(Update: Comment from Gates foundation)

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) rocked the education world — and drew strong criticism from teachers and others — by questioning why school buildings still exist and announcing that he would work with Microsoft founder Bill Gates to “reimagine education,” with technology at the forefront.

Cuomo, who in the past has angered educators by supporting controversial Gates-funded school reforms, said Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic offers an opportunity to change how students are educated, and he called Gates “a visionary” whose “thoughts on technology and education” should be advanced. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent billions of dollars on education reform projects it has conceded did not work as hoped.

“The old model of everybody goes and sits in the classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms — why, with all the technology you have?” Cuomo said at Tuesday’s coronavirus response news conference.

He showed a slide with questions about how technology can transform education, which it has failed to do so far despite the promises of its supporters. And he said a panel of experts would be convened to find a way forward with education and other issues. On Wednesday, he tapped another billionaire, former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, to lead his new blue-ribbon commission to “reimagine” New York state.

The coronavirus pandemic — which shut down schools around the country and put millions of students and teachers online for remote education — has, he said, shown just how unprepared the country was for such a transition.

“When does change come to a society? Because we all talk about change and advancement, but really we like control, and we like the status quo, and it’s hard to change the status quo,” he said. “But you get moments in history where people say, ‘Okay, I’m ready. I’m ready for change. I get it.’ I think this is one of those moments. And I think education, as well as other topics, is a topic where people will say, ‘Look, I’ve been reflecting, I’ve been thinking, I learned a lot.’ We all learned a lot about how vulnerable we are and how much we have to do, and let’s start talking about really revolutionizing education. And it’s about time.”

Cuomo’s comments drew immediate rebuke from teachers and others who have lived through Gates-funded education reforms, which critics say have harmed public schools because they were unworkable from the start and consumed resources that could have been better spent.

There was, for example, the Common Core State Standards, which were developed and implemented with Gates Foundation money and which were rushed into classrooms in New York without sufficient time for training and curriculum development. And there was the effort to evaluate teachers by the standardized test scores of their students, with methods that resulted in New York and other states’ teachers being evaluated by students they did not have and subjects they didn’t teach. A major report on effects over six years of the foundation’s Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching (IP) initiative, which had as a key feature teacher evaluation systems similar to New York’s, found the IP project did not improve either student achievement or the quality of teachers — and did more harm than good.

Asked about the new initiative, the Gates foundation said in a statement on Wednesday: “The foundation is specifically supporting this effort by recommending education experts who can help advise and inform this work across a range of topics. We believe that teachers have an important perspective that needs to be heard and should be represented on this panel. The foundation is also contributing our own insights from years of working with partners in New York state and across the country. One of those insights is how technology can enhance teaching and be a tool for teachers as they apply their craft.”

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta rejected Cuomo’s remarks, saying in a statement, “If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state. Let’s secure the federal funding and new state revenues through taxes on the ultrawealthy that can go toward addressing these needs. And let’s recognize educators as the experts they are by including them in these discussions about improving our public education system for every student.”

Kathleen Elliott-Birdsall, a teacher at Smith Intermediate School in Cortland, said she “very nearly became apoplectic” when she heard about Cuomo’s plan to work with the Gates Foundation to “reimagine education.”

She cited what she called “the mess Gates made with Common Core” and said this about her governor: “Andrew Cuomo does not value teachers. He did not include any K-12 educators on his panel for reentry [from coronavirus closures]. I find it incredible that he asks Bill Gates, a man who has disrupted education in so many ways, to develop a plan. Why not ask teachers, those of us in the front lines, for input?”

And there was plenty on Twitter, including this:

Education and student privacy activist Leonie Haimson cited the inBloom fiasco as one of the failed education initiatives from the Gates Foundation. She co-led a successful effort to stop a $100 million cloud-based system — largely funded by the Gates Foundation and operated by a nonprofit organization, inBloom — that contained detailed personal information about millions of students. During the fight, Cuomo said massive student data collection was “necessary” and kept New York in the initiative longer than most other states that were involved.

Bill and Melinda Gates said in their foundation’s irony-rich 2020 annual letter that they were skeptical of billionaires trying to use their own money to shape public education policy. Yet they spent part of their fortune trying to shape public education policy, successfully leveraging public funding to support projects they thought were worthwhile.

These are the questions Cuomo said would be considered as New York state and the Gates Foundation consider the future of education:

  • How can we use technology to provide more opportunities to students no matter where they are;
  • How can we provide shared education among schools and colleges using technology;
  • How can technology reduce educational inequality, including English as a new language students;
  • How can we use technology to meet educational needs of students with disabilities;
  • How can we provide educators more tools to use technology;
  • How can technology break down barriers to K-12 and Colleges and Universities to provide greater access to high quality education no matter where the student lives; and
  • Given ongoing socially distancing rules, how can we deploy classroom technology, like immersive cloud virtual classrooms learning, to re-create larger class or lecture hall environments in different locations?

Here’s exactly what Cuomo said on Tuesday about the new education initiative:

And one of the areas we can really learn from is education. We’ve all been talking about tele-education, virtual education, remote education, and there’s a lot that can be done. The old model of everybody goes and sits in the classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms — why, with all the technology you have? And we’ve been exploring different alternatives with technology. We have classrooms in this state that have technology where they’re talking to students on Long Island with a teacher from Staten Island, with students from around the world, participating with technology, hearing that one teacher. And if you look at the technology, it looks like all these different students are in one classroom.
All right, well, let’s learn from that and let’s learn from this experience. We did a lot of remote learning. Frankly, we weren’t prepared to do it. We didn’t have advanced warning, but we did what we had to do and the teachers and the education system did a great job, but there’s more we can do. We’re still working on providing some students with the technology, with the tablets, et cetera. Some teachers needed training, they weren’t ready for it. Well, let’s take this experience and really learn how we can do differently and better with our education system in terms of technology and virtual education, et cetera.
And that’s something we’re actively working on through this process. So it’s not about just reopening schools, when we are reopening schools, let’s open a better school and let’s open a smarter education system. And I want to thank the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We’ll be working with them on this project. Bill Gates is a visionary in many ways and his ideas and thoughts on technology and education, he’s spoken about for years, but I think we now have a moment in history where we can actually incorporate and advance those ideas.
When does change come to a society? Because we all talk about change and advancement, but really we like control, and we like the status quo, and it’s hard to change the status quo. But you get moments in history where people say, “Okay, I’m ready. I’m ready for change. I get it.”
I think this is one of those moments. And I think education as well as other topics is a topic where people will say, “Look, I’ve been reflecting, I’ve been thinking, I learned a lot.” We all learned a lot about how vulnerable we are and how much we have to do, and let’s start talking about really revolutionizing education. And it’s about time.