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.