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.

The Common Core Standards Died a Natural Death. Why Is Dana Goldstein Trying to Dig Them Up?

In a superficial article last Friday, NY Times education reporter Dana Goldstein exhumed an education reform that has, mercifully, already been buried: the Common Core State Standards.  The Common Core has pretty much faded out of the public consciousness, but now that Goldstein has chosen to examine the corpse, I wish she had done a careful job.

Goldstein explains that the Common Core Standards were created by “a bipartisan group of governors, education experts and philanthropists” and that, “The education secretary at the time, Arne Duncan, declared himself ‘ecstatic.'” Now, ten years after the experiment was launched, many of the over forty-five states that tried the Common Core have dropped it. They have recalibrated their curricula and dropped from their annual testing regime the standardized tests that were paired with the Common Core Standards, tests created by one of two test-development consortia: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (the PARCC test) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (the SBAC test).

In her article last Friday, Goldstein wonders whether recent U.S. test scores on the international PISA test and our own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) would be better if the Common Core were brought back: “The disappointing results have prompted many in the education world to take stock of the Common Core, one of the most ambitious education reform projects in American history. Some see the effort as a failure, while others say it is too soon to judge the program, whose principles are still being rolled out at the classroom level.”

Much of her story covers an interview with a Kentucky teacher who liked the Common Core. She also quotes one of the developers of the Common Core math standards, interviews other people who favor a nationally aligned curriculum, and talks with the program officer responsible for the Common Core at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  What she leaves out is the history and substance of the Common Core experiment, and she also omits all the reasons states have pretty much abandoned this project.

The Common Core State Standards were an attempt by Arne Duncan’s Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to impose common curricular standards across the country. The Common Core was to be another step in institutionalizing the movement for standards and test based school accountability that was originally cast into law by No Child Left Behind.  No Child Left Behind assumed that if states set tough standards, tested the students every year, and sanctioned schools unable to raise scores quickly, achievement would rise and all children would be proficient by 2014. But the federal government couldn’t, by federal law, impose a national curriculum. However, Arne Duncan figured out how to create incentives for states to buy into a national curriculum without its being federally imposed.  As part of the 2009 stimulus package created to infuse money across the states to address the Great Recession, Duncan created a federal competitive grant program—Race to the Top.  To qualify even to apply for a Race to the Top grant, states had to promise to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores and agree to controversial turnaround plans that included school closure and privatization. And states had to agree they would adopt “college- and career-ready” standards.

The states had the freedom to develop their own standards, but conveniently, the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers sat down with Bill Gates and together they agreed that the Gates Foundation would fund the development of Common Core Standards, which states could then use to meet Arne Duncan’s requirement that they adopt “college- and career-ready” standards in order to qualify for a Race to the Top grant.

There are certainly people who still believe in curriculum standards—even national standards—but there were a number of problems with the way the Common Core was rushed through. The substitution of new tests developed by the PARCC and SBAC consortia also intensified what many felt were unfair high stakes punishments being imposed on schools and on schoolteachers by No Child Left Behind.

The Common Core was developed by the same people who brought us test-based school accountability.  In her 2012 book, Reign of Error, written just as the Common Core standards and the tests paired with the standards were being rolled out, Diane Ravitch explains the top-down origin of these developments: “The U.S. Department of Education awarded $350 million to two consortia to develop national assessments to measure the new national standards. States and districts will have to make large investments in technology, because the new national assessments will be delivered online. By some estimates, the states will be required to spend as much as $16 billion to implement the Common Core standards.” (Reign of Error, p. 16) “The Gates Foundation… supported the creation, evaluation, and promotion of the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted in almost every state.  In addition, the Gates Foundation has joined in a partnership with the British publisher Pearson to develop online curriculum for teaching the Common Core standards.” (Reign of Error,  23)

One of the huge criticisms of the Common Core Standards is that their developers focused on pushing more difficult content knowledge without enough attention to the wide variation in children’s readiness and to normal variations in linguistic and cognitive development. In their 2014 book, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass observe that teachers who know and understand their students, but are at the same time under intense pressure to raise scores, have less latitude to meet children’s particular learning needs: (U)nder the new Common Core State Standards, currently adopted by 45 states, teachers have little control over the curriculum they teach and the time they can allocate for instruction.” (50 Myths & Lies, p. 52)

