Gates, the Bizarro Foundation

Comic book geeks are familiar with Bizarro World, a place where everything is the opposite of what it is in the normal world.  In Bizarro World, people would abandon a policy strongly supported by rigorous evidence while embracing an alternative policy for which the evidence showed little promise.

I was thinking about Bizarro World and then it struck me — Perhaps the Gates Foundation has somehow fallen into the Bizarro World.  It’s just about the only thing that makes sense of their Bizarro choices with respect to education reform strategies.

The dominant education reform strategy of the Gates Foundation before 2006 was to break large high schools into smaller ones, often using school choice and charter schools.  As a Business Week profile put it:

The foundation embraced what many social scientists had concluded was the prime solution: Instead of losing kids in large schools like Manual, the new thinking was to divide them into smaller programs with 200 to 600 students each. Doing so, numerous studies showed, would help prevent even hard-to-reach students from falling through the cracks. The foundation didn’t set out to design schools or run them. Its goal was to back some creative experiments and replicate them nationally.

But the Gates Foundation wasn’t patient enough to let the experiments produce results.  Instead, they hired SRI and AIR to do a very weakly-designed non-experimental evaluation that produced disappointing results.  Gates had also commissioned a rigorous random-assignment evaluation by MDRC, but it would take a few more years to see if students graduated and went on to college at higher rates if they were assigned by lottery to a smaller school.

Gates couldn’t wait.  They were convinced that small schools were a flop, so they began to ditch the small school strategy and look for a new Big Idea.  Tom Vander Ark, the education chief who had championed small schools, was out the door and replaced with Vicki Phillips, a superintendent whose claim to fame, such as it was, came from serving as Portland’s superintendent where she consolidated schools (not breaking them into smaller ones) and centralized control over curriculum and instruction.  As one local observer put it:

In her time in the famously progressive, consensus-driven city, she closed six schools, merged nearly two dozen others through K-8 conversions, pushed to standardize the district’s curriculum, and championed new and controversial measures for testing the district’s 46,000 children-all mostly without stopping for long enough to adequately address the concerns her changes generated in the neighborhoods and schools where they played out.  During her three years in Portland, Phillips’ name became synonymous with top-down management, corporate-style reforms, and a my-way-or-the-highway attitude.

Under Phillips and deputy education director, Harvard professor Tom Kane, the Gates Foundation has pursued a very different strategy: attempting to identify the best standards, curriculum, and pedagogy and then imposing those best practices through a national system of standards and testing.

And here is where we see that Gates must be the Bizarro Foundation.  The previous strategy of backing small schools has now been vindicated by the rigorous random-assignment study Gates couldn’t wait for.  According to the New York Times:

The latest findings show that 67.9 percent of the students who entered small high schools in 2005 and 2006 graduated four years later, compared with 59.3 percent of the students who were not admitted and instead went to larger schools. The higher graduation rate at small schools held across the board for all students, regardless of race, family income or scores on the state’s eighth-grade math and reading tests, according to the data.

This increase was almost entirely accounted for by a rise in Regents diplomas, which are considered more rigorous than a local diploma; 41.5 percent of the students at small schools received one, compared with 34.9 percent of students at other schools. There was little difference between the two groups in the percentage of students who earned a local diploma or the still more rigorous Advanced Regents diploma.

Small-school students also showed more evidence of college readiness, with 37.3 percent of the students earning a score of 75 or higher on the English Regents, compared with 29.7 percent of students at other schools. There was no significant difference, however, in scores on the math Regents.

Meanwhile, as part of their newly embraced top-down strategy, the Gates effort to identify the secret formula for effective teaching has failed to bear fruit.  The Gates -operated Measuring Effective Teachers Project failed to identify any rubric of observing teachers or any components of those rubrics that were strongly predictive of gains in student learning.  And the Gates-backed “research” supporting the federally-orchestrated Common Core push for national standards and testing has been strikingly lacking in scientific rigor and candor.

In short, the Gates Foundation has ditched what rigorous evidence shows worked and is pushing a new strategy completely unsupported by rigorous evidence.  They must be in Bizarro World.  Somebody please get me some blue kryptonite.

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16 Responses to Gates, the Bizarro Foundation

  1. Niki Hayes says:

    From the New York Times article: “Small-school students also showed more evidence of college readiness, with 37.3 percent of the students earning a score of 75 or higher on the English Regents, compared with 29.7 percent of students at other schools. There was no significant difference, however, in scores on the math Regents.”

    I really want to know what caused the flat scores in math. Could it be the lousy curriculum and textbooks chosen, and often written, by the leaders in the cloistered and bureaucratic world of math education? I don’t care how much a teacher wants to teach good math skills to his students, if he is given weak and incoherent training and materials, good teaching isn’t going to happen.

    • Niki Hayes says:

      One more comment about the Gates Foundation jumping away from the small schools’ concept too quickly: This is the main reason that teachers don’t make changes easily in their delivery efforts. They know if they just wait a couple of years, the “new” idea will go away. Administrators want a silver bullet for quick changes. That doesn’t happen when you’re working with human beings who like using their free will. I also remember hearing a speaker say, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.” The fads and fancies in public education are legion. Gates just happens to be bringing more of them into education.

  2. Except it didn’t work. Cherry picking is still cherry picking, and the study doesn’t seem to point out that schools like Manual High in Denver are application-only admission. You had me until that point!

  3. George Mitchell says:

    The tone is set at the top. Recall Bill Gates’ comment about vouchers in his WSJ interview with Jason Riley? Something to the effect that they are “too tough” politically to pursue (gold standard research findings nothwithstanding). The Gates Foundation education agenda and its public commentary on that issue are the antithesis of what made Microsoft succeed. An illustration of what happens when some successful business leaders venture into philanthropy.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    Great choice of meme, Jay, but you’re late to the party. I like my graphic better! :)

  5. GGW says:

    Isn’t it plausible, per Andrea, that what the study showed is schools which were mostly launched by Bob Hughes of New Visions do unusually well?

    I.e., I’m surprised you didn’t lampoon the conclusions of this well-designed study.

    It’s like the randomized study of Boston charters Kane and Angrist did. Charters which were created/supported by Linda Brown of Building Excellent schools did amazing. Charters which did not did badly. The first cohort of charters did so well that they carried the second group of charters on average.

    • Here’s the thing about BES schools, at least here locally. They cherry pick. They don’t serve ELLs most in need of support. They have large “student attrition” rates that coincide with miraculous gains in the standardized tests.

      How is that successful?

      • GGW says:

        Andrea, alas, comment exchanges on the edu-blogs rarely change minds. In case you’re one of the “open to discussion” folks, however, you might read the various charter lottery loser studies.

        The attrition argument has long been used to try to discredit KIPP and other similar schools.

        But –

        The lottery studies tackled that question head on. They assigned every kid who ever attended a charter to “the charter group”…including all the departers, for any reason, whether parents moved or thought academics too hard or expelled for discipline.

        And the results — charter departers plus charter stayers all together — dramatically outperformed the control group.

        Of course since most sides are dug in on these sorts of debates, even this evidence didn’t move the needle among anti-charter folks — though it did convince many moderate Democrats who’d previously been skeptical.

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