Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mind the gap -- on education for democracy.

Is there is a gap between the power of the Gates Foundation, what teachers do everyday in the classroom, and what Teaching 2030 (T2030) proposes?  How closely are these three aligned?
The Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) has emphasized the importance of cultivating and sustaining teacher involvement in local and national education policy.  What infrastructure has to be in place so that this happens more effectively and more frequently?  And how can we financially sustain such initiatives?  Supporting smart professional learning communities, and then publishing books like T2030, are no easy tasks.
Where, when and how do we look at the bigger picture?  Are we just fish, swimming is a school, hoping to influence the sway and swirl of our fellow educators, policy-makers, legislators and advocates?  Diplomacy is an anchor with CTQ, and sustained collaboration with the Gates Foundation would be nice.
Yet where, when and how do we draw the line?  Do the authors of Waiting for Superman merely have an accurate, however incomplete, picture of public education?  Or is there a coordinated effort to redirect the public education funding stream towards privatisation?  If so, what do we lose in the process?
In an article in today's New York Times (Behind Grass-Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates), we are reminded of the Foundation's leveraged interest ($373 million since 2009; $3.5 billion projected 2011-2016) on education reform:
  • Gates Foundation funding:
  • Teach Plus - Indianapolis: "...outspoken teachers helped persuade state eliminate seniority-based layoff policies."  (partial).
  • American Enterprise Institute - DC: " influence the national education debates." $500,000 (2009).
  • [P]hilanthropic advisory firm, - NYC: " mount and support public education and advocacy campaigns." $3.5 million.
  • Harvard University: " place 'strategic data fellows' who could act as 'entrepreneurial change agents' in school districts...." $3.5 million [emphasis added].
  • campaign lobbying of presidential candidates: $16 million (2008).
  • Alliance for Excellence in Education (Jeb Bush), DC: " grow support for the common core standards initiatives...."  $550,000 (2009).
  • Fordham Institute (Chester Finn), DC/OH: " common core materials and develop supporting materials...."  $959,000.
  • Center for Education Policy, DC: " track which states adopted the standards." $1 million (2009-2011 est.).
  • AFT & NEA, DC: $6.3 million (2008-2011).
  • social action campaign focused on the film Waiting for Superman.  $2 million (2010).
To what end?  What is the Gates Foundation (and others) trying to accomplish?  The educational mission statement from the Gates Foundation websites prioritizes college readiness: The foundation has set an ambitious goal in K-12 education: to graduate all students college-ready. Currently, only a third of students graduate on-time with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed beyond high school. Together with our partners, we are working to provide all students—especially low-income and minority students—with the opportunity to realize their full potential.
Is college readiness an adequate platform for meaningful educational reform?  How does eliminating teacher seniority for layoffs increase college readiness?  How can the change levers within T2030 be leveraged to find common ground?
What if public education was about the cultivation of a civic democracy? 


  1. There is a "don't just stand there, do something" ethic at work in education reform. Conspiracy theorists see a dark effort on the part of corporations to take over schools. Personally, I just see incoherence.

    Here's one that didn't make your list: Gates Foundation support for Dennis Littky's MET School, founded in Providence, RI, and now built out to a network of 70 schools nationwide. MET is the polar opposite of what we think of when we caricature a Gates funded enterprise. Data most certainly does NOT drive these folks. At the MET Dewey, not Thorndike, reigns.

    No, education reform is a bunch of ostensibly intelligent people running around disrupting things like disgruntled middle schoolers, on the theory that the moral imperative to correct the injustice visited upon poor children justifies the use of any handy tool to demolish the failing system. Ed reformers on both the right and left try to out-Alinsky each other. And foundations pay for all the chaos, collateral damage be damned.

    You ask a great question: "How does eliminating teacher seniority increase college readiness?" Only if so doing solves some actual educational problem in a given community. If eliminating seniority just becomes a wrecking bar in a nihilistic ideology of disruption, then heaven help us.

    Let's just hope that when the smoke and dust clears, the revenues will exist to rebuild what we have lost.

  2. The problem is that MET (and many other small schools) received Gates Foundation funding in a very different era of Gates funding. Many small, progressive schools received funding, but the test scores didn't rise quickly enough which led to Gates' current positions.

    I am very concerned with how unelected business people such as Bill Gates and Eli Broad are having a profound impact on education (and other) policy, given their vast financial resources.

    We are trending down a very anti-democratic path, and I am thrilled the New York Times took the time to connect the dots. Now, we have to decide what to do about it.

  3. Chris, I really appreciate your perspective, and the information that the Gates approach has evolved. Which tells me me it will evolve again, when the current crop of initiatives flops.

    For perspective, the entire Gates Foundation endowment could not fund the US Department of Education for one year. ED provides between 7 and 9% of K-12 funding. So beyond any shadow of a doubt Gates money is noisy way beyond its potential for impact.

    Wonder what they're gonna fund in the next era of Gates Funding? Without the accountability that derives from elections they are free to wander off to their next initiative as soon as they discover they're wasting money on the current crop. And so forth.

    Democracy, messy as it is, can actually promote efficiency.