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Posted at 07:30 AM ET, 08/31/2011

Imagine a $500,000 Gates Foundation grant to Harvard

Why would the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s richest foundation, hand over a $500,000 grant to Harvard, the world’s wealthiest university?

It turns out that Harvard, in July, was given a $500,000 grant fromGates, which has its financial tentacles deep in the education world and beyond, to do the following, according to the foundation’s Web site:

“to re-imagine the Harvard Graduate School of Education for the future”

Yes, Harvard got that much money to “re-imagine.”

What will school officials do with the cash? Here’s what Kathleen McCartney, the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, sent me in an e-mail to that question:

“We are conducting a strategic planning process with an eye towards the future for schools of education generally, and the Harvard Graduate School specifically. We’ve just gotten started, so no news to report as yet.”

Asked about the grant, Gates foundation spokesman Chris Williams said in an email: “The grant supports a strategic planning process the Graduate School of Education is working on,” and said Harvard would have more details.

Half- a-million dollars can pay for a lot of re-imagining, I’d imagine. At a lovely resort. Or maybe a villa in Tuscany. Hey, they could pay to have Oprah facilitate, and, for visioning exercises, they can purchase a slew of the hottest white boards on the market.

Who knew Harvard, with a $27 billion-plus endowment, needed Gates money for this?

Descartes imagined “Cogito ergo sum” without a Gates grant, but these days, even re-imagining comes under the Gates umbrella of largesse.

It is fair to wonder if educational institutions that take Gates money feel obliged to consider the education positions of Bill Gates.

Gates supports modern reform efforts that unfortunately apply business principles to the public education system, which is not a business but rather a civic institution, the most important one in the country.

The policy push toward competition in public education was initially premised, at least by some, on the notion that traditional public schools would improve when families had other, better alternatives, such as publically funded charter schools. It hasn’t quite worked out that way for a number of reasons, including the fact that the biggest research study on charters schools shows that most of them aren’t any better than the traditional schools.

Gates not only invests in policy initiatives, but also in building public support for his investments. The foundation spent at least $3.5 million to create a new organization whose aim is to win over the public and the media to its market-driven approach to school reform, according to a closely held document that I wrote about earlier this year.

The organization, Communities for Teaching Excellence, was designed to win public approval for the foundation’s investment of more than $335 million in teacher effectiveness programs in four school districts that involve controversial initiatives, including linking teacher pay to student standardized test scores.(Critics, including me, say this “value-added” model-based test scores is unfair because there are many factors that go into how well a student does on a test.)

The original plan for the organization included campaigns to reachout to parents, teachers, students, business and civic and religious leaders, and to build “strong ties to local journalists, opinion elites, and local/state policymakers and their staffs.”

And last year, the foundation gave a $2 million grant to a media company “to execute a social action campaign that will complement Paramount’s marketing campaign of Waiting for Superman,” the tendentious pro-charter school anti-Randi Weingarten film.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation leads the growing number of foundations and wealthy individuals who have made the beneficiary of their charity the reform of public education, or, rather, pet projects, including charter schools, charter school management companies and teacher assessment systems.

Their unprecedented input has strongly influenced the shape of education reform according to their preferences, effectively giving non-elected private people control of policy directions that should properly be reserved to governmental decision-making bodies.

Even if they were investing in sound policy initiatives their role would be questionable, but the direction of the investments is based on nothing in research and is more likely to cause harm.

About a decade ago, Gates decided that small schools were the answer to the high school dropout problem, so from 2000-2009 he poured in about $2 billion to help reform high schools and improve graduation rates of minority students — with most of the money going to create small schools out of large drop-out factories.

When standardized test scores didn’t go up, Gates pulled out his money and declared the effort pretty much a failure. It wasn’t entirely, but he moved on, now, to teacher assessment as the answer to troubled schools. Teacher assessment systems in many districts are in dire need of reform, but not the kind that is dominated by standardized test scores.

Do we really want experimenting philanthropists to have a role driving education policy?

One last thing:

Next time the Gates foundation decides to hand over big bucks for re-imagining, please note: For a tenth of what you gave Harvard, the education reporting team at The Post will re-imagine anything you want.

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By  |  07:30 AM ET, 08/31/2011

 
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