A sketch of the $500 million new Gates Foundation headquarters
In Part 1 of this post, I described how the Gates Foundation came to recognize the importance of using political influence to reform the education system rather than focusing on reforming one school at a time in the hopes that school systems would see and replicate successful models. No private philanthropist has enough money to buy and sustain widespread adoption of an effective approach and the public school system has little incentive to identify and spread effective approaches on their own.
Faced with the unwillingness of the public school system to reproduce successful models (assuming that Gates could even offer one), the Foundation was left with two solutions to encourage innovation: 1) identify the best practices themselves and impose them from the top down, or 2) encourage choice and competition so that schools would have the proper incentive to identify, imitate, and properly implement effective approaches.
The Gates Foundation made the wrong choice. Their top-down strategy cannot work for the following reasons:
1) Education does not lend itself to a single “best” approach, so the Gates effort to use science to discover best practices is unable to yield much productive fruit;
As I’ve explained before, there are many different “best” techniques for different kinds of teachers with different kinds of students in different situations with different available resources. There are some practices that are universally beneficial in education, but they tend to be pretty obvious and are already well known (e.g. it is bad to beat kids, it is better when teachers know the material they are teaching, it is helpful to break down ideas into their essential components, etc…).
The difficulty of discovering universally beneficial practices that are not already well-known, especially with the blunt tools available to researchers probably helps explain why the Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) project, on which the Gates Foundation is spending $335 million has yet to produce any meaningful results despite entering its third year of operation.
2) As a result, the Gates folks have mostly been falsely invoking science to advance practices and policies they prefer for which they have no scientific support;
Despite having nothing to show for the $335 million they are spending on MET, the Gates folks nevertheless claim that it “proves” the harmfulness of teachers engaging in “drill and kill.” The fact that the research showed no such thing did not deter them from telling the NY Times and LA Times that it did. Even when I pointed out the error, the Gates folks refused to issue a correction (although the LA Times ran one on their own).
Similarly, the Gates-orchestrated effort to push national standards, curricular materials, and assessments is advancing without any scientific evidence of the desirability of these approaches. Gathering a group of Checker Finn’s friends (er, I mean, “a panel of experts”) to attest that the Common Core standards are better is not science. It is the false invocation of science to manipulate people into compliance with their agenda.
3) Attempting to impose particular practices on the nation’s education system is generating more political resistance than even the Gates Foundation can overcome, despite their focus on political influence and their devotion of significant resources to that effort;
Opponents of centralized control of education have begun to mobilize against the Gates-orchestrated effort to establish national standards, curricular materials, and assessments. But the bulk of the political resistance to the Gates strategy will come from the teacher unions. They don’t want anyone to infringe on their autonomy or place their interests in jeopardy with a nationalized accountability system. They may play along with Gates for a while and take their money, but when push comes to shove the unions can only tolerate one dictator in education — the unions. Of course, those of us who don’t want anyone centrally-controlling the nation’s education system will oppose both Gates and the teacher unions.
We already have a taste of the kind of resistance teacher unions will put up against the Gates nationalization effort in the slogans emanating from Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss’ Twitter feed, supported by their Army of Angry Teachers. Falsely claiming that MET proved that drill and kill is harmful did not mollify these folks at all.
The teacher unions derive far more power and money from the status quo than Gates can ever offer them, unless of course Gates builds a nationalized system and cedes control to the unions, which is not part of the Gates plan. Nothing in the Gates strategy weakens the unions and would force them to make significant concessions, so in the end the unions will either hijack the Gates strategy for their own benefit or block it. Even Gates does not have the resources to beat the unions without first diminishing their power.
4) The scale of the political effort required by the Gates strategy of imposing “best” practices is forcing Gates to expand its staffing to levels where it is being paralyzed by its own administrative bloat;
Over the last decade the Gates Foundation has roughly doubled its assets but increased its staffing by about 10-fold. The Foundation is now huge, which is part of why it needs the Education Pentagon pictured above to house everyone. The Foundation has gotten huge because it is trying to buy political influence as it buys people. Gates has been snapping up or funding just about every advocacy group, researcher, or education journalist they can find. Getting all of these people on board for a nationalized education system (or at least mute their dissent) involves paying an enormous number of people and organizations.
Gates can buy a lot of folks, but they can’t buy everyone and they can’t keep the folks they do pay in line for very long. It’s like herding cats. (I should note that I’ve received Gates Funding in the past).
And the sheer size of their staff and funded allies along with the focus on controlling the political message is so overwhelming that it is significantly hindering their ability to do anything. People inside the organization have told me that they are suffering from a bureaucratic gridlock with endless meetings, conference calls, and chains of approvals. Notice that Gates is paying a ton of researchers and yet virtually no research is coming out. Very curious.
5) The false invocation of science as a political tool to advance policies and practices not actually supported by scientific evidence is producing intellectual corruption among the staff and researchers associated with Gates, which will undermine their long-term credibility and influence.
As noted above, the need to advance a particular political message has led Gates to mischaracterize their own research (for example, claiming that MET proves that drill and kill is harmful when the research does not show that). But the intellectual corruption extends much farther. I had a highly respected and accomplished researcher employed by Gates tell me that Vicki Phillips’ mischaracterization of the MET results was not so far off because there isn’t a big difference between a low correlation and a negative one. He also defended comparing the magnitude of a series of pair-wise correlations to determine the relative influence of different variables. To hear someone who knows better twist the truth to avoid contradicting the education boss at Gates was just sad.
Unfortunately, too many advocates, researchers, and others are being similarly corrupted. In most cases the Gates folks don’t have to exert any explicit pressure on people to keep them in line; they just anticipate what they think would serve the Gates strategy. But I am aware of at least one case in which a researcher’s findings were at odds with the desired outcome and that person suffered for it.
I’ve heard another story from someone involved in the MET project that the delay in releasing any results from the analyses of classroom videos even as the project enters its third year is explained by their inability to find any meaningful results. Perhaps another year of data will make something turn up that they can finally tout for their $335 million investment. The fact that the initial MET report with basically no useful findings was released on a Friday just before Christmas suggests that the Gates folks are working hard to shape their message.
The national standards, curriculum, and testing campaign is rife with intellectual corruption. For example, people are twisting themselves into knots to explain how the effort is purely voluntary on the part of states when it is manifestly not, given federal financial “incentives,” offers of selective exemptions to NCLB requirements for states that comply, and the threat of future mandates. There is so much spin around Gates that it makes one dizzy.
Let me be clear, most of the folks affiliated with Gates are good and smart people. The problem is that when your reform strategy requires a top-down approach, these good and smart people are put under a lot of stress to have a unified vision of the “best” that will be imposed from the top. And whenever an organization starts sprinkling millions of dollars on researchers and advocacy groups unaccustomed to that kind of money, there are temptations that are hard for the most virtuous to resist.
But the good and smart people at Gates can stop the counter-productive strategy that the Foundation is pursuing. The Foundation changed course once before and it can do it again.
UPDATE — For my suggestions of what the Gates Foundation could do instead, see this post.