Thursday, October 22, 2015

Gates Support

It is possible that the Gates folks just don't know the meaning of the word "support."

At Impatient Optimists, the Gates Foundation blog, well-traveled reformster Vicki Phillips starts out with a new twist on a classic teacher narrative trope.

Of all the teachers I had growing up, I think about Miss Marjorie the most. She was the hardcore head teacher of McQuady Elementary, the poor grade school near where I grew up in Falls of Rough, Kentucky. Miss Marjorie taught me hard work, how to treat my peers, how to respect my elders and how to hold myself accountable.

But it turns out that Miss Marjorie sucked. When Phillips got to college, she "wasn't ready." Which is why Phillips flunked out of college and failed to ever get a job. Ha! Not really. Vicki Phillips has two college degrees, spent time in a classroom, was a superintendent, and rose through various edu-supervisory positions to now act as the edu-mouthpiece for one of the richest men in the world. Damn that Miss Marjorie and the life of abject failure she condemned Vicki Phillips to.

What Miss Marjorie needed was "support." She "didn't have the tools." She wasn't "supported with high standards or insightful teacher evaluations or professional development to improve her practice."

By using our context clues and doing some close reading, we can quickly conclude that as used by Phillips, "supported" means "fixed."

This is one of the premises of the Gates Approach To Education-- teachers do not know what they're doing, and they'll never figure it out until someone 'splains it to them. And let's combine this with another Gates premise-- the definition of a Good Teacher is "one whose students get better scores on the Big Standardized Test."

The poor, dumb loser, Miss Marjorie-- she probably thought that she was teaching Little Vicki the life skills she needed to succeed in life and to become a life-long learner so that she could keep learning what she needed to know. What a dope. She should have been teaching Little Vicki how to better filter out the distractors in a multiple-choice question.

Gates has latched onto one idea-- "teacher evaluation and teacher development are the same thing." It's an arguable notion, but focusing on it causes the Gates to miss a crucial factor. The Gates Foundation has no idea what good teaching looks like, has no idea how to do meaningful evaluation, and has no clue how to promote teacher development. This is primarily because the Gates Foundation steadfastly refuses to consult, listen to, talk with, or otherwise involve itself with actual teachers.

See, "support" generally means you don't get to drive the bus. Support means that you help people achieve goals that they set for themselves and pursue on their own. If I tell my spouse exactly how she's going to make a meal and exactly how she's going to eat it and where and when and correct her repeatedly when she's doing it in a way I consider "wrong," that's not support. That's badgering and bossing. A support crew at a racetrack does not drive the car; they just help keep the car working.

You might get excited to hear that your corner of the world is going to get "support" from the Gates, because that often looks like a giant pile of money, but even there they are confused. Say what you like about Rockefeller and Carnegie (and you can rightly say many bad things), but when they decided to support a cause like universal libraries or black universities, they handed money to people who knew what they were doing, and they left them largely alone. When you get a Gates Foundation pile of money, you often get a Gates Foundation contact person, who basically stays with the money and makes sure that it is used the way Gates wants it to be used. This is not support-- this is just hiring someone to do a job and then micromanaging them.

Standing over my mechanic and giving him instructions while he fixes my carburetor? I'm just supporting him. Telling my spouse exactly what to wear and then dressing them so that they get it just right? That's just support. Hiring a surgeon to rotate my spleen and insisting that I be awake to guide him through the surgery? That's just support.

I wonder if Gates doesn't conflate two ideas. On the one hand, giving folks money is a form of support. But on the other hand, guys who run a giant corporation might get the idea that anything they spend money on is a thing they have controlling interest in.

But the disconnect between the Gates and the World O' Teachers remains the same-- Gates is just one more amateur who doesn't really understand how schools and classrooms and teaching work, but who thinks he's an expert because he was in school when he was a kid. The only difference between Gates and your know-it-all brother-in-law or the guy you run into at the Piggly Wiggly is that Gates has a giant mountain of money, and when he stands on top of it, he looks taller and bigger and more wise than he really is.

If you want to support someone, including teachers, the very first step is to ask, "What is it that you want to do?" The very first step is NOT to say, "Let me tell you what you're supposed to be doing."

If Phillips and the folks at the Gates want to say, "Teaching is messed up and teachers are broken and we have a theory about how to fix them," then say it and make your case. But the intellectual PR-massaging dishonesty of calling your desire to criticize and control, to make the teaching profession bend to your idea of what it should be-- calling that "support" is rank, transparent dishonesty. It signals, among other things, that you aren't really talking to teachers, who are in a position to know that they are being showered with something other than rain, but to bystanders, parents, taxpayers to convince them that you are Doing a Swell Thing. This is not just the language of someone who beats a child and says, "I'm doing this for your own good," but the language of a mugger telling a passerby, "I'm just helping the guy out."


  1. This is spot on, but the Gates does not have a monopoly on this curious use of the word, "support."

  2. Yes, exactly. Anyone who has so much influence on education should be required to have a ph.d. in education as well as 10+ years of experience in the classroom. Gates has neither, of course. He has no understanding of the educational system and no respect for anyone working in it, because he sees himself as above it. Harvard is one of the hardest schools to flunk out of and one of the easiest to graduate from. If he can't manage to just show up to classes and do the work, what basis does he have to pretend to "fix" schools? He is narcissistic to the point of being psychopathic, and I am shocked by how many teachers still say to me, "But I still think that Bill Gates has good intentions." Nope. If he didn't get more money or more power from doing something, he wouldn't do it.

  3. I've got some "support" coming my way in the next few weeks as a former Gates-foundation staffer will visit to train us on how to advise students not to take algebra.

    This is the great new math curriculum - no more "stupid," "useless" algebra. If they were proposing to replace it with something that had even half the power and depth of actual algebra, I wouldn't mind so much, but what they're using is half-assed fill in the blank worksheets where the students are trained in producing the "correct" answer.

  4. It's unbelievable the amount and degree of damage the Gates and their foundation have performed on behalf of 'The Education Deformation Complex'. They have missed the mark so badly and so often, I'm starting to agree with the 'Failure by Design' argument so eloquently advocated by Noam Chomsky