How Bill Gates and fellow billionaires can actually help public education

 


Bill Gates  at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ inaugural Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington D.C. in March 2014. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Here’s a novel idea for how Bill Gates and his fellow billionaires can use their mountains of money to actually help public education instead of continuing to waste the cash on ineffective and damaging school reforms. 

If there is one thing that we know for sure about student achievement in U.S. schools, it’s that achievement is associated with family income. The higher the income, the better students do at school. As blogger Matt Bruenig noted here:

[Y]ou are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!  Therefore… you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.

For some years now a good number of America’s multimillionaires and billionaires have been at the forefront of school reform, funding pet initiatives with massive amounts of cash. Whatever their motives, they have not actually improved public education but taken it down a path creating more problems for the neediest students. They have helped create corporate education reform, which is driven by the mistaken idea that market forces should rule the operation of public schools and that high-stakes standardized tests are the best  “accountability” metric for schools and educators. As Jack Schneider,  assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross and the author of “Excellence For All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America’s Public Schools,” wrote in this post:

Making a case for “disruptive” change, philanthropies with names like Broad, Dell, Gates, Fisher, and Walton—working either directly, or through an infrastructure of nonprofit organizations and political action committees—have won unprecedented influence in the world of education.  And in so doing, they have stigmatized state and district leadership, shown a surprising indifference to educational research, and framed school improvement as a process best pursued through common sense…

Convinced by their experiences in the private sector that organizations could be revolutionized through innovation and “high leverage” solutions, a new generation of reformers pushed a new brand of reform.  Identifying what they saw as “models of excellence,” they used common sense to derive lessons—often from private schools, since context mattered less than replicability—about educational success, and sought to apply those in urban and rural settings….

There are no easy solutions and no quick fixes.  But this cohort of reformers, led by a posse of assertive billionaires and their allies, is united in its faith and unprecedented in its influence.  As such, setbacks alone are hardly enough to challenge the way they approach school reform.  And that’s a problem.  Not just because they are so frequently wrong, but because each time they make the case for a new reform, they blast public school leaders, disrespect what teachers know about classrooms, disregard most of the research on school improvement, and frame our schools as failures.  That isn’t common sense; that’s arrogance.

Given all of this, Carol Burris, an award-winning high school principal in New York who has been writing on this blog about the botched reform efforts in her state (see here, herehere,  here, and here) has come up with a rather novel suggestion for how billionaires can actually help public education with their money.

In a piece she wrote about how the ridiculous way the cut scores for New York’s Common Core-aligned tests were determined, she explains that authorities decided to use SAT scores that New York Education Commissioner John King used to help set the cut score for proficiency on the Common Core tests. After deconstructing the nonsense surrounding the cut scores, she says this:

Now I am certain that if we correlated SAT scores with family income we could surely come up with as pretty a logistic regression probability curve as they got for their study of Regents scores and CUNY grades that gave SED [State Education Department] its ‘aspirational measures’. And it would certainly be as lovely (and similar) to the curve of the New York State study to find those college readiness SAT scores.

So here is my plan. I think all of the billionaires like Bill Gates and [Board of Regents chairperson] Merryl Tisch who are very worried about college readiness should give their millions to make sure that every public school student’s family has at least $160,000 income. Wouldn’t that be a better investment than putting their money into big old databases which no one wants, or into funding Research Fellows to make infomercials and put stuff up on the Engage NY website? And to supplement it, they could take all of the millions that they got from Race to the Top and all of the millions that schools have to pay in enact all of these reforms. Add to that all of the taxpayer dollars yet to be spent buying all of the computers and bandwidth we will need for [Common Core-aligned] PARCC tests.

Why not? It is as reasonable as the present plan. In the end, the taxpayers would come out ahead, and so would the kids.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 21