Thompson: The Gates Foundation (Again) Fails to Address Poverty
Anthony Cody is hosting a dialogue with the Gates Foundation at Living in Dialogue. In the latest round, Press Secretary Chris Williams faced a particularly daunting task. He needed to answer Cody's comprehensive analysis of how the foundation has ignored the effects of poverty on teaching and learning. And, Williams needed to do so as education writer Paul Tough previewed his How Children Succeed, an analysis on what it takes to overcome poverty.
As numerous commenters noted, the Gates response was particularly tepid. Williams replied, "It seems Cody gives the foundation far too much credit in his assessment of its influence." He then concluded:What we can't do, however, is address all of the problems that put or keep families in poverty. We just don't have the resources to do that. But we are part of a community of donors who are committed to eliminating the causes of poverty. We believe the most effective philanthropic efforts are ones that remain focused on addressing particular problems and are creative about their approach to supporting solutions. That philosophy is based on the data and research of successful philanthropy."
Being a patient optimist, I hope the last sentence helps explain where the Gates Foundation went wrong when it rushed into contemporary school reform debates. They neglected to consult social science data and research into the nature of teaching and learning.
The first step should be to reread Cody's post and ask why such a powerful foundation was unable to respond. He explained that, "As many as one-third of children living in our country's violent urban neighborhoods have PTSD, according to recent research and the country's top child trauma experts - nearly twice the rate reported for troops returning from war zones in Iraq." Cody then described "dramatic drops in test scores for children who were exposed to violence. 'If a murder occurred in a child's neighborhood -- an area of roughly six to 10 square blocks as denoted by the U.S. Census -- the children's test scores fell by an average of half a standard deviation.'"
Cody then cited the effect of concentrated poverty on test scores in Texas. He then recounted some of his hard-earned knowledge of the effect on concentrated poverty. The emphasis is mine. Perhaps I am naïve, but I am struck by the way that edu-philanthropists, and other newcomers to education, misstate the issue and ask the wrong questions. The question is not whether poverty matters. The question is whether their theories can account for intense concentrations of generational poverty. Frankly, I have yet to read a paper by the Gates Foundation that has adequately addressed the challenges of neighborhood schools with high percentages of "extreme poverty."
That brings us to Tough's New York Times Magazine article, "What Does Obama Really Believe In?" Tough summarizes the research of William Julius Wilson regarding the unique challenges faced by "the truly disadvantaged," as opposed to kids from situational poverty. Tough also describes the work of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and its huge body of social science research that explains the folly of relatively cheap and easy solutions to complex problems.
The Consortium's work is doubly important because it shows how easy it is for very smart and sincere people to misunderstand the effects of intense concentrations of extreme poverty on schools. As Tough explains, during the early days of the contemporary school reform movement, the Consortium identified 46 schools that were thought to be "demographic twins." The first phase of their study indicated that the schools that improved were characterized by excellent leadership and a focus on the "instructional triangle," where teachers and students focus on classroom instruction. A generation later, the Consortium has documented the opposite. As it turned out, the improved schools did not face the same challenges; their neighborhoods had lower levels of violence, foster homes, and trauma. In other words, any novice making a snap judgment based on the Consortium's preliminary evidence drew the wrong conclusions.
Unfortunately, twenty years ago the data-driven accountability movement burst onto the scene. They not only jumped to simplistic solutions but they proved extremely effective in convincing corporate donors to fund their silver bullets. I have yet to see evidence that when the Gates Foundation began its work that it was more prudent in diagnosing the complexities of school reform in our toughest communities.
That should bring us back to Williams' statement that the Gates Foundation should remain focused on the particular problems that they set out to study. If their goal is to discover better methods of teaching in order to overcome poverty, they should heed the evidence and adjust. By now, it should be obvious that their theories regarding value-added evaluations were particularly ill-considered.
Now that the Gates Foundation has done a few years of its own research, and reached conclusions that are far more modest than they anticipated, its leadership should reconsider the wisdom of other scholars, and practitioners like Anthony Cody, and think anew. I will be looking forward to the next two exchanges and to future policy statements by the Gates Foundation.JT(@drjohnthompson)Image via.