John Thompson reviews here the report by the Network for Public Education on 15 years of Gates’ experiments on the lives of other people’s children and teachers.
“During the last fifteen years, we educators have each endured corporate school reform in our own way. It has not been fun. Sometimes competition-driven, data-driven micromanaging has been downright frightening. It has sometimes looked like our profession, our unions, and public education values were on the verge of being destroyed by market-driven, test-driven reform. The Network for Public Education (NPE) has just done us a great service in connecting the dots, and showing how many of the mandates we have endured are different verses of the Gates Foundation hymnal, and how they created the same discord.
“The NPE’s feature report, “Around the States with Bill Gates,” begins with the aptly titled “Gates Funding Elevates Teacher Voices that Sing Their Tune” by Anthony Cody. It ends with Carol Burris’s post mortem on the Gates’s “costly and ineffective adventure” with the Hillsborough, Florida teacher evaluation system. In between, ten contributors describe the Gates follies that have occurred in their postage stamp of the education world.
“In 2012, Anthony Cody engaged in a five-part exchange with representatives of the Gates Foundation. Cody presented a thorough, well-researched, review of the scientific evidence ignored by the foundation. The Gates participants largely repeated their same old talking points. Shockingly, the Gates debaters closed the series with a temper tantrum.
“Perhaps, they saw the debate as a high-stakes confrontation and they were embarrassed by the extent of their defeat. Or, maybe the foundation didn’t expect a mere teacher to assemble and concisely present such an overwhelming case against its policies.
“Back when Cody touched a nerve with the Gates Foundation, it was already clear that its ill-conceived teacher evaluation gamble would be extremely risky, but it was possible to believe that the foundation could learn how to listen to practitioners. That hope was shattered as $23 million of Gates grants were made to elevate “teacher voices.”
“Unfortunately, their scripted voices were elevated in order to counter ours.
“As the foundation explains, when Gates creates new organizations or funds existing ones that align with its clearly defined agenda, they “‘develop proposals that align with our strategic priorities and the organization’s focus and capabilities.'” For instance, Cody notes, “‘Teach Plus has received $17 million in Gates grants, and has worked to train teacher leaders, who then show up to testify before public hearings in support of the elimination of tenure, or the use of test scores for teacher evaluations.”
“Later, Carol Burris concludes with a review of the Hillsborough failure. Previously, there had been a close working relationship between district officials and the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. Moreover, the national AFT has long been committed to rigorous teacher evaluations (through peer review) and professional development (through National Board Certification.) It was working collaboratively with Gates and Hillsborough.
“The rank-in-file teachers pushed backed at the Gates methods, however, complaining about the negative effects of merit pay and evaluation by test scores on their teaching. The president of the union local, who had once enthusiastically embraced the early Gates efforts, “told the School Board that the system she helped put into place is considered by teachers to be ‘demeaning and unfair’ and that teacher voice and input has decreased.” After Hillsborough spent half of its $300+ million in reserves in order to pay for the costly failure, and with another $50 million in cost overruns expected, the district pulled the plug on the Gates experiment.
“It was not just teachers who were ignored in Florida. Parent activist Colleen Wood, and other local community groups, were invited to join the United Way’s Committee for Empowering Effective Educators. But, the grant “prescribed exactly how many teachers, non-profits, and businesspeople were to be on the committee.” Wood quickly realized that the purpose of the process was to “rubber stamp” the Gates’s preferences.
“The Hillsborough debacle was consistent with what was witnessed by Denver teacher Aaron Lowenkron, who concludes that the Denver version of the Gates model “is mechanistic, punitive, and opaque.
“Essentially, it has become a tool of the administration to generate teacher churn and keep our union weak.”
“The Hillsborough and Denver setbacks are also consistent with my summary of the Tulsa experience where the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association says that the district and the union had a good relationship until Tulsa “became indebted to groups who pushed for charter schools, tying tests to teacher evaluations and other so-called ‘reforms’ that do not improve public schools or provide a true picture of a teacher’s worth and ability.” After becoming the 6th largest recipient of Gates funding, in 2015, Tulsa had to scramble to fill 499 of its 3,000 teaching positions, which is up from the normative turnover of about 300
“Similarly, Newark student, Tanaisa Brown, explains that due to Gates-style reforms, “Teachers are forced to teach to a test without proper resources, and are being evaluated by scores that hardly take into consideration multiple other factors that affect students’ ability to learn such as poverty and unique learning types.” Moreover, students are “pushed out of their very own school buildings and have to wonder if they will even have a school to attend for the upcoming school year.”
