Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Gates Plan Crashes, Burns School District

Back in 2012, "teacherpreneur" Ryan Kinser wrote on the Gates Foundation blog, Impatient Optimists, to sing the praises of the Gates partnership with Hillsborough County schools in a program called Empowering Effective Teachers.

Back in 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the Hillsborough County, Florida, school system a $100 million grant to revamp teacher evaluation. The Empowering Effective Teachers Initiative (EET) resulted in a massive overhaul of how we view teaching and learning in the nation’s eighth largest district. 

Sure-- the Gates had made yet another commitment to completely changing the whole teaching profession, because, hey-- they're rich and they think they know what needs to be done.

In 2012, Kinser talked about three big lessons from the program.

1) View teachers as the solution, not the problem. That lesson must have come later, because part of the original plan was to fire the bottom 5% of the teaching force every year (there's that magic 5% again).

2) Teachers and  evaluators must build trust. The plan cycled teachers out of the classroom for stints as evaluators, because, reasons. Apparently, that was not always a big team-building exercise.

3) Use multiple measures that are transparent and authentic. Yeah, the fact that this was a lesson that had to be learned tells you how straight their heads were to start with.

Oh, and Kinser refers to the ongoing program as building the ship while sailing it-- oddly less terrifying than building the plane while flying it, but still not exactly stuffed with we-know-what-we're-doing-ness.

Well, that was 2012. A few other things have happened in the meantime. Back in 2010, Arne Duncan and Dennis Van Roekel stopped by to make a fuss, but that was about the last time that anybody wanted to throw an EET party.

That fire 5% of the sucky teachers thing? It should have gotten rid of 700 (700!!!) teachers-- you know, the expensive ones, because everyone knows that the bad teachers that need to be rooted out are, coincidentally, the older teachers who cost a bunch of money. But it never happened.

And that $100 million grant that Kinser was so proud of? Funny thing. Gates officials would now like you to know that the grant actually said "up to" $100 million.

I am kind of excited about that, because I now realize that I can tell, say, a used car dealer that I will pay "up to" seventy grand for a car and just pay five thousand bucks. I could promise to buy a new house with "up to" $10 million and just fork over a check for $10.75. I do regret not knowing this trick when my children were young and I could have bribed them to do chores with offers of "up to" $100 for mowing the lawn.

The original deal was $102 million from the district and $100 million from Gates. Turns out those numbers are a little off-- the district has kicked in about $124 million, while Gates has put in $80 million. And the district estimates that the total cost of the program will land in the $271 million.

Have there been problems. Well, another cornerstone of the program was merit pay (to offset Florida teacher pay which, to use a technical term, sucks), and that merit pay element turns out to be real expensive (which, it turns out, was a problem that could even be predicted by a lowly high school English teacher).

Other issues? Well, in 2014, the Tampa Bay Times sat down with some local officials and Gates honcho Vicki Phillips, and Phillips herself recognized one unfortunate effect of the program:

Another tough challenge is education's biggest oxymoron: teacher respect. "One thing we are dismayed about is how we have made teachers feel over the last 15 years," Phillips said. "We shamed and blamed them. It was unconscionable. We do not want them to feel that way."

Meanwhile, since 2009, Gates Foundation has caught on to the researched news that merit pay doesn't work. In fact, even when it's studied by the reform-friendly Roland Fryer of Harvard, it doesn't work. (Of course, "work" means "raise student test scores" because it's always always always about test scores). So the Gates isn't very interested in the Hillsborough EET program any more.

Once again, we see the problem with a business-style reformster approach to education. Gates didn't come in and make a commitment to Hillsborough Schools-- they came in and made commitment to their own business theory, and despite the number of years written into that commitment, the actual length of the commitment was "as long as it makes business sense to keep putting money into this."

Public schools make an institutional commitment to educate students in their community for, well, ever. Businessmen make a commitment to spend money on something as long as it makes sense to them. This does not make businessmen evil, but it does mean that they are bad candidates to become involved in the institution of public education. Hillsborough has been left holding a multi-million dollar bag because, while the Gates Foundation can walk away any time they feel like it, Hillsborough County schools are committed to educating children in the county as long as there are children in the county.

Charter operators are bad enough, sweeping into a community, hoovering up as many tax dollars as they can get their hands on, and quitting when it suits them to do so. But this seems somehow worse-- the Gates paid Hillsborough a pile of money for the chance to use their schools and their teaching staff as guinea pigs. And once the experiment looked like it wasn't going to pan out, the Gates just walks away from the lab, leaving someone else to clean up the mess and look after the experimental subjects with no regard for how badly those subjects may have been messed up.

