Gates Foun­da­tion fail­ures

Pakistan Observer - - EDITORIALS & COMMENTS -

TUCKED

away in a let­ter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion last week, along with proud notes about the foun­da­tion’s ef­forts to fight smok­ing and trop­i­cal dis­eases and its other ac­com­plish­ments, was a sec­tion on ed­u­ca­tion. Its tone was un­mis­tak­ably chas­tened. “We’re fac­ing the fact that it is a real strug­gle to make sys­temwide change,” wrote the foun­da­tion’s CEO, Sue Des­mondHell­man. And a few lines later: “It is re­ally tough to cre­ate more great pub­lic schools.” The Gates Foun­da­tion’s first sig­nif­i­cant foray into ed­u­ca­tion re­form, in 1999, re­volved around Bill Gates’ con­vic­tion that the big prob­lem with high schools was their size. Stu­dents would be bet­ter off in smaller schools of no more than 500, he be­lieved. The foun­da­tion funded cre­ation of smaller schools, un­til its own study found that the size of school didn’t make much dif­fer­ence in stu­dent per­for­mance. When the foun­da­tion moved on, school dis­tricts were left with costlier-to-run small schools.

Then the foun­da­tion set its sights on im­prov­ing teach­ing, specif­i­cally through eval­u­at­ing and re­ward­ing good teach­ing. But it was not al­ways suc­cess­ful. In 2009, it pledged a gift of up to $100 mil­lion to the Hills­bor­ough County, Florida, schools to fund bonuses for high­per­form­ing teach­ers, to re­vamp teacher eval­u­a­tions and to fire the low­est-per­form­ing 5%. In re­turn, the school district promised to match the funds. But, ac­cord­ing to re­ports in the Tampa Bay Times, the Gates Foun­da­tion changed its mind about the value of bonuses and stopped short of giv­ing the last $20 mil­lion; costs bal­looned be­yond ex­pec­ta­tions, the schools were left with too big a tab and the least-ex­pe­ri­enced teach­ers still ended up at low-in­come schools. The pro­gramme, eval­u­a­tion sys­tem and all, was dumped. The Gates Foun­da­tion strongly sup­ported the pro­posed Com­mon Core cur­ricu­lum stan­dards, help­ing to bankroll not just their de­vel­op­ment, but the po­lit­i­cal ef­fort to have them quickly adopted and im­ple­mented by states. Here, Des­mond-Hell­mann wrote in her May let­ter, the foun­da­tion also stum­bled. The too-quick in­tro­duc­tion of Com­mon Core, and at­tempts in many states to hold schools and teach­ers im­me­di­ately ac­count­able for a very dif­fer­ent form of teach­ing, led to a pub­lic backlash. “Un­for­tu­nately, our foun­da­tion un­der­es­ti­mated the level of re­sources and sup­port re­quired for our pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems to be well-equipped to im­ple­ment the stan­dards,” Des­mond-Hell­mann wrote. “We missed an early op­por­tu­nity to suf­fi­ciently en­gage ed­u­ca­tors — par­tic­u­larly teach­ers — but also par­ents and com­mu­ni­ties, so that the ben­e­fits of the stan­dards could take flight from the be­gin­ning.

It was a re­mark­able ad­mis­sion for a foun­da­tion that had often acted as though it did have all the an­swers. To­day, the Gates Foun­da­tion is clearly re­think­ing its bust-the-walls­down strat­egy on ed­u­ca­tion — as it should. And so should the politi­cians and pol­i­cy­mak­ers, from the fed­eral level to the lo­cal, who have given the ed­u­ca­tional wishes of Bill and Melinda Gates and other well-mean­ing phi­lan­thropists and foun­da­tions too much sway in re­cent years over how schools are run. That’s not to say wealthy re­form­ers have noth­ing to of­fer pub­lic schools. They’ve funded some out­stand­ing char­ter schools for low-in­come stu­dents. They’ve helped bring health­care to schools. They’ve funded arts pro­grammes. But the Gates Foun­da­tion has spent so much money — more than $3 bil­lion since 1999 — that it took on an un­healthy amount of power in the set­ting of ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy. The foun­da­tion’s teachereval­u­a­tion push led to an overem­pha­sis on count­ing stu­dent test scores as a ma­jor por­tion of teach­ers’ per­for­mance rat­ings — even though Gates him­self even­tu­ally warned against mov­ing too hastily or care­lessly in that di­rec­tion. Now sev­eral of the states that quickly em­braced that method of eval­u­at­ing teach­ers are back­ing away from it. Phi­lan­thropists are not gen­er­ally ed­u­ca­tion ex­perts, and even if they hire schol­ars and ex­perts, pub­lic of­fi­cials shouldn’t be al­low­ing them to set the pol­icy agenda for the na­tion’s pub­lic schools. The Gates ex­pe­ri­ence teaches once again that ed­u­ca­tional sil­ver bul­lets are in short sup­ply and that some ed­u­ca­tional trends live only a lit­tle longer than mayflies. — Los An­ge­les Times

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