Cuomo Taps Bill Gates as NY’s New Education Consultant. Sadly, the Times Are Not a Changing

Bill Gates seems to have become this spring’s go-to gazillionaire.  Over the years his foundation has undertaken to fund medical work in Africa and public school policy and governance experiments across the United States.  And so… soon after the coronavirus pandemic reached American shores, Judy Woodruff had Bill Gates on the PBS NewsHour as an expert on world health. And now New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo has announced a partnership with Gates and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “reimagine” New York state’s public schools after the pandemic.

Fortunately, for covering the medical issues in the pandemic, Woodruff quickly replaced Gates with Dr. Anthony Fauci,  Dr. Ashish Jha from Harvard University’ Global Health Institute, and a host of other epidemiologists who really are experts. Big foundation people do fund work by experts, but they are not themselves usually the experts.

Isn’t it ironic? These days we are honoring nurses, ambulance drivers, foodbank workers, and teachers as heroes, but when we want advice we feel compelled to seek the guidance of celebrities like Bill Gates, especially if they have made billions of dollars in the tech industry. We like to assume that extremely successful people know how to be successful. And we admire billionaire philanthropists as successes. They have, after all, made a lot of money.

But the Gates Foundation’s record in public education exposes Gates and the so-called experts at his foundation as not really expert at all. What we have instead is a list of failed experiments. The record of Gates and Gates Foundation investment in education is dismal.

  • In 2007, the Gates Foundation funded The Turnaround Challenge, a guide for “quickly and dramatically” improving test cores in America’s “worst performing schools.”  The report and its guidance focused school reformers obsessively on test scores and promoted the idea that schools can be rapidly turned around with the help of consultants and experts.  But rapid school turnaround didn’t work; very few struggling schools on their own, it turns out, have been able rapidly to raise students’ test scores. Unfortunately, we now know that schools alone are unlikely to overcome the ravages of concentrated family poverty. Other reforms such as Community Schools with wraparound social and medical services are more likely to help.
  • The Gates Foundation has also promoted a theory called “portfolio school reform.” an idea developed by a Gates Foundation funded think tank, the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.  Manage your school district like a stock portfolio: keep investing in your best prospects—whether they are traditional public schools or charter schools—and shed the low scoring schools, the bad investments. Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 was the prime example. Eve Ewing, a sociologist, and the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research tracked the results: the closure of 50 schools in 2013, most of them in African American communities on the impoverished South and West Sides. Students did not do any better overall in the schools to which they were transferred, and students, teachers and whole communities are grieving for the loss of the public schools that anchored their neighborhoods.
  • Bill Gates himself made enormous financial political contributions to the campaign in Washington State that finally, after several tries, passed a referendum to enable the startup of charter schools in that state.
  • Two decades ago, the Gates Foundation launched an effort to make grants to school districts which agreed to break large comprehensive high schools into small schools, all sharing the original high school building. The idea was to develop more personal connections among smaller groups of students and faculty. But in 2009, the Gates Foundation admitted that the idea didn’t work and abandoned the project.  The smaller schools had made it harder for school districts to provide access for every student to enriched curriculum, reduced students’ access to elective classes of special interest to them, and proven enormously expensive when each small school required its own administrators.  School districts which had tried small schools were left to dismantle this experiment on their own.
  • In 2009, the Gates Foundation paid for the development of the Common Core. This helped out Arne Duncan, who had required that, even to qualify to apply for a Race to the Top grant, states must adopt uniform standards. Actually the federal government is not permitted to mandate curriculum (a state-by-state responsibility), but the Gates Foundation stepped in to create the standards which states were free to adopt. After states adopted the Common Core and the standardized tests with which the Common Core was paired, the effort slowly fizzled.  Outcomes did not improve, and states continue to drop the Common Core.
  • The Gates Foundation also collaborated with Arne Duncan’s demand that, as a qualification to apply for a Race to the Top grant or to get a No Child Left Behind Waiver, states promise to evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores.  The Gates Foundation also promoted the idea of offering financial incentives to the best teachers. The American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association both rejected the validity and reliability of the Value Added Measures that were used in the teacher evaluations and everyone now agrees that rating teachers by their students’ test scores is unfair and inaccurate.  Gates even abandoned the experiment with incentive pay for high scoring teachers in 2018, but the pilot school districts, which had themselves been required to invest millions of school district dollars into the experiment, were left holding the bag.  In Hillsborough County, Florida, Gates even withheld a promised $20 million after the Foundation discovered the performance bonus experiment didn’t work.

On Saturday, after after considerable criticism of Cuomo’s choice of Bill Gates to advise New York on reimagining its schools, the governor announced a “Reimagine Education” Advisory Council, but it isn’t made up of teachers from  across the state of New York. Among the Council’s 20 members there are two school superintendents, two teachers, and one parent along with six college presidents and people from agencies with some connection to education. If this were really a serious panel to deliberate about how to reopen schools, I would have hoped for the inclusion of school principals who know first hand the challenges at their schools along with some faculty members from the state’s many universities with colleges of education. And, most important, I would have hoped to see teachers who know and understand the developmental needs of young children, and teachers from across the state’s elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.