“The NPE also gives today’s recipients of Gates funding a historical perspective. As Mike Klonsky recalls, when Gates came to Chicago in 2001, its mission was “small schools.” When educators and small-schools activists asked whether they could be on the board that would administer the grants, they were told, “That would be like allowing the workers to run the factory.” Also at the beginning of the Gates efforts, Curt Dudley-Marling witnessed the funding of organizations such as National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ). Dudley-Marling explains how the NCTQ illustrates Gates’s “antipathy toward traditional teacher education.”
“”He saw the truth in Diane Ravitch’s explanation that it was founded “with the explicit purpose of harassing institutions of teacher education.”
“The NPE’s Bill Mathis and former TFA teacher, Gary Rubenstein, further remind us that it was not always clear that corporate reform policies would be pushed in such a ham-handed manner. The late AFT President Al Shanker advocated for charter schools as a place for innovation, not as a mechanism for charter management systems to assist in the mass closures of schools. Before 2005 or so, Rubenstein did not see TFA as morphing into “a massive public relations campaign whose main accomplishment was fueling its own growth and power.” Since then, TFA has allowed its fund raising message to be “weaponized by uninformed, but rich, meddlers like the Gates Foundation.”
“Bill Gates famously said of educators, “They have to give us this opportunity for experimentation.” Gates and his foundation (which largely staffed the leadership of Arne Duncan’s USDOE) did not wait for the results of preliminary experiments regarding their hunches about teacher quality before they were codified into law in almost all of the nation’s states. When after-the-fact research discovered that their teacher evaluation experiments would cost about 2% of school budgets, Leonie Haimson reminds us, Gates made a snap judgment that class size should be increased to pay for it. Since then, he has “continued to fund unconvincing studies attempting to prove that class size reduction is not cost effective; … Singlehandedly, he has financed an entire industry in anti-class size screeds from shoddy think tanks.”
“Haimson also recounts the failure of InBloom which “was designed to help achieve Bill Gates’s vision of education: to mechanize instruction by plugging every child into a common curriculum, standards and tests, delivered by computers, with software that can data-mine their responses and through machine-driven algorithms, deliver ‘customized’ lessons and adaptive learning.” Despite “the demise of inBloom,” Haimson notes, “the Gates Foundation has not given up their attempt to supplant real personalized learning with learning through software and machines.”
“And that bring us to Susan DuFresne’s personal account of the impact of Gates policies on teachers in Washington. An informal poll determined that 16 of her 18 fellow K-2 teachers have considered quitting. She describes how Gates’s data-driven pedagogy “stack-rank(s) children like his Microsoft employees.” She concludes that, “These reforms have stripped humanity from what was once a whole-child system. Schools are now more segregated, more punitive, often joyless test-prep factories designed to sort, rank, and cull human beings for Gates’ profit.”
“The teacher in me would like to stress one of DuFresne’s points that may not be obvious outside the classroom. She protests, “The first two months of school is now 1:1 testing vs building relationships and establishing routines.”
“There is no time when the genuine teacher voice is more important than when kicking off the school year. That is the time when we must be fully devoted to leading a class worthy of our students’ dignity.
“We can’t serve two masters. We can’t fully commit to the building of trusting and loving relationships, and to engaging instruction, while subordinating ourselves and our students to the metrics loved by Gates. Teaching requires authenticity and it’s hard to tell your kids that you place their welfare above all – except when you have to obey the billionaire’s mandates. We can’t challenge our kids to fully and honestly embrace learning, while warning them that our quest for knowledge will be routinely interrupted by corporate micromanaging.
“It’s bad enough when high school teachers like I was are torn between two masters. I can only imagine the angst felt by a kindergarten teacher like DuFresne as she helps launch children on that first stage of schooling and the pursuit of a real education. Sadly, if we want to protect our ability to speak with our genuine teacher voice in class, we must raise it now to defeat the Gates mandates and it’s faux “teacher voices.”