Thursday, July 12, 2018

Bill Gates, Part 2: Still Not Getting Great Outcomes for Public Education

Noted UW professor Wayne Au had a conversation with the Fair website about the Rand report on the Gates Foundation's efforts around teacher evaluation.  I believe this to be an important conversation for two reasons.

One, I'd have to bet - conservatively - that he's spent $1B on public education.  Gates is literally throwing money at public education and yet has never had a single real triumph in that arena.  You'd think that might give him pause to consider getting out of the beige echo chamber that is the Foundation headquarters and ask, "What else can we do?"  Or better yet, "Who should we ask  - who we haven't really talked to - about what else we might try?"

Two, if the mainstream media is not going to be honest about the Gates Foundation's efforts, then people like Au are crucial to keeping them honest.  Paying for education writing at newspapers and creating faux parent groups and blogs is not being honest.

Last thing - I was quite surprised the other day to see that my 922 Twitter follower is Bill Gates.  (Or the account someone writes for him but still, good to know.)

From the Fair conversation (bold mine):

WA: And what often happens is philanthropists like the Gates Foundation say, “Hey, we have this project. Would you partner with us on this? And we’re investing this much money in doing this thing, but you need to come and give X amount of dollars to this project as well, and devote your resources.”

Unfortunately, what happens is that many of the districts end up finding that—this was the case with Common Core as well—that the money coming in for these new programs actually pales in comparison to what it took to implement the programs, or to cooperate with the research, and with these different kinds of programs.

JJ: Right, it seems as though it’s ultimately—and if you scratch, you can see it, and they sometimes even admit to it—I mean, it’s ultimately about privatization, isn’t it, this gospel of the private sector and market forces being the right response to everything?

WA: Oh, absolutely, and you get that from the Gates Foundation all the time. Gates is very clear. He’s trying to create, and he’s said this before, market conditions and market forces where everybody’s working to make money, but this will be in the best interest of kids and education; and that’s how he frames this whole entire agenda.

In a way, I really see this as a colonizing agenda, in a sense, because essentially what we have are predominantly white, super-wealthy elite philanthropies, like the Gates Foundation, putting these programs into mostly black and brown, working-class communities, right? And it creates this dynamic where you essentially have these rich missionaries saying, “We know what’s best for you and your kids, we’re going to do these things.” Meanwhile, it sort of treats these children, these black and brown children, as experiments, right? And so the power dynamics are really, really skewed.

All at the same time that folks like Gates, here in Washington state, he’s very opposed to a more progressive tax structure. He’s actively fought against efforts here in our state to improve our tax structure so that we could give more basic services to more people in the state. We have one of the most regressive tax structures. And so to me there’s a great irony in—maybe irony is the wrong word—but you can just see the problems with these super-elite, white corporate folks just saying, “Hey, we know what’s best for these communities.”

None of these reforms are for his kids. These are reforms for everyone else’s kids.

What about in the media?

WA: Well, the Gates Foundation, like others, has a strategy. They make their own echo effect, and part of that, as you know, is funding education journalism. That’s something else that you have, as one headline had it, “tangled with” — Gates-funded education blogs, so there’s an impact in the way these things are covered.

There’s no mistake that mainstream media has basically not followed up on the failure of the Gates study and interventions into teacher evaluation, because, again, here in Seattle, the Seattle Times’ education reporting is partially funded by the Gates Foundation, like this ”focus on solutions,” and there was a whole granting programming around that, but when you talk to those reporters about what they’re allowed to report on, they say, “Well, Gates doesn’t control us.” But then I’ll ask a follow-up and say, “Well, how come you’re not reporting on this, like we know ethnic studies helps kids do better in school, particularly low-income black and brown kids.” And they’ll say, “Well, it’s complicated.”

Yeah, I've heard that from them as well.

And so it’s clear that there’s this agenda that happens, that the Gates Foundation is going to fund, we used to see it with Education Nation (NPR) and stuff every fall, on NBC or whatever, and they would promote this particular agenda, and at the same time, unwilling to promote things that don’t align with that agenda.

And the statements below from Au really speak to me.

Oh yes, no one ever talks to teachers. No one ever talks to parents. None of these big philanthropies go to communities to engage them, really. They like to pretend they are, and they say, “Well, look, we’re working with this nonprofit or this nonprofit,” right? But all of that is also a little bit fuzzy and a little shady, because maybe the nonprofits that they use are also themselves funded by the Gates Foundation, and are about promoting a particular agenda. 

Versus there’s social justice–minded community activists committed to public education, parent activists; these folks need to be brought into the conversation, along with teachers, along with unions, frankly, as well. They should be involved in the decision-making, in the agenda-setting. Because we know what’s wrong on the ground level, we know what’s going on.

Wayne Au is professor at the University of Washington/Bothell Campus, and interim dean for diversity and equity on campus. He’s also editor at Rethinking Schools


Stuart J said...

Thank you for these two posts. Very interesting.

A few years ago, I heard a story from a credible source about a person who posted some comments on the Gates Foundation web site. The comments were about some initiatives the Gates Foundation was promoting locally, and the comments suggested that maybe the outcomes and situation were not what the blog poster was saying. The comments were removed almost immediately, even though they were in no way defamatory or abusive.

Markets rely on feedback loops. The tragic irony of many funders of education is they don't get market feedback. They claim they like markets. They claim markets work. They claim markets in education can achieve the same positive outcomes they have achieved in many other situations. But, the funders don't capture the market reaction of parents moving, homeschooling, going out of district or filling in the gaps caused by the initiatives funded by the funders.

In a particular district, the Gates Foundation funded a transition of comprehensive high schools to smaller high schools of about 400 students. Or rather, there should have been 400 students. But since so many kids could not get the classes they wanted, or extracurricular activities they liked, the numbers dropped significantly. This is called market feedback.

Markets do clear. Markets do work. Unfortunately for education policy makers, capturing the full perspective of what's going on, as opposed to just the situation within a specific context, is really hard. So, that type of feedback is not considered. But it does exist. And it could be gathered, depending on whether the unit of analysis is captive audience customers who are stuck in a school, or all customers , including both the captives and those who are able to find and afford alternatives.

If the Gates Foundation ever wants customer feedback, Melissa knows how to reach me. I'm perfectly willing to help create customer surveys, just like I did when I worked at Microsoft.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Thanks, Stuart, cogent words.

I was at at an event where I was able to speak briefly to Melinda Gates. I gave her my card and said there I knew many, many people who could give informed opinions about what really might help public ed.

I do not expect the Gates' to solve the societal problems around ed (except maybe quit thwarting a better tax system in WA) but for all the money they are throwing at public ed initiatives, you'd think they would want to do better.