Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Gates Doubles Down

Yesterday it was time for Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation CEO Susan Desmond-Hellman to roll out an annual letter trumpeting the foundation's Good Works. The missive covers several of the foundation's areas of interest, and it devotes a whole section to education.

She opens with the observation that K-12 edcation has been "our greatest area of learning." So has Gates gotten any smarter or wiser about education? Have they learned from the contentious and problematic attempt to reconfigure US pubic education?

Short answer? Nope.

Desmond-Hellman is a biotechnologist, which rather fits with the Gates model of bad education as a disease that just needs aggressive treatment. She notes that "education is a bridge to opportunity in America" (which kind of ignores all the bigger, wider bridges like being born into wealth and privilege) and cites a speech by Allan Golston, a Gates Foundation mucky-muck who once wrote a sentence that I called "the wrongest sentence ever in the CCSS debate." So we're off to a bad start. And that leads us to this one sentence paragraph:

However, we’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make system-wide change. 

That's the fact we're facing-- that system change is hard. Not that, say, our basic assumptions about the system are flawed, or our theory of action hasn't held up to real world application, or we haven't paid enough attention to the real experts in the field, or the programs and policies that we have pushed might not actually be very good.

No. It's that damned change-resistant system.

This, as Joanne Barkan so ably chronicles, is the plutocrat's lament. My vision is so awesome, and I am so rich, and I am so used to having things go the way I direct them to, I cannot for the life of me figure out why my brilliant square peg will not go into this round hole. If people would just behave...

Desmond-Hellman continues with a fake statistic-- "only 40 percent of students met three of the four college-readiness standards across English, reading, math, and science." This is a problem both because of the basis for saying that in the first place (a study by test manufacturer ACT-- so it's kind of like a study by Ford Motor Company on whether or not Americans have enough cars) and the implication that you're not really ready for college unless you have the knowledge base of both a science major and an English major ("Sorry, Chris. We were going to give you a full music scholarship, but your biology scores were too low").

However, I’m optimistic that all students can thrive when they are held to high standards. And when educators have clear and consistent expectations of what students should be able to do at the end of each year, the bridge to opportunity opens. The Common Core State Standards help set those expectations.

So, apparently, nobody ever held students to high standards before (and apparently few people even thought of it). But we've discussed the magical power of expectations, and my advice to folks in the private sector remains the same-- if expectations of high standards are the key to making every student succeed, then I suggest Microsoft just start hiring people at random and then expecting them to meet high standards. What's that you say? Only some people can meet those standards, and so "hold to high standards" in industry means "sorting the wheat from the chaff, and only employing the wheat"? If that's so, then where do we send the students who are chaff in public education?

Also. "When educators have clear and consistent expectations of what students should be able to do at the end of the year," that almost certainly means that we have narrowed those expectations into a one-size-fits-all model that serves few students well.

Desmond-Hellman says that we have "begun to see signs of improvement," and goes on to cite Kentucky, which is a bold choice considering recent reports that after years of Common Core, Kentucky has widened the achievement gap. Granted, I think the "achievement gap" (aka "standardized test score gap") is a lousy measure, but it's the yardstick the reformsters asked to use, and it shows them failing. So, maybe Kentucky isn't actually a sign of improvement.

Desmond-Hellman includes a nifty graphic listing the "value of Common Core," except that it includes the same old baloney like "a deeper dive into subjects" and "focus on critical thinking," though at this stage of the game, there is still no evidence that Common Core actually promotes these things. The graphic also touts that "teachers have consistent and clear expectations" of what students should be able to do at the end of the grade level, and I suppose she doesn't mean "expect to get a good score on a Big Standardized Test," but this also skips over a big big huge ginormous question  because while it's lovely that expectations are clear and consistent, they also have to be developmentally appropriate and just plain correct. I can be clear and consistent in my expectation that a two-year-old run a six-minute mile, but that expectation is still a lousy one.

Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards. 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.

No. No no no no no NO no nope nope nopity nope no. No.

It was not the implementation, stupid. The standards have not crashed and burned and morphed and changed into a shapeless mass of meaningless mulch because people did it wrong. The Core don't have an image problem because people don't understand them properly; they have an image problem for the same reason nobody likes your bad boyfriend-- they're bad.

