By John Radosta, a Boston Public School parent
The legend of Bill Gates and his rise from college dropout to billionaire is fixed in everyone’s mind. Now he is known for his philanthropy, and his desire to cure every ill from malaria to education, to helping design the next generation toilet in China. Today I’ll skip the potty humor and focus on his involvement in educational matters.
What is it about Bill Gates, along with the bulk of advocates for corporate “Ed Reform” that makes him such an expert on what’s wrong with our public schools? They call themselves “Impatient Optimists.” Historian Diane Ravitch, author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” calls them the “Billionaires Boys’ Club.”
I don’t think it’s his personal experience attending the horrific (or heroic, if you look at what Garfield High teachers have accomplished over the past year) Seattle Public Schools. He never went there. Instead, Gates, whose father was a prominent lawyer, and whose mother and grandfather were involved in banking (she served on the board of directors for Interstate BancSystem, her father was a bank president) attended the private Lakeside School. Now his children go there as well. The Lakeside School offers its teachers a median salary of $60,900, which is just below the Seattle average, but far above the national average of $44,000. Of those teachers, 79% have advanced degrees. With a student to teacher ratio of 8:1, it boasts an average class size of 16, puts on 30+ performances a year, and between the upper and lower schools has two libraries totaling over 112,000 volumes.
You would think that, having attended this kind of school, and trusting it to educate his own children, Gates would support similar programs for all students. But that just isn’t the case. Instead, the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation has spent millions upon millions of dollars supporting schools, teachers, practices and class sizes that are the polar opposite of what the Lakeside school offers its 800 students. It has also paid massive sums to media outlets, including Education Week and NPR, to further its anti-public education, pro-privatization agenda.
So just where has the Gates Foundation spent its money?
Taking apart Boston’s High Schools
Several years ago, perhaps thinking of his own school days, Bill Gates decided that smaller high schools were better than large ones. Instead of investing in hiring more teachers to staff such schools, he gave $35 million to his Small Schools Initiative. He gave more than $13 million to the Boston Public Schools.
In 2005, BPS carved up Hyde Park High and West Roxbury High School into smaller, career-themed schools, the process failed to take into account things even as basic as how the school’s team would now function, and with three different headmasters in a single building and no real support, BPS closed the Hyde Park High building entirely in 2012. However, even though Gates admitted the Small Schools Initiative didn’t work, he gave no money to Boston to clean up the resulting mess.
Charter School Expansion
The most prominent is in the push for more charter schools, which typically use a one-size-fits all, “no excuses” curriculum taught by inexperienced recent college graduates. Gates has consistently praised charter schools, especially the KIPP chain, and donated $30 million to its Houston, Texas branches. Closer to his own home, though the voters of Washington had consistently voted against allowing charter schools in their state, this past year, pro-charter groups once again made a push for them on last year’s ballot. Over the course of 2012, Gates donated $3.05 million dollars to the cause, making him the largest donor out of several billionaires to overwhelm the accounts of many parent and educator groups who were opposed to the bill. Once it passed, the Foundation pledged another $800,000 to start a charter incubator. Last December, the Foundation donated $25 million to seven cities to support charter expansion. Boston received $3 million of that money.
Stand for Children
Stand for Children, which has made recent headlines in Boston, is another darling of the Gates Foundation. Though it began as a grassroots organization in Oregon, dedicated to increasing the funding of public schools and ensuring that impoverished students received proper medical care, the group was co-opted by Gates and other groups such as the Walton (of Walmart) Foundation, JP Morgan Chase, and Bain Capital. Just as Walmart’s business model includes invading small towns and out-pricing the competition into bankruptcy, Stand advocates closing schools, using tests that were designed to track general student performance to fire individual teachers and to replace them with uncertified, untrained recent college graduates such as those from Teach for America. It strongly supports charter schools, which, like Walmart, oppose a well-paid, unionized workforce. Stand’s CEO, Jonah Edelman, gloated about how Stand used dirty tricks and bribed politicians in what he thought was the breaking of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Teach for America
Since at least 2009, the Gates Foundation has granted more than $12 million to Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America. What started as a Peace Corps-like program in which Ivy League graduates commit to teaching for two years in the neediest schools that had trouble attracting teachers, it has grown into a massively funded “non-profit” that displaces certified veteran teachers to provide a constant turnover of temporary workers, some of whom get their own publically-provided apartments!
