Tag Archives: Bill and Melinda Gates

When billionaires get bored.

I was flipping through my twitter feed just the other day when I came across a story out of the US that caught my eye.

It seems that uber-billionaires, Bill and Melinda Gates, through their somewhat uncreatively monikered Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are planning on earmarking approximately ten million dollars over the next little while for teacher professional development programs, training educators to use what the organization is calling “high quality” curricula. This targeted funding is part of a much larger initiative which will see the organization pump somewhere around $1.7 billion into the American K-12 system by 2022.

According to the story, the money will not go into developing new curriculum from scratch, but will, instead, be given to folks who “will work to improve how teachers are taught to use and modify existing series”. In essence, the money will be used to identify and support specific professional development “services, products and models” that are determined to be worthy of consideration, and which align themselves with common core curriculum standards.

In order to determine what curricula can be used for this training, the foundation will be relying on the expertise of a not-for-profit called EdReports.org,  a group which issues consumer-style reports of various curriculum documents and material. Anyone who wants to access the Gates’ money will need to develop their teacher training programs and resources around curricula that has received a high rating from that organization, or from similar not-for-profits like Student Achievement Partners or Achieve, Inc. The money is not chump change either. The Gates Foundation is looking at distributing ten, $1 million dollar grants to successful applicants.

Oh, where to begin.

Let’s start by acknowledging that this is not the Gates’ first foray into public education. Their last pet project, The Intensive Partnership for Effective Teaching, spent seven years and somewhere in the vicinity of $1 billion developing metrics for evaluating “high quality” teachers (not to be confused with this new effort to measure “high quality” curricula). That initiative saw teachers being evaluated by a Gates Foundation approved marking scheme, with those who scored well-being paid more money than those who did not, a system commonly known as merit pay. The theory was that if you identified high quality teachers, you could pay the good ones more money and weed out the bad ones. This would undoubtedly increase the quality of teachers in the classroom and improve student outcomes, at least according to the Gates’.

Only a few short months ago, that project suffered a rather inglorious end. In June of 2018, a report from RAND, commissioned by the foundation  itself, determined that these efforts to improve the quality of American teachers and increase graduation rates had actually done neither. The study found that the initiative had no-effect on teacher retention, and saw no change in graduation rates in districts where it was implemented. In fact, many critics feel that the Gates’ effort actually did more harm than good, causing undue and unnecessary political turmoil and distracting from other, perhaps more promising efforts.

So, naturally, the Gates’ feel they should now try their hand at curriculum.

The abject arrogance of the uber-rich is sometime hard to wrap one’s head around, (which I suppose may be a reason why more of us aren’t uber-rich). And although the RAND report was quite clear on what was  not achieved by Gates ill-fated attempt to reform teaching, it was not quite as clear on what damage may have been wrought by the effort. The foundation, although acknowledging their failure, actually expressed some satisfaction that the effort did drive some useful conversations about education as a whole. I doubt the people directly impacted by this initiative would be similarly satisfied. Considering the efforts focused on teacher evaluation, (as well as advancing the cause of charter schools across America), I would hazard a guess that more than one promising career was ended, (and more than one public school closed) due to what in the end was a failed experiment.

A closer look at EdReports.org, the organization tasked with determining what “quality” curriculum looks like, also raises some fairly pointed questions. The homepage for that organization reads like a who’s who of the one percent, with names like the Schusterman family, Charles and Helen Schwab, and telecommunications giant Broadcom proudly on display as major contributors. The devil in this particular detail is that the Gates themselves have apparently also supported EdReports to the tune of $15 million since 2015. As to the other two not-for-profits mentioned as reliable clearinghouses for what constitutes high quality curricula, both have received Gates’ grants in the tens of millions of dollars since 1999.

It may give those of us in the 99th percentile further cause for pause to know that for the fiscal year that ended in June of 2017, Achieve Inc paid its President and its Chief Operations Officer salaries that hovered in the range of 300k.  The top three execs at Student Achievement Partners raked in similar amounts.

I believe I may have to adjust my understanding of the phrase “not-for-profit”.

It is the Gates’ money to fritter as they will, of course, but this one has a bit of a stench to it. In essence, the Gates Foundation is offering Gates Foundation approved money to train teachers through Gates Foundation approved programs in the use of Gates Foundation approved curriculum. Put another way, a whole generation of young Americans will be learning exactly what the one-percent wants them to learn.

What could possibly go wrong?

The Gates’ effort did not happen in a vacuum, of course. Even here in far-flung Nova Scotia, we have not been spared the impact of the bordering-on-hysteria accountability conversation. Indeed, just recently a brand new set of teaching standards have been rolled out under which Nova Scotia teachers will be professionally evaluated. The demand for this “new and improved” model was very much driven, as it was in the US, by the questionable narrative of failing schools and under-performing teachers.  One has to wonder how long it will be before we start reading stories about how our own provincial curricula is not “preparing students to compete in the global market-place”, and how a new model, developed by some not-for-profit edu-preneur, can offer a solution.

Saints preserve us all from the wrath of the bored billionaire.



Filed under Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, Public education