CNN recently featured some guidance from two New Yorkers, one of them an educator: Michael Hynes, a former teacher and currently the Superintendent of the Port Washington Public Schools and William Doyle, a New York City parent and education writer. Here are the principles they believe must be foundational when schools reopen:

  • “Schools should follow pediatric medical guidelines when schools reopen.”  The American Academy of Pediatrics says it is “critical to maintain a balanced curriculum with continued physical education and other learning experiences rather than an exclusive emphasis on core subject areas.”  New York’s “reimagined” schools should include physical activity, play, the arts and recess.
  • “Technology should be put in its proper place… As the American Academy of Pediatrics puts it, distance learning ‘is not generally believed to replicate the in-person learning experience.'”
  • “Student and teacher well-being is critical to learning.”  “According to the recent ‘Framework for Opening Schools’ report jointly issued by UNICEF, the World Bank, UNESCO, and the World Food Programme, reducing class sizes, increasing mental health services and focusing on the well-being of students and educators should be all part of the reopening process.”
  • “Public education ‘is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.’ These are the words of the United States Supreme Court in its historic 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision…”
  • “Teachers should be respected and supported as elite professionals…. but for years they have been shackled by bureaucracy, overwork, inept political interference and micromanagement. We should free educators to do their best work….”

Governor Cuomo, however, is bringing in Bill Gates. Cuomo must be a believer in outside consultants, and bringing in Bill Gates as the consultant does have one tangible benefit: Bill Gates will be cheaper than most consultants. Gates has said that the state will not need to pay the Gates Foundation for its work in New York. After all, paying for consultants was another of Gates’ initiatives.  In 2009, when Arne Duncan announced the Race to the Top federal grant competition, the Gates Foundation helped out the states by paying for consultants to write the grant proposals. Each state that wanted to apply got a quarter of a million dollars—that’s right, $250,000—to pay consultants to write the grant proposals.

My dream is that instead of offering advice, Bill Gates would do something really radical: offer to help Governor Cuomo, governors across the states, and school districts across the U.S. avoid laying off teachers in the midst of the upcoming recession. The problem right now is that as businesses have been shuttered and workers laid off, tax receipts that pay for public schools have begun to collapse.

Bill Gates and his philanthropic partners—the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, Laurene Powell Jobs and her Emerson Collective, the Waltons, Eli Broad, Jeff Bezos, John Arnold, Reed Hastings, Dick and Betsy DeVos, Jeb Bush, and Michael Bloomberg—have been investing for two decades in disruptive, test-based school accountability and the expansion of charter schools and vouchers. While their individual school reform priorities may differ a bit, all of these philanthropists have been investing one way or another in redesigning the public schools or replacing them with privatized alternatives.  In the third chapter of her new book, Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch identifies the various projects of this group of very rich public school “Disrupters.”  Many of these philanthropists have pledged to spend down their billions doing good works during their lifetimes.

Bill Gates could redeem himself for the Gates Foundation’s long record of failed educational experiments if he were to convince his philanthropic partners (and others) to throw all their money this year behind what would be the most important school reform in the midst of the collapse of state tax revenue: keeping class sizes small as students and their teachers return to school.  It would be enormously expensive but at the same time urgently important: prevent school districts from having to lay off teachers as their state aid declines. And restoring reasonable class sizes would be even more expensive in school districts where class size has already swelled in the past decade as state’s educational investment dropped following the 2008 recession and as a growing number of charter schools and vouchers sucked tax dollars out of their school districts. These are the places—across Oklahoma, in Oakland and Los Angeles—where teachers have struck to demand that students no longer regularly find themselves in classes of 40 students. Let these philanthropists spend down their foundations’ money right now while it is desperately needed. Reducing class size is the most important and the most expensive kind of school reform, because it means hiring enough teachers across the 98,158 public schools in the U.S.

Of course, philanthropic dollars would soon run out.  Across the United States after the immediate crisis, it would then be up to the rest of us.  Would we be willing to pay enough taxes to sustain small classes where teachers have the luxury of really learning to know and support every student?  And could the same celebrity philanthropists help build the political will across states to sustain such an investment—especially in urban communities where poverty is concentrated and students’ needs are greatest?

After Years of Failed Initiatives, Gates Foundation Keeps on Trying to Fix the Schools

You might imagine that Bill and Melinda Gates, with all their money, a large staff, and access to research would have developed a more nuanced and helpful strategy for school reform.  But you’d be wrong.  In their 2020 Gates Foundation Annual Letter, Bill and Melinda Gates continue to assume that academic outcomes as measured by standardized test scores and college matriculation rates can be raised by fixing the public schools.

