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Thompson: Mixed Feelings Regarding Gates' Edu-Philanthropy

ConsistencyF. Scott Fitzgerald said that we must “hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

I joined conservative Rick Hess in reaching out to the Gates Foundation, urging them to research the ways that poverty undermines their “teacher quality” approach to school reform. The Gates Foundation’s Steve Cantrell responded; we had a 90 minute telephone conversation. Hess, in Aftermath: My Note to the Gates Foundation published both of our reflections on the exchange.

I challenged the Gates position that its focus on teachers alone in the classroom can improve high-poverty schools. Of course, their approach can be beneficial. The policy issue, however, is how will they be used, constructively and destructively. How, I asked, can teachers not oppose reforms that can be beneficial before concrete checks and balances for the inevitable misuses are nailed down?

To his credit, Cantrell responded, “John mentioned the need to put safeguards in place before teaching effectiveness measures are used for consequences. I couldn't agree more.” Cantrell didn't indicate that the foundation will take action to help teachers gain such protections from laws that have already be been passed. But, I am hopeful that the dialogue will continue.

I was unnerved, however, when I then read Anthony Cody’s What Will It Take to Educate the Gates Foundation?. Cody explained why the value added evaluations pushed by Gates are a disaster. He recounted the futility and the dangers of the edu-philanthropists’ embrace of charter schools, and how “Common Core and the high stakes accountability system in which it is embedded is on its way to the graveyard of grand ideas.”

What if Anthony is right and I'm wrong in reaching out?

Cody recalled Bill Gates’ 2008 statement that “They (the public schools and educators) have to give us the opportunity for this experimentation.” Six years later their top-down experiment has demonstrably failed. As Cody concludes,the only question remaining is how long Gates and his employees and proxies will remain wedded to their ideas, and continue to push them through their sponsored advocacy, even when these policies have been proven to be ill-founded and unworkable.”

This leads to two sets of contradictory conclusions. It was laudable that the foundation would invest more than $40 million dollars on the Measures for Effective Teaching experiment. It is regrettable that Gates pushed for dramatic and risky changes in federal and state laws before seeing whether his experiment would yield evidence that incorporating test results in teachers’ evaluation would help or harm students.

Since the laws were changed in 2009 and 2010, and the MET’s findings were published in 2013, much more evidence has come in. I find it hard to believe that persons of good will, such as those at the Gates Foundation, would have headed down the value-added accountability path if they knew back then what is known now.  If we take Bill Gates at his word, and I do, he will look at the evidence that his grand experiment has produced not only in controlled experimental conditions, but also in schools around the nation. If he does, I hope Gates will change gears, and join us in a completely different approach to school improvement.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.    

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