes Peter Buffett, “that a donor had the urge to ‘save the day’ in some fashion.  People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think they could solve a local problem.  Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.”

“As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few,” Buffett declares,” the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’ It’s what I would call ‘conscience laundering’—feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”

in a book called Consumed, published a year after Warren Buffet turned over the bulk of his fortune to the Gates Foundation, political philosopher Benjamin Barber discusses the explosive growth of philanthropic giving as part of our society’s rush to privatization:

“First a privatizing ideology rationalizes restricting public goods and public assets of the kind that might allow the public as a whole to rescue from their distress their fellow citizens who are in jeopardy; then the same privatizing ideology celebrates the wealthy philanthropists made possible by the market’s inequalities who earnestly step in to spend some fragment of their market fortunes to do what the public can no longer do for itself.  Better philanthropy than nothing, but far better than philanthropy is a democratic public capable of taking care of itself with its own pooled resources and its own prudent planning.  The private philanthropist does for others in the larger public what they have not been enabled to do for themselves, as a public; democracy, on the other hand, empowers the public to take care of itself.”  (131)

In public school policy two obvious examples of the growing power of the philanthropic sector are the investment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in developing econometric Value Added Measures (VAM) for the evaluation of school teachers and promoting that government require this kind of technocratic reform, and in supporting school privatization through the Charter-District Collaboration Compact program at the Center for Reinvesting Public Education at the University of Washington.  Staffers from the Gates Foundation have filled the Arne Duncan Department of Education from the beginning.

The most obvious way to curb the power of huge philanthropy is to increase taxes on those amassing vast fortunes. Taxes are, of course, the way we fund the public sector.  As Warren Buffett has famously pointed out, the tax system today is skewed to the degree that he pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretary.

Building the political will to curb the power of private wealth also requires us to name the problem.  Peter Buffet helps us here.  He calls the spreading of philanthropic wealth as an act of charity, “philanthropic colonialism.”

Should Private Foundations Set the Direction for Public Schools and Higher Education?

For most of us philanthropy connotes public uplift—Carnegie Libraries — grants to support settlement houses — scientific research.  Today, however, when huge foundations have become primary players in the public education policy debate, there is growing concern that the foundations are accountable to their own boards but not to the public.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch, the education historian and school “reform” critic, declares: “it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations.  There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people;  when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions.  These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies.  They are not subject to public oversight or review as a public agency should be…  The foundations demand that public  schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one.” (200-201)

Ravitch dubbed the Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations the “Billionaire Boys.”   Like a growing group of their critics, she worries that powerful foundations are increasingly granting proactively to pursue their own explicit agendas rather than responding to the proposals they receive.

Two recent, thoughtful articles raise similar questions.  Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, decries The Billionaires’ War Against Public Education.  Dreier traces the investment of funders—The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, far-right investor Philip Anschutz, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch—in the creation, promotion, and distribution of  films (Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down) that promote privatization and attack public school teachers and teachers unions.

Drier contrasts the work of the Billionaire Boys to the production of a different kind of film, created (without philanthropic support and with a far more modest budget) by teams of college and high school students and professional film makers, each of which followed one person through a school day in Pasadena, California, “where two-thirds of the 18,000 students come from low-income families, where many parents are jobless, where many students live in homes where Spanish is the first (and in some cases only ) language, and in a state where per-student funding ranks 47th in the country.”   Dreier describes the film, Go Public: A Day in the life of an American School District as a sort of collage of footage of the schools, edited without narrative commentary.  I urge you to read his moving description of the film and check out the website.

A second article, a special report recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, explores The Gates Effect.  Gates Foundation grants are supporting a major policy shift at the college level—an agenda of “competency-based” higher education that emphasizes a shift to on-line courses; teachers as on-line coaches, not “deliverers of learning;” and measurement of students’  competencies on assigned tasks rather than required hours in class. The goal is “delivering a college degree priced at no more than $5,000 a year.”  Writers for The Chronicle worry that,  “Gates hasn’t just jumped on the bandwagon; it has worked to build that bandwagon, in ways that are not always obvious.  To keep its reform goals on the national agenda, Gates has also supported news-media organizations that cover higher education… The effect is an echo chamber of like-minded ideas arising from research commissioned by Gates and advocated by staff members who move between the government and the foundation world.”