Monday, August 29, 2016

Mr. Gates Chats with Mr. Bowling

A week back, Bill Gates took to his blog to report on a sit-down with Nate Bowling. He calls it "A Powerful Conversation about Schools, Poverty and Race," and that may be overstating the case a bit, but it's worth a quick look.

Nate Bowling has won an assortment of teaching awards, most recently Washington State Teacher of the Year. He blogs at A Teacher's Evolving Mind, and his self-intro there captures his point of view pretty succinctly:

Effective teachers of color face a dilemma: we know--more than anyone, the urgent need for change--we get that the status-quo screws our kids. But at the same time we also see a reform movement that "has all the answers" and doesn't want or value our experiences and insights from working with marginalized communities.

If we want to be heard, on our terms, then when must create our own spaces.

I proudly ride with #Educolor

Bowling is on my short list of writers in the edu-sphere with whom I do not always agree, but who I believe are following a path for understanding without any pre-determined conclusion in mind. You can read about my last encounter with his ideas back here.

At the beginning of 2016, Bowling wrote a widely-circulated piece entitled "The Conversation I'm Tired of Not Having" in which he comes down hard on the idea of setting aside questions of education policy until we can honestly grapple with the issues of race and poverty, charging that the powers that be and the folks in the 'burbs are actually pretty happy with The Way Things Are.

Polite society has walled itself off and policymakers are largely indifferent. Better funding for schools is and will remain elusive, because middle class and wealthy people have been conditioned over the last 35 years to think of themselves as taxpayers, rather than citizens. They consistently oppose higher taxes--especially tax expenditures for programs for “the other.”

And he announced that he was done arguing about issues like charter schools and common core. In fact, he would take only one clear focus, in bold letters:

If you ain't talking about the teacher in the classroom, I ain't listening.

Now I would say that on the one hand, issues like charter schools and common core are important precisely because of their effects on the teacher in the classroom, and that many reformy issues are problematic precisely because they change which teachers get to the classroom, which teachers stay in the classroom, and what those teachers are empowered to do in the classroom.

On the other hand, if we kept talking about those issues in terms of the teacher in the classroom and not policy wonkitudary, it would be a more useful conversation.

Bill Gates also read that piece, and he brought it up in his conversation with Bowling, particularly spinning off of this paragraph from Bowling's essay.

Through white flight and suburbanization, wealthy and middle class families have completely insulated themselves from educational inequality. They send their kids to homogeneous schools and they do what it takes, politically at the local level, to ensure they’re well-funded, well-staffed, with opportunities for enrichment and exploration. Poor families lack competent and engaged administration (see Chicago, Detroit, etc), the levy money (locally, see Highline), capital budgets (see rural Central, WA), and the political capital wealthier families enjoy.

Ask yourself, would suburban schools ever be allowed to decay like what we saw in Detroit? Nope. What's happening in Detroit could never happen in Auburn Hills; what’s happening in Chicago could never happen in Evanston; what’s happening in South Seattle could never happen in Issaquah or Bellevue. Middle class America would never allow the conditions that have become normalized in poor and brown America to stand for their kids. 

Gates hears part of that, and allows that he gets the point. Sort of.

I certainly agree that those of us who live in the suburbs by and large don’t see what’s going on in inner-city schools. It’s like two different worlds. This is one reason why Melinda and I get out and visit different schools around the country as part of our foundation’s education work, which is all about supporting the New Majority.

First of all, Gates does not live in the suburbs. I don't know if he's being self-deprecating, or he's just that out of touch. But this is not suburban living.

The Gates suburban home

Second, Bowling's insight should ring a bell. Back in May of 2015, Gates was sitting about five feet away from Warren Buffet on a CNBC panel chat when Buffet said this:

If the only choice we had was public schools, we'd have better public schools.

In other words, if the wealthy and super-wealthy had skin in the game, public schools would get the support they need. As long as a handful view public education as a work of charitable outreach to help the children of Those People (and the rest stolidly oppose spending their tax dollars on Those People), we'll keep getting what we've got. An occasional drive-by is not quite the same.

