Sunday, January 3, 2016

Gates Odd Good News

Back in mid-December, Bill Gates blogged about the top six good news stories of 2015. It's a fair enough list except for one notable and head-scratching inclusion.

Items on the list include:

* Africa went a year without a single polio case.
* Neil deGrasse Tyson won an award and made a bad-ass short speech in support of science
* The Nobel Prize went to developers of a cure for a widespread disease for the poor
* Mobile banking did really well in Kenya
* Rubella appears to have been wiped out in the Americas

And those are all pretty good news stories, even if they aren't particularly sexy or mainstream media-ready. But the list also includes this item (at spot #4)

* Khan Academy offers free SAT prep

First of all, unless you have access to a free computer with free internet connections, the Khan Academy materials are not "free."

Second, I have even better news-- nobody needs to take the damn SAT in the first place! The SAT test is a product produced by a for-profit corporation; why Gates wants to include a advertisement for that company in the midst of his "good news" is a puzzler. Not only that, but it is the number two product of its type, in the midst of a redesign to claw back some market share from the ACT.

There are so many odd assumptions buried here, not the least of which is the idea that everyone should go to college and everyone needs to take the SAT to get there.

But more significant is the repeat of the notion that the only reason that socio-economic status correlates so strongly with standardized test results is that wealthy folks have better access to test prep materials. It's the same batch of assumptions we find in Gates support of the Common Core-- a standardized test is an excellent measure of your education, and a good education is just a big bunch of test prep for that test. So Common Core, a giant test prep program from CCSS Big Standardized Tests, is a Good Thing that will benefit the poor.

Sometimes I think public education advocates really way overthink Gates' support of ed reforminess, ascribing all sorts of Byzantine motivations and wheels within wheels when really, it's just as simple as a really rich, smart, powerful guy who never spent much time in school and who has a seriously stunted, small and flat-out wrong idea of how education works.


  1. Since Gates seems to do well with healthcare issues in Africa, maybe he could focus here on helping low income communities all have a neighborhood school with wrap-around medical and other services to take away obstacles to learning. But he doesn't seem to be aware that poverty exists in the U.S.

    1. Whether Gates does well with healthcare issues in Africa is a matter of rather intense debate. People who have worked in healthcare in developing nations say he's every bit the profit-minded meddler in that field that he is in education. He likes to shove aside the experts and force his own methods (which - surprise! - always seem to involve tech) on everyone for everything.

      I used to think that guy Steve Fossett was a real jerk spending all of that money and time and effort just to glorify himself and navigate around the world "alone" in a balloon (nevermind that he had a ground control staff of dozens). I used to wonder why he couldn't find a good cause to spend all his obscene wealth on. But having seen what Gates, Zuckerberg, etc. do with their "good causes", I really wish they'd take up where Fossett left off.

  2. The best evidence I can find is that test prep firms increase average SAT scores by about 2%. Access to better test prep materials is not the reason that students from relatively high income households have relatively high SAT/ACT scores.

    Having highly educated parents is associated with a variety of things that might cause a student to do well on standardized exams, including prenatal health, household stability, higher earnings that allow parents to buy into strong school districts, better average parenting practices, etc. It is this combination that results in higher average scores for the children from relatively well educated, and relatively wealthy households.