Thompson: The Gates Foundation's Belated Evolution
After watching the Melinda Gates interview on the PBS NewsHour, and Diane Ravitch's rebuttal, I better understand how the Gates Foundation, and its allies, have gone wrong. I suspect these reformers would disagree as to whether education as a whole is broken, but certainly schools are failing to undo the legacies of generational poverty and trauma.
I don't see how anyone can deny that there has been a systematic effort to scapegoat teachers and that it has escalated into demonization. I would not demonize Gates, however, for the foundation's role in supporting "reformers" who demonize teachers. After all, the Gates Foundation (belatedly) seems to also be listening to their opposites - advocates of peer review.
In her interview, Mrs. Gates recounted the three lessons learned from the Measuring Effective Teaching (MET) process which studied the practice of 3,000 teachers. Each solution, core curriculum, curriculum supports, and professional development, is directed towards efforts within the four walls of the classroom. That is not completely surprising because they have invested millions of dollars trying to study teaching and learning in the classroom. But it is hard to believe that socio-emotional supports did not make her top three.
Predictably, MET documents that teaching hasn't been effective enough to systemically overcome the concentrations of poverty and trauma. Gates then praised peer review evaluations as a means of improving instruction. But, she also endorsed the abusive approach of Los Angeles!?!? Ms. Gates also acknowledged that "some" pain will occur before we get evaluations right.
It is at this point where Gates needs to listen to Ravitch, the historian. In her interview, Ravitch explained how education's failures are due to poverty and racial isolation. She cited the sad history of reformers making "the wrong bet" when trying to improve school systems, and said that teachers are being demonized.
Rewatching the interviews, a light went on. The problem is that in education (as in all of life?) we are all like the proverbial blind men seeing the part of the elephant they are touching. We all agree that urban education, systemically, is broken. The MET project, however, has only touched classroom instruction and, of course, it found that teaching is not measuring up to the task that reformers have given it.
But, what if Gates researchers spent the same time watching videos of the actual home lives of 3,000 of our most traumatized students? What if they videotaped a sample of 3,000 principals meetings? What if they studied 3,000 faculty meetings and saw the way that the policies, that sound fine in theory, are actually dumped on teachers? If Ms. Gates watched videos of the interactions between management and teachers, I do not think she would deny that we are being demonized.
Ms. Gates might be less sanguine about core curriculum supports if she watched 3,000 professional development sessions and saw how many of them are actually the opposite of Common Core ideals. And what if we graded the actual sausage-making in testing companies where assessments are created?
Even better, what if the MET project videotaped 3,000 reform leaders like Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, John Deasy, and other allies of the "billionaires boys club?" If she thinks that Ravitch's words are tough, she might ask what it would be like if her career was at the mercy of zealots like them. Then, she might have a different perspective of the pain that comes in implementing the Gates Foundation's theories.
If the system is "fundamentally broken," why not grade the efforts of "reform" leaders while they are at the work of producing "structural change," and not just making nice with their benefactors? The ideal corrective for being a blind man "seeing" a part of the elephant would be watching thousands of hours of videos of previous reformers as they designed well-intentioned reforms that failed. Lacking that, anyone who hopes to improve schools should read more education history. Bill and Melinda Gates should begin by reading and rereading all of Diane Ravich's work.