Thursday, June 02, 2016

"Philanthropists Shouldn't Be Setting America's Public School Agenda"

Wow. I'm surprised the editorial board of a major American mainstream media outlet has published this. LA Times editorial headline:

Gates Foundation failures show philanthropists shouldn't be setting America's public school agenda

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been foisting its special brand of venture philanthropy on American school children for nearly two decades now. Leveraging the Microsoft founder's reputation as all-around smart guy and sprinkling a few million here and there funded by the world's largest private bank account, they have pushed our public school system to the edge of crisis. In his dreams of "unleashing powerful market forces" on our nation's children, the world's wealthiest man, almost single-handedly, has succeeded in making public education a toxic environment where competition has replaced collaboration, veteran teachers are leaving the profession droves, parents are opting out, rote standardization rules the day, and high stakes testing dominates the curriculum.

The Gates Foundation's first significant foray into education reform, in 1999, revolved around Bill Gates' conviction that the big problem with high schools was their size. Students would be better off in smaller schools of no more than 500, he believed. The foundation funded the creation of smaller schools, until its own study found that the size of the school didn't make much difference in student performance. When the foundation moved on, school districts were left with costlier-to-run small schools.

This was followed up by their Machiavellian plans for improving teaching by modeling the profession after the dog-eat-dog environment that demoralizes employees at Microsoft and other technology companies, pitting state-against-state, district-against-district, school-against-school, and teacher-against-teacher in an arbitrarily refereed cage match with money being dangled as carrots and unemployment lines being wielded as sticks.

The program, evaluation system and all, was dumped.

But not before thousands of experienced teachers moved on to greener pastures. Not once did they consider that children are not widgets to be manufactured and that teachers are not generally a population that is motivated by greed. Of course, had they taken the time to actually collaborate with professional educators before turning our children into guinea pigs, these guys might have been in a position to anticipate the flaws in their plans. Now they are well into the disaster of forcing the Common Core federal public school curriculum onto our schools, a plan that was likewise developed with minimal input from actual teachers, and absolutely none from early childhood educators. Only now, it seems, have these ivory tower dilettantes come to recognize that maybe, just maybe, teachers have something important to say.

Writes Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellman:

We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators -- particularly teachers -- but also parents and communities, so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.

Note that she's not saying they ought to have consulted us with an idea toward creating an actual, positive change in our schools (and with the billions they've already dropped on this, a real transformation could be taking place). No she is only saying that she wishes they had engaged us with a better sales pitch from the start. This admission highlights what has become evident: these corporate "reformers" view teachers and parents as sweet, well-meaning little puddin' heads who have been just waiting for Superman to save us, but even this weak tea confession is a noteworthy walk-back from one of the true super-villains of education. Desmond-Hellman even writes "the Gates Foundation doesn't have all the answers."

As the editorial writer responded: "It was a remarkable admission for a foundation that had often acted as though it did have all the answers."

I don't reckon this is a sign that Bill Gates and his minions have had a change of heart because the evidence is that they are now doubling-down on Common Core and it's soul-sucking regime of high stakes standardized testing, but that's exactly what this editorial is calling on them to do:

Philanthropists are not generally education experts, and even if they hire scholars and experts, public officials shouldn't be allowing them to set the policy agenda for the nation's public schools. The Gates experience teaches once again that educational silver bullets are in short supply and that some educational trends live only a little longer than mayflies.

I have long said that there is a productive role that could be played by philanthropists like Gates, but it first requires that they drop their "shock doctrine" methods and begin by educating themselves about how children learn and how teachers teach. Until they get past the hubristic idea that we just need to run schools like a business, however, and let the professionals take the lead, they will continue to do far more harm than good. The LA Times seems to still hold onto the hope that they can change their ways, but at this point I don't trust them any more than I trust Microsoft's marginal software.

No, I expect, in their own brick wall-like ignorance, they will continue to view those of us who are pushing back as selfish, entitled puddin' heads who are simply too dense to grasp the wonders that they bring to us. And they seem prepared to use their deep pockets to keep pushing, which is why we must keep pushing back. Meanwhile, it's encouraging to see that even the LA Times has seen through them. 

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Unknown said...

I'm so glad you saw this article, Teacher Tom! I was completely appalled at the comment about their lament of not including teachers because they didn't get to pull them on the standards bandwagon. How about, are standards even beneficial?! What is actually researched methods that do work? What inputs and ideas do teachers and educators have? Kids are not robots!!! :D -Stephanie

Greg said...

I am wondering why persons from a profession that promotes itself as innovative and cutting edge would cling to the same old process that is not working for anyone, children, parents and teachers alike. The creation of innovative products that have changed our society were not created by a few people, they were created by teams of people who looked forward and worked together to create a solution to a problem. It appears the process of education is different in their eyes, and the path is the same rocky road we are now traveling on with no innovation in sight.

Anonymous said...

This was followed up by their Machiavellian plans for improving teaching by modeling the profession after the dog-eat-dog environment that demoralizes employees at Microsoft and other technology companies ... .

It's actually more hubristic than that.

To build on what Greg said, it's very important to note that any technological advances Microsoft [1] and other technology companies have made are overwhelmingly likely to stem from (fanatically) hiring the best people, providing an environment in which they can thrive, and then getting out of their way, trusting them to do great things. That's where innovation comes from, and it's the exact opposite of the approach ascribed to the Gates Foundation.

If a company has a "dog-eat-dog", "demoraliz[ing]" environment, I guarantee you that it's not innovating. It's desperately squeezing every last dime out of ever-shrinking "opportunities" until those opportunities are destroyed (probably by another, more innovative company).

- - - -

[1] Microsoft is not largely known for its technological innovation. Its success is largely due to its predatory business practices and the technologies it "develops" (i.e., pollutes) to discourage and exclude competition. But that doesn't detract from the point above. In a fair market (i.e., a level playing field that doesn't manufacture fraudulent legislation to protect entrenched and destructive interests), no innovative organization can be effective (at least not for long) by having so-called "experts" rule from on high, passing down "wisdom" and "vision" to the slaves to "implement". It just doesn't work that way. Not in technology, not in education, not in economies, not in communities or societies.