Melinda Gates expresses humility about the capacity of mega-philanthropy to solve what she and Bill understand are complex issues challenging public schools and their students: “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.”  But she doesn’t give up on the Foundation’s mission to keep on experimenting: “Our goal is to help make a huge difference for all U.S. students, so we’ve pivoted most of our work… to areas where we can have more impact for more students.”

Here are examples of some of the Gates’ best known education experiments. Unfortunately, while these Gates projects affected millions of students across the United States, the effect has been harmful.

In her incisive 2011 analysis of the role of venture philanthropy in education policy, Joanne Barkan reminds us of the 2007 Gates funded report, The Turnaround Challenge—thought to be the secret for turning around so-called “failing” schools: “Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called it ‘the bible’ for school restructuring. He’s incorporated it into federal policy, and reformers around the country use it. Mass Insight Education, the consulting company that produced it, claims the document has been downloaded 200,000 times since 2007. Meanwhile, Gates also invested $90 million in one of the largest implementations of the turnaround strategy—Chicago’s Renaissance 2010.  Ren 2010 gave Chicago public schools CEO Arne Duncan a national name and ticket to Washington; he took along the reform strategy.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarizes more recent projects leveraged by the Gates Foundation into government policy. First there was the small schools effort, begun two decades ago with a $650 million investment: “Bill Gates declared in 2009 that it hadn’t worked the way he expected.” The Gates Foundation gave up on that so-called reform.  But school districts which had accepted Gates money to try it, were left to figure out how to reconfigure their high schools back into comprehensive high schools, which require fewer administrators and work more flexibly for teachers and students alike.

Then, in 2009, Gates paid for the development of the Common Core—conveniently because it meshed with Arne Duncan’s federal Race to the Top grants, which required that, even to qualify to apply for Race to the Top, states must adopt uniform standards.  Although the federal government is not permitted to mandate curriculum, Duncan’s grant applications required the adoption of standards, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation stepped in to create the standards—which states were then free to adopt. After states adopted the Common Core and the standardized tests with which the Common Core was paired, the effort slowly fizzled.  Outcomes did not improve, and states continue to drop the Common Core.

Then there was the Gates initiative to evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores and reward the highest scoring teachers with incentives. The American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association both rejected the validity and reliability of the Value Added Measures that were used, Gates abandoned this effort in 2018, but the pilot school districts, which had themselves been required to invest millions of school district dollars into the experiment which involved performance bonuses for the best teachers were left holding the bag. In Hillsborough County, Florida, Gates even withheld a promised $20 million after deciding the Foundation did not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses.

In their 2020 Annual Foundation Letter, Melinda Gates admits that the Foundation has not found the answers: “If you’d asked us 20 years ago, we would have guessed that global health would be our foundation’s riskiest work, and our U.S. education work would be our surest bet.  In fact it has turned out just the opposite.” Melinda Gates also  denies that their foundation has an inflated influence on education: “We know that philanthropy can never—and should never—take the place of governments or the private sector.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss warns readers about Melinda’s mock humility. The Gates Foundation has exerted outsized influence on projects like the turnaround challenge, small high schools, the Common Core, and the experiment with teacher evaluation: “For years, they have spent a fortune trying to shape public education policy, successfully leveraging public funding to support their projects, but never having the kind of academic success they had hoped for. That never stopped them from continuing to fund pet projects… Yet over the years, while they have certainly funded worthwhile projects, questions have been raised about the power they have to dictate social policy because of their enormous investments, as well as whether the targets of some of their philanthropy are the most deserving of attention.  Why should unelected private individuals, critics ask, have a say about public policy just because they are rich?

Joanne Barkan’s 2011 warning  continues to describe the power of venture philanthropy, epitomized by the Gates Foundation: “The cost of K-12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year.  So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum.  Decisive influence, it turns out.  A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels. In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck.”

Bill and Melinda Gates have not given up on experimentation to fix the schools. Currently they are funding regional networks of high schools to collaborate on reforms the participating schools choose. Fixing the schools remains the focus despite that decades of research has shown that the primary challenge for children and their schools is concentrated family and neighborhood poverty. I wonder why the Gates Foundation seems not to take seriously decades of research demonstrating that students’ challenges at school correlate not with the quality of the school but instead with the concentration poverty.

The most recent research on this topic comes from Stanford University education sociologist Sean Reardon, who confirms In a massive, new, data-based study, Is Separate Still Unequal, that concentrated neighborhood and family poverty is the greatest challenge for students and for their schools:  “Once we account for racial differences in school poverty…, however, racial composition differences among schools are no longer positively and significantly associated with the grade 3 achievement gap … or gap growth…. Differences in exposure to school poverty, however, are strongly associated with gaps in grade 3 and modestly associated with gap growth….”  “Racial segregation matters, therefore, because it concentrates black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools, not because of the racial composition of their schools, per se.” “By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… Differences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”