Desmond-Hallman says that "this" has been a tough lesson to absorb, but what this? Because they don't seem to have learned any lesson at all, except the same old one, which is when your square peg won't fit into a big hole, you blame it on the hole and grab a bigger hammer. And so many failures. So many! Here's just a partial listing from Anthony Cody, who has watched Gates for a while, and is, in fact, an actual teacher that tried to get the Gates to hear him. Gates Common Core based reforms continue to be the Zune of education-- and yet somehow, it's not time to pull the plug?

You've already heard the doubling down quote from many reactions to the missive, but you should see the paragraph-sized non sequitor that is its context--

One of the best parts of my job is getting to hear from educators. And no one knows teaching like teachers. So, we’re doubling down on our efforts to make sure teachers have what they need to make the most of their unique capabilities.

Boy, those teachers really know all about teaching. That's why we are going to work even harder to force our top-down non-educator-created standards system down their collective throats.

She wraps up with a focus on materials, reminding us of awesome products like LearnZillion and EngageNY, plus the work of EdReports.org to review all this stuff. These are somehow going to drive a national demand for high quality materials, because presumably teachers were never before interested in high quality teaching materials.

Had enough of the hubris yet? Let's wind up for the big finish:

Our learning journey in U.S. education is far from over, but we are in it for the long haul. I’m optimistic that the lessons we learn from our partners – and, crucially, from educators – will help the American school system once again become the powerful engine of equity we all believe it should be.

What lessons??!! What lessons?? What lesson have you learned from educators, exactly, because so far it sounds like the lesson learned "from educators" is "we've watched these educators work with our awesome stuff and we've concluded that their system is too resistant to change, too slow to recognize that we know better than they do."

And "once again become the powerful engine of equity"??!! Once again?? When was that, exactly? I confess to wanting this to be true, that there was actually some golden age when public schools leveled the playing field between wealthy white kids and non-wealthy non-white kids. But while we've held that out as an ideal, it has been a long steady slog. Public schools reflect the culture they're part of, and that means every piece of classism, racism, sexism, and other ugly isms have been woven right into the fabric of our educational system.

We have to do better. We must do better. That, to me, is the best American goal-- not to recapture some dream of a golden time that never existed, but to unflinchingly see how we are coming up short and to strive, always, to get better.

The Gates likes the classic reformster formulation. There is a big problem, so you should embrace our solution, and if you ask me to explain how my proposed solution really helps anything, I will just keep telling you how awful the problem is. But the Gates remains convinced that their vision of a national education system re-organized around a top-down imposed set of one-size-fits-all standards-- that, somehow, despite all the objections, all the arguments, all the words from actual trained and experienced professional educators, all the lousy results, and all of that, let's not forget, the fact that nobody chose, elected, asked or otherwise enlisted Bill Gates to take on this project in the first place-- despite all of that, the Gates intends to keep plugging away, hitting the square peg with larger hammers, over and over, blaming everything in the world for the damage inflicted by their relentless failure except, of course, themselves.


  1. This should be published everywhere. Excellent analysis.

  2. The long haul . . ? Seriously? And to what end?
    Bill and Melinda fired their best shot and missed by mile. Trying to save face with bullshit statements like this reeks of desperation. Common Core testing was an epic FAIL and will go quietly into the night under the new ESSA. Poor Bill, he didn't really get the bang for the buck he was hoping for. And he thought you could cure "bad" teaching like it was some sort of disease that learning standards and tests could cure. What an idiot.

  3. I was curious to see what a "biotechnologist" does. It turns out she lead the group that developed Taxol. I have family members who are alive today because of Dr. Desmond-Hellman's work. Perhaps other readers are in the same position.

    She was also a working physician treating Kaposi's sarcoma at the height of the AIDS epidemic in San Fransisco (and eventually became the chancellor of UCSF) along with 2 years in Uganda treating patients trying to learn more about the opportunistic diseases around AIDS.

    It turns out to be a hell of a thing to be a "biotechnologist"

    1. I don't think anyone is questioning her qualifications or accomplishments in the field of biotechnology.

    2. Oooh, I'm a double-degreed teacher. Does that qualify me to pontificate on biotechnology?

      If so, sign me up, and please pay me whatever the Gates' are paying her!

      Well-intentioned or not, surely you can see the problem here, TE? No?

    3. Biotechnologist?

      Dr.Desmond-Hellman is a physician. Head resident at ground zero of the AIDS epidemic in the US, leader of the research group that created Taxol, a drug used to treat ovarian cancer, breast cancer, non-small cell lung cancer, and AIDS related Kaposi's sarcoma.