What caused the most intense backlash—as more than 40 participating states substituted the PARCC and SBAC Common Core tests for the standardized tests the states had already been using annually under No Child Left Behind to judge schools—was that the PARCC and SBAC tests were benchmarked with much more demanding cut scores.  More schools appeared to be “failing.” And, for states to qualify for Race to the Top and the subsequent No Child Left Behind Waiver program, Arne Duncan demanded that states use the annual standardized tests as part of formal teachers’ evaluations.  When students’ test scores dropped catastrophically on the new PARCC and SBAC tests, there were growing news reports about teachers—sometimes long experienced and award-winning teachers—being fired or reassigned.  In some places, the teachers’ ratings based on the new test scores were published in newspapers to embarrass teachers into working harder. The replacement of No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which banned the Secretary of Education from involvement in states’ evaluation of teachers, was one result.  The other was the further discrediting of the Common Core experiment itself.

Goldstein explains why she dug up the Common Core again last week for coverage in the NY Times. Recently released scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress were disappointing, and U.S. scores recently released from the international PISA test were not significantly improved.

Back in 2010, Bill Mathis at the University of Colorado at Boulder published a cautionary analysis of the Common Core for the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice. In the piece, Mathis warns against developing standards-based education policy as a way to make the U.S. appear globally competitive: “The Obama administration advocates for education standards designed to make all high school graduates ‘college- and career-ready.’ To achieve this end, the administration is exerting pressure on states to adopt content standards, known as the ‘common core,’ being developed by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers…. Contentions about global competitveness provide a key rationale given for common standards, along with increasing equity and streamlining the reform process.  The analysis presented here suggests that the data do not support these contentions.  U.S. states with high academic standards fare no better (or worse) than those identified as having low academic standards.  Research support for standards-driven, test-based accountability systems is similarly weak.”

Mathis concludes: “The… common core standards initiative should be continued, but only as a low-stakes advisory and assistance tool for states and local districts for the purposes of curriculum improvement, articulation and professional development.  The… common core standards should be subjected to extensive validation, trials, and subsequent revisions before implementation… Given the current strengths and weaknesses in testing and measurement, policymakers should not implement high-stakes accountability systems where the assessments are inadequate for such purposes.”

In her 2012 Reign of Error, Ravitch agrees with Mathis: “Unfortunately, neither the Obama administration nor the developers of the Common Core standards thought it necessary to field-test the new standards.” (Reign of Error, p. 16)  One reason we all watched the launch and failure of a giant experiment is that the Common Core and PARCC and SBAC tests were rolled out without validation and trials.

Reign of Error was published as the Common Core was being implemented across the states and before anyone knew how the Common Core standards and accompanying tests from PARCC and SBAC would work. In her 2012 book, Ravitch remained carefully neutral about what to expect: “No one can say with certainty whether the Common Core standards will improve education, whether they will reduce or increase the achievement gaps among different groups, or how much it will cost to implement them. Some scholars believe they will make no difference, and some critics say they will cost billions to implement; others say they will lead to more testing. ” (Reign of Error, p. 315)

Diane Ravitch has written a new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, to be published on January 21st.  It is to be a history of several decades of corporate, accountability-based, test and punish school reform and privatization. When I read Slaying Goliath, I’ll be looking for Ravitch’s postmortem on America’s failed experiment with the Common Core State Standards.

Must Read: How Bill Gates’ Power Drives Education Policy

The Common Core Standards are the culmination of the wave of accountability-based school reform that has swept the country since the A Nation At Risk report in 1983.  Like the other test-and-punish reforms, the Common Core Standards fail to address the deep and seemingly intractable problems in American public schooling—inequality—shocking and immoral opportunity gaps in a society that supposedly believes in equality of opportunity—high dropout rates among the poorest and most vulnerable adolescents.  This blog focuses on these deeper issues, and you can read recent posts here on opportunity gaps, and here on reducing the dropout rate.

But Lindsey Layton’s recent blockbuster piece in the Washington Post, How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution, is a Common Core story that relates to all the deeper issues, because Layton addresses the issue of power and money in policy-making these days.  How is it that the school “reformers” can get programs established that lack a research base?  And how can it be done in a way that skirts the checks and balances of our democratic system and that even rearranges the prescribed roles of the federal government and the states in school policy? What is the role of today’s mega-philanthropy, especially these days when, ironically, relatively low taxes for the wealthiest Americans allow them to amass fortunes they can spend to impact policy in an underfunded public sector.

