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Events: Gates Foundation Stays Course In Much-Changed Environment

Even with a big Bill & Melinda appearance and a PBS NewsHour segment, what was actually going on at the conference – first big one like this since 2009, they said -- was no real match for outside events taking place in the education world: indictments against the former head of the Chicago schools, a pro-charter protest/rally in New York City, Clinton and Sanders’ refusal to appear at the Iowa education debate organized by Campbell Brown and the Des Moines Register, and apparently some sort of sneak attempt to get ESEA done at the same time as the Republicans were trying to pick a new House Speaker.

Even if it had been a quieter week in education-land, I’m not sure that the event would have attracted all that much notice:

First and foremost, Gates wasn't announcing any major change in direction (or funding levels). According to Gates, "I believe we are on the right track. For today, and for the coming years, this is our vision: Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal. And all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests."

"Did Bill Gates just con a bunch of people into watching a speech that says the Gates Foundation is doing good work?," quipped EdWeek's Ross Brenneman.

Just as important, the Gates Foundation isn't as much the frightening behemoth as it was a decade ago, or even four years ago.

Back in 2005 or even 2010, the Gates Foundation was perceived as the big bully on the block – aggressive, immodest – or in other corners as the potential savior of public education – I suppose. It was a new funder. There was lots of money going out. Microsoft, the source of Gates' money, was somewhat frightening in its ubiquity. Then it seemed like there were all sorts of linkages between the Gates Foundation and the Obama administration.

But all that seems quaint and old timey a decade later in 2015, what with the fierce, focused efforts of other funders who have come to prominence (Walton, Broad, Bloomberg, etc.). Unlike those others, Gates isn’t pushing charter school growth for growth’s sake, and it doesn’t barely count as a funder of Teach For America. The Walton Family Foundation was conspicuously left out when Gates gave shout outs to other funders (Broad, Bloomberg, Hyde, Schusterman) who have joined the effort.

Just as important, there's also been the rise of other big tech companies like Google and Amazon (and to some extent Apple) to scare us with their email-scanning, dominate-the-world ways. No one seems really worried about Microsoft -- or the Gates Foundation -- taking over the world. The current Seattle construction boom is being fueled by Amazon, thank you very much. It was the Gates' who urged caution on linking test scores to teacher evaluations. 

That doesn’t mean that some folks don’t lump all the funders together, of course, or that there isn’t any controversy surrounding the Gates Foundation. The inBloom implosion wasn’t too long ago, and the foundation is a big big supporter of the Common Core standards that some educators and politicians find so objectionable. Leonie, Anthony, and the person in charge of the BATs Twitter account expressed their ongoing displeasure with the foundation via Twitter. (According to the BATs Twitter feed, the Gates Foundation "has broken hearts of children and teachers in this country - time to get out of public ed. policy.")

The current Gates Foundation affect is urgent but modest. There wasn’t a lot of talk about ‘disrupting’ the education system. In fact, now that I think of it, maybe there should have been more of that.  This was their main point (and sole visual):

Where is the Gates Foundation on the Learning Line?

"We're here to keeping moving up that line" - @BillGates @gatesed #GatesEd #edchat pic.twitter.com/CMlKzQ2Rcw

— michael j. crawford (@mjcraw) October 7, 2015

While there weren't any big programmatic or funding announcement, there were some notable lines delivered in the speeches and panels:

Melinda Gates made a key point about how difficult it can be to persuade parents who have figured out a good school, program, or teacher for their child to help make things better for the rest of the school or district. "That's been hard."

Allan Goolston noted that schools are segregated by programs and floors, a comment that reminded me of Bill Gates' 2008 remarks about how kids might all enter the same school doorway in the morning, their experiences in the building are very different.  

There was also a moment of acknowledgement and contrition regarding the Common Core rollout in reference to moments where "our foundation and others were perhaps naive about those [Common Core] rollouts."

Gates also acknowledged as he has in the past that helping move things forward in education has been harder than making changes in the health area:"Nobody votes to uninvent a malaria vaccine," he quipped in response to a question from Ifill. 

There's been no clear or definitive rise in test scores or other broad-based measures of student achievement: "Test scores in this country are not going up, but there are a few points of light."

I didn’t hear anyone talk about or even refer to inBloom, or whatever happened to the charter-district compact, or that teacher advocacy effort that Yolie Flores ran for a while before it closed shop.  The teachers’ strike in Seattle, the court’s finding against charter schools, and other related messes went unmentioned (at least as far as I heard).

At various times along the way it seemed unclear how much of a splash the foundation wanted to make in the outside world. There was some livestreaming and a hashtag and a press release touting the significance of the event, but if there was an agenda listed publicly it was hard to find and it was announced the second day that the livestreaming was being cut off:

For anyone following #GatesEd online, we won't have a livestream today. You can follow the #GatesEd hashtag for updates.

— Gates Education (@gatesed) October 8, 2015

There was also some upset and confusion about whether press were allowed to report on the interview with Ted Mitchell:

@LianaHeitin This session was closed press at request of speakers. Glad you got a 1:1 with Mitchell after. This tweet however is misleading.

— Jen Bluestein (@TheRealJenBlue) October 8, 2015

Heitin got a sit-down interview with Mitchell after the fact. Perhaps the White House or Education Department didn't want to fuel the sense of tight connections between the foundation and the Obama administration?

I was only at this conference by accident and at the last minute, filling in for some hapless staffer or grantee who didn’t want to talk about unlikely allies with some folks from Hillsborough (FL) and Austin (TX):

Unlikely allies take the stage w/ @alexanderrusso #gatesed pic.twitter.com/YTraHNTM38

— Suzanne Walsh (@sewsueme) October 8, 2015

I’ve moderated similar-ish panels about charter-union cooperation (at Yale) and union innovation (at AFT). I am not a Gates Foundation grantee, however the foundation did pay for my airfare and hotel costs, and some of my freelance clients over the years have most certainly been grantees.

For a roundup of media coverage (and some excellent detailed disclosure from EdWeek), head over to The Grade

Related posts: What The Post Gets Wrong About Gates & Common CoreHave Big Funders (Like Walton & Gates) Overtaken Think Tanks (Like Brookings)?Gates Shifts Strategy & Schools Get Smaller Share (Reckhow); Gates Reverses On Risky "ALEC" BetBill Gates' Warning On Test ScoresGates "Deep Dive" Winners Finally Surface.

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