      The problem with throwing rocks is that sometimes it says more about the people throwing rocks than the intended recipient of the rocks. Serious people need to be taken seriously.

    4. Serious people do not pretend that because they are accomplished experts in one field, they are fully qualified to take charge in a completely different field. Desmond-Hellman is an impressive and important figure in the medical field. That does not mean that she has any business trying to help redesign US public education.

    5. Serious people realize being at ground zero of an outbreak has zero to do with accepting billionaire dollars to be the figurehead of a sinking ship in an entirely different ocean.

    6. She was so good at it, she ought to return to her previous profession where she could actually do some good, ASAP.

  4. Peter,

    A while back, you did a piece on a corporate reform "drive by" executed by the unqualified "Vicki Alger":


    Well, that name just popped up again on Jan Resseger's blog:


    Jan's livid that this woman is given credibility, and puts out a call to consider and check the source of any self-proclaimed expert.

    JAN RESSEGER: "At the end of last week a friend forwarded a column that had appeared in his local paper. It is short, pithy, and readable. Unfortunately, although it begins with some facts that are perfectly accurate about the public schools, its author quickly twists her argument, neglects the truth and reflects the bias of her employer. The article is written by Vicki Alger, a research fellow at The Independent Institute. It was circulated by the Tribune News Service, affiliated with the Seattle Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, Kansas City Star, and Philadelphia Inquirer. It is just the sort of little column that an editor might pick up to fill a space left on the opinion pages.

    Alger begins by noting that scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have been pretty flat for decades now. She is correct that today’s school reforms have failed to raise achievement. However, she quickly jumps to the assumption that, because test scores have not risen, increased spending on education—up, she says, by 140 percent between 1971 and 2012— has failed. There is a very important omission here: she neglects to mention that in 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that brought vastly increased spending on education for students with special needs. Here is what Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute explained in his 1995 book, Where’s the Money Gone?


    Alger then sets up several straw men: “We were promised that illiteracy would be eliminated by 1984. We were promised that high school graduation rates would reach 90 percent by the year 2000 and that American students would be global leaders in math and science. And we were promised that by 2014 all students would be proficient in reading and math. None of this has happened.”

    So… concludes, Alger, because we have not arrived at utopia, we must get rid of the U.S. Department of Education and put parents in charge through school choice. “Research shows that when parents have more choices in education, both students and schools benefit, and do so at a fraction of the cost of top-heavy federal programs. The resulting competition for students and their associated funding puts powerful pressure on schools to improve.”

    Even the more respectable academic proponents of school choice are getting worried. In December of 2014, Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), came to the Cleveland City Club to announce the release of a scathing report from CREDO on Ohio’s school choice marketplace. Raymond shocked listeners to her City Club address by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”



  5. "both students and schools benefit, and do so at a fraction of the cost of top-heavy federal programs."

    Back in the 1970's my father was the business manager of Lakeside School, the one that Bill Gates attended for high school. It's a great school, actually, with class sizes less than a dozen and teacher written evaluations instead of letter grades on the report cards.

    I was teaching in California at the time. And at that time, California spent about $2900 a year per student. I asked him for an equivalent figure for Lakeside. It was about $8000 per student per year. That didn't include perks like the library building that Gates and Allen donated to the school.

    Again, Lakeside *is* a great school. At the time they needed $8000 to do an excellent job with kids who passed a test to get in, most (but not all) of whom had tremendous resources at home, and all of whom were proficient in English.

    Anyway, I think of day whenever someone implies that you "can't just throw money at the problem."

  6. Yes, they've contributed enough money to my system to get the system to acquire a "device" for all students. We are now going to have "personalized learning" and "competency based assessments" for the second largest system in Georgia.

  7. I don't find that the Common Core standards provide clear guidance for teachers. Here is one of the writing standards:

    Introduce claim(s), acknowledge alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.

    What in the world does it mean to organize reasons and evidence logically? This is completely vacuous. In an argument, the order of reasoning proceeds from the premises to the conclusion. If there are sub-conclusions, then the order of reasoning will start from the most basic premises, which will lead to the sub-conclusions, which will then be used as premises to get the final conclusion.