As part of the deal with states that employ TFA, teachers are given state-certification after performing only five weeks of training. Teachers receive the same salaries as their colleagues, but states or districts also pay TFA between $3000 and $6000 per teacher. That’s a very healthy profit for a non-profit. TFA also uses a very strong political arm to place many of its two-year veterans in positions of power, which results in some cases in allowing it to influence negotiations on both sides of a contract. The Black Agenda Report calls TFA nothing more than a scab organization.
Bill Gates has been “stuck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.” To that end, he is constantly searching for new ways to measure our way to success. For several years, he advocated using student test scores to measure teacher success, a process known as “Value Added Models” or VAM. The idea may sound logical, except that standardized tests, such as MCAS, are designed to measure whether students in general are advancing, not individual students, which is how the tests are now reported. On top of that, these tests are now being touted as being able to measure a teacher’s performance, without taking into account whether that teacher even taught a particular student. After several years of trying to advance this belief, Gates seemed to have reversed his position in the spring, noting the risk of using “hastily contrived, unproven measures.”
However, just this summer, he donated $10 million to the Denver Public Schools for a teacher evaluation plan that uses student performance on standardized tests as part of the measure. Massachusetts, thanks to the efforts of Stand for Children, has instituted a similar system which is being rolled out over the next two years. It’s important to note that students at the Lakeside School do not take Washington’s state tests, nor are its teachers evaluated according to their students’ test scores.
As I’ve told some of this to people, I’ve constantly heard, “So why doesn’t this get reported?” The mass of “education reporting” on Ed Reform is, in reality, just the repetition of what the Gates Foundation, TFA, Stand, and the others tell reporters. Except for columnists like the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss and bloggers like Diane Ravitch, and the anonymous diggers like Louisiana’s Crazy Crawfish, New Jersey’s Jersey Jazzman and Massachusetts’ own Edushyster, there is very little investigation into the claims they make. But why?
Well, perhaps much of it is due to the large and strategic donations the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation makes to education reporting outlets. For example, see the frightening expose by Susan Ohanian, who documents the millions spent on NPR’s education coverage, which includes an episode of Talk of the Nation, in which the interviewer, interviewee and the subject matter were all supported by Gates, without a single disclosure of the fact. If NPR is for sale in its reporting, it’s no wonder that newspapers like the Boston Globe, which have to fight for access to newsmakers, are more willing to accept what they’re told by the billionaires than to go looking for itself. Ohanian also points out that Gates gave $2 million to Education Week, a periodical for school personnel. In the years since, it has begun to vaunt the Ed Reform tactics favored by the corporate sector, so that even educators are being fed the same lines without examination.
Perhaps the most frightening project supported by the Gates Foundation is the database inBloom, on which it has spent $100 million. In collaboration with Amazon.com and Jeff Bozos (now owner of the Washington Post), Pearson Education (owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and maker of tests and curriculum guides for those tests. See their recent debacles about talking pineapples and erroneous scoring), Gates has recently unveiled inBloom, a massive database that will collect every bit of student data, including scores, discipline records, Special Education status, even personal interests, for the purpose of creating targeted (and lucrative) worksheets that can be marketed directly to parents. The database has already been launched in eight states, including Massachusetts (though only in Everett for now). There is no opt-out policy, and even FERPA had to be changed in order to accommodate the sharing of student data with third party providers, though the inBloom website notes merely that it is “in compliance” with the law. No plan has been put in place for the inevitable data-leakage (Amazon says it won’t be a problem). At first, the program will be free, but eventually states will pay $2 to $5 dollars per student record. There is no word what will happen to the database upon a student’s graduation, but if Amazon, which already tracks consumers’ purchases and targets them with personalized ads, what is the likely result?
Again and again, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has used its massive funds to undercut public education, promote privatization, and to advocate for replacing trained, veteran teachers with a constant flow of temps who are ill-trained. While most research supports the idea that smaller class sizes lead to higher achievement, Gates has resisted advocating for more teachers, and even says that we should identify “the top 25% of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students” as if a class can expand exponentially without adverse affect. In a survey he funded himself, that’s just what he found. The Foundation’s support for massive testing and technology programs that will lead to profits for private companies is clear. Instead of promoting the practices and advantages students at the Lakeside and similar schools enjoy, it envisions for the vast majority of America’s children a rote, test-driven schooling that will surely put them at a disadvantage when they compete for leadership roles in the future.
The Gates Foundation has done great things for malaria research, though there’s debate about its suppressing research for ideas it doesn’t like. Perhaps it should put efforts there instead of education. Or building that next generation of toilets in China.