One would hope that Gates would eventually learn something, that with a little reflection he might say to himself, "Gee, I was so sure that small schools would work, but they didn't. Then I was so sure merit pay would work, but it didn't. Maybe I should think twice about other stuff I'm so sure of before I start screwing with people's lives and livelihoods." Of course, there's a worse possibility-- that Gates isn't "so sure" at all, but that he's just casually tinkering with notions like a ten year old poking new trails for ants with a stick and as he wreaks havoc, he's not even all that invested in what he's doing. That would be awful, and I have a hard time imagining someone that detached from the lives he messes with, but as I remember his "We'll have to wait a decade to see if this stuff works" comment-- well, it's not inconceivable.

P.S. If the Hillsborough School district sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because you heard it in conjunction with MaryEllen Elia, who is currently the Reformy Boss of Education in New York State. But before that, she was the superintendent of Hillsborough schools when this Gatesian money pit was welcomed into the district. Honestly, some days I feel as if public education is an orphan in a coincidence-riddled Dickensian novel.


  1. If "Education Reform" were a novel, Dickens himself would proclaim it completely unbelievable.

  2. "Honestly, some days I feel as if public education is an orphan in a coincidence-riddled Dickensian novel."

    I thank the stars we have you to comment on it!

    Christine Langhoff

  3. I think it's pretty obvious to anyone who understands teaching that merit pay doesn't work (by any definition of the word "work") because of the nature of teaching, but I think the idea of small schools has some merit, though it certainly didn't work under the Gates plan because he put too many restrictions on what to do and how to do it, restrictions that didn't make any sense.

    Before charter schools, I always thought that the only advantage parochial schools had over public ones was the small student body.

    The high school I taught at was very comprehensive, offering almost anything academic or vocational that you could want, but sometimes -- too often -- kids would fall through the cracks because the student body was so big, nobody got to know the individual students well enough to know what they needed as far as social services or academic or emotional guidance.

    My son started high school at a magnet school for robotics that was part of our district schools. He transferred back to his assigned school after two years because he realized that robotics was not what he wanted to go into after all, and at his regular high school he had a lot more different types of classes to choose from, but it was good for his emotional development to be in a school with a small student body for those two years.

    It seems like small, specialized schools -- ones that aren't run as businesses, but rather more like what Shanker originally envisioned for charter schools -- can be good for some students, but there's the disadvantage that they ARE specialized, and students don't always know for sure what will be the best fit for them, and also that many small schools cost more than fewer big ones.

    1. Whoops, I had to break what I was saying in two because it was too long to be allowed to fit, and I left out this transition paragraph that goes here in between:

      I had an idea for a way to reorganize my high school into nine schools in one, nine career pathways. It was at the time we were considering a Gates small schools grant, and they were talking about dividing the school, physically, into 4 schools. I thought the four school idea was stupid, because it was very inflexible; you could only take classes within one "school", and class choice was limited in each of them. Also, they were promising that students could for sure be in whichever one they wanted, but a survey of my own students showed that half of them would want to be in one of the four that were planned, and I didn't see how that could work out. I also thought that segregating students into these different "schools" could cause an unhealthy rivalry among them.

  4. My plan of nine pathways was to have each pathway focus on a different area of fields, but each pathway would prepare you for either a technological or professional aspect, such as med tech, physical therapy, physical therapy assistant, radiology, medicine, etc.,but all in the health care field, and a lot of the courses would be the same. I analyzed all the courses we offered and organized them into recommendations for each pathway. I thought that that way, knowing what classes would be good to take for each pathway could also help students decide which pathway they might like, by seeing what classes they should take.

    This would organize students to be grouped mostly with teachers who would get to know them better, but not separate the students physically or overtly. And within this structure, I think flexibility is also key, to be able to switch between pathways and also take classes outside of the pathway.

    We eventually voted down the idea of trying for the Gates grant. My idea was never for the Gates grant; it didn't fit the specifications. The administration made noises of saying they liked the idea, but even though it wouldn't cost any money, since it wouldn't bring any grant money, they couldn't be bothered to take it seriously. But I think this type of simple reorganization has the advantages of the comprehensiveness and diversity of classes of big schools with the individual attention of small schools, plus helping to point students towards a career and prepare for it. And it wouldn't cost a cent or interfere with contract stipulations.