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Thompson: The Gates Foundation's Belated Evolution

5371034806_8663520ab4After 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. 


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Can Ed Reformers walk and chew gum and the same time?
Thank you for this synopsis and analysis. The videos of Melinda Gates and Diane Ravitch were informative and helpful. Indeed -- it does seem like "the bind ones and the elephant."

Yes - "...certainly schools are failing to undo the legacies of generational poverty and trauma." And yes teachers, parents, curricula, assessment, class size, leadership, facilities, food, technology...

Where are all the systems thinkers in 'ed reform'? -- For all the talk of science and evidence, there seems to be a lack of complexity and multivariate analysis. Its like we cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.

Lets bring social and emotional competencies into the process of systems change. Words are important. It may be time to take the advice of John Goodlad and abandon the language of reform and start talking about transformation - which implies everyone is engaged in reflection, self-evaluation, learning, and change.

From what I know of the Gates Foundation, it is also spending many millions of dollars to alleviate poverty AND it is working to improve education. Glad the light went on for you - now, slowly, back away from the elephant and open your eyes.


I hope I made it clear that the light went on as to how they spent so much money in such damaging ways. If you can't see how destructive their policies are, I wonder if you are touching the elephant or a sleeveless pineapple.

Thanks for bringing up the key issue. How can supports for curriculum be remotely as important as aligned supports for socio-emotional?

I support Mark's comments. No one seems to be thinking systemtically when it comes to edreform. You can't make change to human systems by focusing on only one part of the system, or reducing the topic to improving teacher competencies. Complex systems do not adapt or thrive in this way. My article "Will Small Part Fixes Save Public Schools?" discusses this lack of focus on systems-thinking. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-moment-youth/201109/will-small-part-fixes-save-public-schools.

Thanks, John, for a thought-provoking article.

I think it still comes down to the fact that anyone involved in the Gates' foundation cannot directly comprehend the struggle that so many of the individuals it’s trying to help face daily.

John ... Can you name reformers who are demonizing teachers with support from Gates? Maybe then the next time Alexander has lunch with Bill he can tell him not to throw money to them.

John, I agree that the most-challenged students need socio-emotional support (as well as parents with living-wage jobs and the parenting skills to create a stable environment). But I also understand why reformers concentrate on stuctural issues (often a waste of time, to me) and curriculum (actually very important, and not just for the most-challenged students). They concentrate on those issues because we actually have no idea how to alleviate poverty. Income support can help, but it's not the whole story. Social/emotional supports need to be there, but they have disappointing outcomes much of the time. I've had plenty of students whose families were not technically poor but who showed all of the barriers poor students show; and I've had students living on almost nothing who did fine. The complexity of this scenario is daunting.

Yes, The complexity of addressing the socio-emotional is complex and daunting. That is why previous reforms in education and other service providing institutions have had such modest results. And we don't even know if we humans are yet wise enough to bring solutions to scale. So, it is understandable that reformers were tempted by the quick, cheap and easier teacher-centered approach that they adopted. But they've shown once again that for every complex problem there is a simple solution - that is wrong.

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