Voices in Education

Here We Go Again: Technology Giant to Rescue Public Education
On October 19, 2017, Bill Gates announced that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would invest $1.7 billion in public education in the United States. That should be cause for celebration and, indeed, many probably are celebrating—researchers, consultants, and other entities that will compete for 60 percent of the $1.7 billion that will go to curricula development and network building among schools; charter school operators that will have access to 15 percent of the largesse; and a mystery pool that will have access to the 25 percent that will go toward “big bets” (Camera 2017). More on the 25 percent in a moment.

With history as our guide, I suggest that deep caution is a more apt response to the announcement. The Gates Foundation has been investing in education in the United States since 2000, yielding more than $2 billion in the Small Schools Initiative (2000–2008), followed by $700 million in its teacher quality agenda and more than $200 million in the Common Core State Standards initiative. The small schools experiment ended in disappointment, with Gates declaring that “simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for.”  The interlocking system of metrics, high-stakes testing, and teacher evaluations did little to improve teacher quality or education outcomes while contributing to a narrowing of curricula; the elimination of art, music, and physical education from many schools; steep declines in teacher morale; and hefty costs associated with administering and grading the tests. Strong parent, student, and teacher resistance to high-stakes testing inspired many state legislatures to delay or outright abandon these tests, a process made easier by passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 (Ferman 2017). As for the Common Core, it too began with a bang and ended with a whimper. According to a foundation spokesperson, the “foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards” (Camera 2017).

If this were a baseball game, the Gates Foundation would be sent to the dugout. But it is education, our most cherished institution, and therefore, the foundation gets to step up to the plate yet again. Back to the 25 percent that will go for “big bets” that “have the potential to change the trajectory of public education over the next ten to fifteen years” (Camera 17). “Big bets” are what justify “big earnings” in the economic market and in casinos. They have no place in education. Fortunately, Gates, by his own admission, is data driven and looking for evidence-based practices. We have plenty of research on the negative consequences of inequitable funding for education; on the impacts of trauma on executive functions of the brain and the consequent need for trauma-informed teaching; on the relationship between physical health and learning ability. We also have research from international school systems that outperform US schools. Guess what? They do everything we don’t do (e.g., invest heavily in teachers as professionals; distribute resources equitably; treat education as a community good; expect all students to succeed) and they don’t do what we do (e.g., engage in high-stakes testing; create fierce competition between schools; treat education as a consumer good). Investing in these evidence-based practices would be cause for celebration among those of us who want to see holistic, meaningful, quality education for all students as opposed to yet another losing bet.

Camera, Lauren. 2017. “Gates Foundation to Shift Education Focus.” U.S. News & World Report. https://www.usnews.com/news/education-news/articles/2017-10-19/gates-foundation-pledges-17-billion-to-k-12-education-will-focus-on-building-school-networks.
Elkind, Peter. 2015. “Business Gets Schooled.” Fortune. http://fortune.com/common-core-standards/.
Ferman, Barbara. 2017. The Fight for America’s Schools: Grassroots Organizing in Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Gates, Bill. 2009. “2009 Annual Letter.” https://docs.gatesfoundation.org/Documents/2009-bill-gates-annual-letter.pdf.
Sawchuk, Stephen. 2013. “Gates Foundation Places Big Bet on Teacher Agenda.” Education Week 33, no. 11 (November): 1, 16, 18–20. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/11/06/11gates_ep.h33.html.

About the Author: Barbara Ferman is professor of Political Science at Temple University.  She has published four books and numerous articles on education, urban politics and policy, and civic engagement. She is the editor of The Fight for America's Schools: Grassroots Organizing in Education (Harvard Education Press, 2017).