In fact, the charter concept that Gates so loves is the exact opposite of what's being called for. First, it "helps" only a small percentage of students at all. Second, with its rhetoric about how the money belongs to the child who should be able to take it wherever, it moves completely away from the notion that we are collectively responsible for making a great education for all children. The charter sale pitch is that rich families get to say, "I've got mine, Jack," and abandon everyone else-- why shouldn't less wealthy students get to say, "I've got mine, Jack," too?

Imagine if Gates had thrown his money and weight behind, say, a call for Washington State to institute a modest income tax with the funds to go to public schools. Imagine a Gates-backed PR campaign as thorough and expensive as his campaigns to sell charter schools, but instead one to sell the idea that the public has a responsibility for ALL public schools-- not just the one in their neighborhood.

Gates refers to improved integration and more equitable funding as "important goals," which is kind of like saying that keeping babies well-fed is a "pretty good thing." And he really just bruishes by these on his way to talking about the importance of teachers. And now he just let's Bowling talk.

Bowling's plea for teacher focus is on point.

“Schools are the building blocks of our democracy,” he [Bowling] told me [Gates]. “If we’re going to create a better society, it has to happen through schools. And if we’re going to build a better society through our schools, it has to happen through better teaching.”

Gates reports that Bowling called for teacher autonomy, incentives to keep good teachers in the classroom, and recognition that the demands of teaching in high-poverty schools are different. That all gets compressed into one paragraph. Gates takes two paragraphs to report Bowling's call for better professional development, based on the belief that all teachers can become better.

All in all, it's an odd conversation to read about and watch (there's a short video clip, too). I am not sure how much of Bowling's message Gates really hears. Oddly enough, though he says that Bowling's "difficult subjects' are ones that "we need to be discussing," we don't really hear him respond to any of what Bowling has to say. The only time we hear Gates' voice is when he notes how he's affected by Bowling's self-designation as a "nerd farmer."

So I'm glad that Bowling's mouth and Gates' ears were in the same room. I'm not sure how much of an impression Bowling made; while it's nice that Gates let a nerd farmer in to see him, maybe what we need is a nerd whisperer.


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. This article was tweeted to me, and posted by two friends to my Facebook page, described as "great" and "powerful." But I had the same reaction as you: where's the justice & equity beef? Here's what I wrote to one enthusiastic poster:

    "And yet---Bill Gates supports charters (which, research shows, have increased segregation). And Gates supports (almost single-handedly) the "accountability" movement, which has led to the school-to-prison pipeline, excessive (and meaningless) testing, loss of teacher control over curriculum, instruction and assessment. Gates believes that poor teaching in high-poverty areas is responsible for poor outcomes, which has led to stripping resources from public education and privatizing.

    While I deeply admire Nathan Bowling for speaking to Bill Gates, so powerfully and articulately, I do not see anything in this interview that would lead me to believe Gates has changed his mind about the policies HE considers effective.

  2. Chicago. Hometown of POTUS. Hometown of Secretary of Education (seven year tenure). Hometown of POTUS top advisor for the first term of his presidency and is now a two term mayor. If anyone asked any of them today, without a heads up, what their proposed solutions would be, I think you would hear the same lame responses we have heard all along. These people learned nothing as leaders. They broke no new ground. They deepened the ruts of the problems.

    The solution requires a radical shift in thinking regarding what education is. They don't have the will or courage to go that route. Bill Gates wants to be part of the solution and he ends up being a big part of the problem.

    Courage and vision. Nowhere to be found among the players we see today. Sorry to be so negative.

  3. Bill Gatess the product of Lakeside which is an elite private school in the outer area of Seattle just down the road from a public high school that turned it around by adding an IB program that has worked. And what does that cost.. money. The other IB programs in Seattle are in struggling schools where the funds are killing them and yet the students/families want that program as it believes it will work. Where is Gates w/that? Such artifice and pandering.