Diane Ravitch answers these questions theoretically in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  “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….  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… If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)

In her blockbuster article this past weekend, Layton provides an example of the power of venture philanthropy—the real-life story of how Bill Gates, the most powerful member of Ravitch’s Billionaire Boys Club, accomplished the adoption of the Common Core.  While many of us have known parts of this story, Layton pulls together all the characters, adds a timeline and tracks a bit of a plot.  It all began in the summer of 2008 when Gene Wilhoit, director of the national organization of chief state school officers, and David Coleman, a primary supporter of common standards and now head of the College Board, approached Bill Gates with an idea they had hatched.  Layton describes the pitch they made based on their theory of the problems of our public schools today: “Coleman and Wilhoit told the Gateses that academic standards varied so wildly between states that high school diplomas had lost all meaning…. The pair also argued that a fragmented education system stifled innovation because textbook publishers and software developers were catering to a large number of small markets instead of exploring breakthrough products.”

Then, because of Gates’ power to shape research, market ideas, and influence those making policy, “What followed was one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn’t just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards.  With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes. Bill Gates was de facto organizer, providing the money and structure for states to work together on common standards in a way that avoided the usual collision between states’ rights and national interest….”

According to Layton, Gates Foundation money was invested in work by the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce and on the politically liberal side, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.  Gates invested in work to support the standards by the Democrat-leaning Center for American Progress and the very conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  “The result was astounding. Within just two years of the 2008 Seattle meeting, 45 states and the District of Columbia had fully adopted the Common Core State Standards.”  “And yet, because of the way education policy is generally decided, the Common Core was instituted in many states without a single vote taken by an elected lawmaker.”  “The speed of adoption by the states was staggering by normal standards.  A process that typically can take five years was collapsed into a matter of months.”

Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education also helped.  “Several top players in Obama’s Education Department who shaped the administration’s policies either came straight from the Gates Foundation in 2009 or from organizations that received heavy funding from the Foundation.”  Margot Rogers, direct from Gates, was Arne Duncan’s first chief of staff.  Jim Shelton, a Gates program officer, came to Washington to head up education innovation.  Today he is deputy secretary.  Joanne Weiss, who led the development of Race to the Top was previously head of the NewSchools Venture fund, a Gates-backed effort.  The Race to the Top competition rewarded states with points if their applications emphasized college and career-ready standards (Today to qualify for No Child Left Behind Waivers states also have to adopt college and career-ready standards.)  “Applications for the first round of Race to the Top were due in January 2010, even though the final draft of the Common Core wasn’t released until six months later.  To get around this, the U.S. Department of Education told states they could apply as long as they promised they would officially adopt standards by August.”

According to Layton, Gates “sees himself as a technocrat trying to foster solutions to a profound social problem—gaping inequalities in U.S. public education—by investing in promising new ideas… ‘This is about giving money away.  This is philanthropy.  This is trying to make sure students have the kind of opportunity I had… and it’s almost outrageous to say otherwise, in my view.'”  A serious challenge, of course, is that sometimes the neat, technocratic solution may entirely miss issues like poverty, racial segregation, and the political morass of unequal school funding that a mass of social science research identifies as causes of achievement gaps.

Layton’s piece is so comprehensive, it dwarfs one other important piece of investigative journalism published last week on the subject of Bill Gates’ wielding of influence and power.  In Revealed: Gates Foundation Financed PBS Education Programming Which Promoted Microsoft’s Interests, David Sirota reports that the Gates Foundation actively promoted the Common Core Standards by paying for extensive programming by the Public Broadcasting System via the Teaching Channel.  Sirota points out that “the agenda being promoted also happens to dovetail with Microsoft’s commercial interests in the Common Core.”  According to Sirota, “In February (2014), Microsoft joined up with education publisher and technology firm Pearson on a joint Common Core venture. According to a Pearson press release, the project aims ‘to create new applications and advance a digital education model’… combining ‘Pearson’s Common Core System of Courses with the groundbreaking capabilities of the Windows 8 touchscreen environment.'”   Sirota lists Teaching Channel board members who are also affiliated with the Gates Foundation, including Ted Mitchell, who recently left the Gates-funded NewSchool Venture Fund to become an under-secretary in the U.S. Department of Education and Vicki Phillips who directs education work at the Gates Foundation.