Gates Foundation responds to critical articles

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation responded on Tuesday to a package of articles published in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how much influence Bill Gates has wielded in higher education.

In a post on the Web site, Daniel Greenstein, the foundation’s director of education and post-secondary success, said that the Chronicle’s special report “missed the big picture” in its extensive special report detailing how Microsoft founder Gates has spent nearly half a billion dollars since 2006 supporting higher education initiatives. The Chronicle quoted a number of people questioning whether one private individual should wield so much power in shaping public policy to align with his goals simply because he is wealthy.

The Chronicle explains that Gates is leveraging his private money to push public higher education policy toward getting more students degrees faster through technology and what is called “competency-based learning,” which in part rewards students for what they know rather than for how many credits they take in college. Standardized testing is a big part of this vision.

Greenstein said in his post that “we welcome this level of scrutiny” and he called for a “rigorous” public conversation about the foundation’s post-secondary education strategy. (He didn’t mention why the foundation didn’t call for a public discussion of the strategy when it began plowing money into it years ago, but never mind.) The post also says:

As we engage in that dialogue, it’s important to remember what’s at stake. The Chronicle’s report missed the big picture. It doesn’t mention that nearly three out of four students aren’t enrolled in full-time, four-year degree programs and that the current system doesn’t work for adults who are juggling jobs, family and other priorities while they also work toward a degree – an elaborate dance that too often ends in students leaving school with no degree, but lots of debt. When 90% of ninth graders and 80% of twelfth graders expect they will get a four year degree, it isn’t surprising why so many students are trying to fit higher education into their lives, no matter how difficult that might be.

 

Amidst this transformation of the student population, “college” remains essentially the same – geared toward a full-time residential student with family support. That just doesn’t work for the vast majority of students anymore.

 

The Chronicle’s report, it should be noted, was not aimed at looking at solutions to making a college education more affordable but rather how one fabulously wealthy man has wielded so much power in setting public policy to his liking.

The Gates Foundation also sent me a piece about what it says are erroneous reports that Gates was pushing a $5 billion plan to videotape teachers in every classroom in the country as part of an effort for teachers to see how they perform.

Foundation spokesman Chris Williams wrote the following:

Setting the Record Straight About Cameras in the Classroom

 

A camera in every classroom for $5 billion? Actually, no, that’s not what Bill Gates recently proposed. That so many people think he did is a minor case study in the growth of urban legends.

 

In a recent TED Talk about teacher feedback and evaluation, he did suggest that implementing a teacher evaluation and professional development system which relied on multiple measures of teacher performance could cost about $5 billion. That system ought to include observations of teachers teaching in classrooms, and other factors like student academic growth and student feedback.

 

In that same TED Talk, Bill referenced teachers who volunteered to have their lessons videotaped as part of a Gates-foundation research project called “Measures of Effective Teaching.” This project found that using multiple measures to evaluate and understand a teacher’s performance in the classroom provides a richer and more reliable picture of a teacher’s strength and areas for improvement than any one measure alone.

 

Somehow, Bill’s remarks about the cost – and necessity – of an overall teacher evaluation system were interpreted to mean $5 billion just for cameras in every classroom. But Bill never said that. Fast Company was the first to mistakenly report this, and they have since corrected their story. But not before several other news outlets and education writers and observers picked it up and ran with it.

 

So just to set the record straight, Bill Gates believes teachers should be evaluated and developed based on multiple measures, including observations, which could be done by video camera, trained raters, and principals. Cameras need not be the sole mechanism of the observation in teacher evaluation and development systems. The Answer Sheet made the same mistake that others did in conflating a research project with a broader proposal for teaching. I hope this clears up any misunderstanding.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · July 16, 2013