    But that order of reasoning is completely different than the order of presentation. The order of presentation is the order in which the premises, including sub-conclusions, and the conclusion are presented to the reader. The problem is that there simply is no one "logical" way to present an argument in writing. The order of presentation is a matter of style, not of logic. It is possible to present an argument by starting with the conclusion and then giving the reasons (premises). It is also possible to start with the premises and end with the conclusion. It is also possible to put the conclusion anywhere in the middle of the presentation. Again, it is a matter of style.

    This writing standard treats the order of presentation as a matter of logic. That is simply wrong.

    How does this help a teacher figure out what to teach, how to teach it, and what to expect from students? How is the teacher supposed to judge some orders of presentation as more logical than others? Should conclusion always be presented last? Why? Is this the standard? It isn't clear. If the teacher does make such a judgment, it will merely be the expression of arbitrary preferences.

    Frankly, I find the kind of muddled thinking exhibited by this standard to be typical of the Common Core writing standards.

  8. It is sad then that a woman with this Doctors credentials and history is instead working for Gates and not working with and for people who actually need help.

    Frankly the Gates Foundation wants to do everything everywhere that they feel they should do. So next week if space exploration is deemed essential then they will it is arbitrary and random what they think the "poors" need to be apparently better "poors"

    Read the book by Thomas Frank "Listen Liberal" how he discusses the rise of the Professional Class that is sure when they possess multiple degrees they are educated to do anything they want. Look at the moron who came up with Grit.. another one who was sure she had the answers until she found out she didn't.

    So while I am sure you are grateful for that Doctor and her role in treating Cancer I am not sure that qualifies her to be an Ed Czar/Car Mechanic/Engineer/King of Siam, etc etc etc.

    Why is that when anyone decides to offer a healthy dose of critical thinking and in turn criticism from a well meaning place, individuals come in with the "meme" that says "I never saw that" and so good for you but what has that got to do with those that did? Does it mean we are wrong and therefore we are worthless.. that is how I interpret that. We are truly living in bubble and that is the problem

    1. I am fairly sure that she does not think she is the czar of anything. Watching your patients die is likely to be a humbling experience.

      Lets see where most of the Gates money went in 2014:

      2 billion went to global development

      The largest spending categories were spend on Polio, Agricultural development, vaccine delivery, family planning, and maternal and newborn health.

      1.1 billion was spend on global health.

      The largest spending categories here are HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, neglected infectious diseases, enteric and diarrheal diseases, and pneumonia.

      If you think Dr.Desmond-Hellman is the wrong person to take on these efforts, propose someone else.

      Spending levels from http://www.gatesfoundation.org/Who-We-Are/Resources-and-Media/Annual-Reports/Annual-Report-2014

    2. Reading comprehension, TE. Not your long suit. Nobody's saying she isn't qualified in the field of health, just that it doesn't mean her skill set transfers to education. And if Gates' efforts are helping world-wide health, good for him. He evidently listens to true experts for that. If he isn't going to listen to true education experts -- teaching professionals -- then he shouldn't mess with it, because nothing he's done has helped education, and a lot has made it worse.

    3. Rebecca,

      Look at the very first line of the comment I am replying to. The comment laments that "It is sad then that a woman with this Doctors credentials and history is instead working for Gates and not working with and for people who actually need help." I don't believe that Green Goddess knows that the Gates Foundation is primarily concerned with healthcare, and specifically infectious disease.

    4. Okay, but Green Goddess also says that being a medical researcher does not qualify Desmond-Hellman with expertise in any other field, including education, which is the main idea of the original post and of the whole thread. I guess understanding the main idea is what I'm talking about as far as reading comprehension.

      The Gates Foundation, as Green Goddess says, is not only concerned with disease prevention, but sticks its fingers in many different pies. If it were just disease prevention, no one on this thread would have any problem with it.

      I would say it is also true that Desmond-Hellman, as CEO, is no longer working herself in the area of research (according to what she says in the letter), which is where she has been able to do so much good, and so could be said to no longer be using her expertise to work directly "with and for" the people who need help. Certainly the letter she wrote is PR for the foundation, and so is lending her name to it.

      I don't know why you assume that you know what Desmond-Hellman thinks. I've known quite a few surgeons who were some of the most arrogant SOBs I've ever met.

      But the main idea here -- the main idea meaning what is of the greatest importance -- is that people who are not practicing educational professionals should not be able to be in a position to dictate teaching policy, any more than I should be able to tell a surgeon how to do surgery or a medical researcher how to do research or a businessman how to run their business or an electrician how to wire a house.