The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What are Bill and Melinda Gates talking about?

Bill and Melinda Gates received the J. William Fulbright Award for International Understanding at the Library of Congress on October 15, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Susan Biddle/For The Washington Post.)

Bill Gates is the leader of education philanthropy in the United States, pouring a few billion dollars over more than a decade to promote school reforms that he has championed. They include the Common Core State Standards, a small-schools initiative in New York City that he abandoned after deciding it wasn’t working, and controversial new teacher evaluation systems that use student standardized test scores to determine the “effectiveness” of educators. Such philanthropy has sparked a debate about whether American democracy is well-served by wealthy people who pour part of their fortunes into their pet projects — regardless of whether they are grounded in research — to such a degree that public policy and funding follow.

Bill and his wife Melinda Gates recently sat down with PBS journalist Gwen Ifill at the U.S. Education Learning Forum to discuss the reforms they support. This post, by Carol Burris, the executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education Fund, looks at what they said and explains what it actually means.  Burris retired in June as an award-winning principal at a New York high school, and she is the author of numerous articles, books and blog posts (including on The Answer Sheet) about the botched school reform efforts in her state.

By Carol Burris

In 2012, Rick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote a brutally honest account of the how the true believers of the Common Core think.  Hess called the piece “The Common Core Kool-Aid” and it ran in his Ed Week blog, Straight Up.

The blog post recounted Hess’ experience at the 2012 education summit sponsored by Jeb Bush. At that summit, Rick spoke with those pushing Common Core reforms and they bluntly explained their strategy to him. He summed up what they said:

First, politicians will actually embrace the Common Core assessments and then will use them to set cut scores that suggest huge numbers of suburban schools are failing. Then, parents and community members who previously liked their schools are going to believe the assessment results rather than their own lying eyes. Finally, newly convinced that their schools stink, parents and voters will embrace reform.

[Gates pours millions more into Common Core]

Hess continued:

Common Core advocates evince an eerie confidence that they can scare these voters into embracing the “reform” agenda. And this conviction has become the happy Kool-Aid that allows would-be reformers to ignore the fact that they’re not actually offering to tackle the things–like world language mastery, and music and arts instruction, that suburban parents care about.

Hess wrote the above three years ago, prior to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s swipe at suburban moms who inconveniently refused to fall in line with that plan. Yet despite the considerable push-back against Common Core standards and their tests, the happy kool-aid continues to be served with gusto by the pair who have stirred the pitcher — Bill and Melinda Gates.

[‘White suburban mom’ responds to Arne Duncan]

Last week, Bill Gates gave the keynote speech at his U.S. Education Learning Forum that celebrated the 15 years that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has influenced the educational policies and practices of an entire nation. Later, he and Melinda sat down with Gwen Ifill of PBS for a 30-minute interview.

Bill Gates’s introductory remarks are best characterized by the phrase, “stay the course.” He renewed his commitment to his MET evaluation system, despite poll after poll showing opposition to the evaluation of teachers by test scores in any form at all. Parents get what he does not—the inclusion of test scores in evaluations results in hyper-focus on the tests. And of course he reaffirmed his commitment to the Common Core.

What was far more interesting than his speech, however, was the couple’s conversation with Ifill, which you can watch here or below.

From this interview, three things seem clear.

  • Bill and Melinda Gates do not understand teaching and learning, yet they comfortably assume an air of expertise.
  • They view victory as the implementation of their reforms and while they claim to be all about the metrics, they only select examples that suit their purpose.
  • The first couple of reform neither appreciate nor respect the role of democracy plays in the governance public schools.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing: The self-anointed expertise of Mr. and Mrs. Gates.

In response to a Twitter-generated question about testing, Bill Gates responded with professorial gush about its educative value, which he referred to as “one of the most important things in the whole education process.” He began by citing an unnamed study—“they did a thing—it’s one of the most dramatic results in education ever” which, he claimed, showed that you learn more if you are tested.

I have read small studies that show recall of factual knowledge improves after a test, but such studies are limited in scope and are certainly not a justification for annual standardized testing. Gates’s habit of loosely referring to research, whether it be on testing or the evaluation of teachers by tests scores, is done solely for the purpose of buttressing his reform world view. When he explained the difference between formative and summative assessment, it quickly became clear that he has no idea what he is talking about.

 [What Bill Gates said is the biggest challenge facing his foundation]

Progress is what we say it is.

 Bill and Melinda Gates identified one state, Kentucky, and two cities, Denver and Washington D.C., as examples of the efficacy of their reforms. Even as they cherry pick their research, so they cherry pick their results.

The Gateses touted Kentucky’s increases in graduation rates as an example of a victory. The climb in the state’s graduation rates, however, began long before the Gates’ reforms. Between 2000 and 2010, Kentucky experienced an increase of 13.5 points. Bill Gates chooses to ignore early progress, and compare growth in graduation rates from that point to the present, implying that the Common Core, which did not begin in Kentucky until the 2011-2012 school year, had an astounding effect on students who had nearly all of their schooling before it was implemented.

Melinda Gates went even further. She said that because of the Common Core, college readiness rates in Kentucky jumped from 34 percent to 62 percent. I have no idea how Melinda Gates and Kentucky are defining college readiness. They are certainly not using the ACT college readiness scores.

Only the percentage of students who achieve ACT college readiness scores in science (which has little to do with the Common Core standards, which are in math and English Language Arts) have experienced recent, substantial growth, and the percentage achieving college readiness in reading (which has everything to do with the Common Core) have dropped. While the overall percentage of students who met the ACT college readiness standard in all four subjects has increased about point a year since 2011, at 21 percent Kentucky is still well below the national average of 28 percent. Twenty-one percent is a far cry from Melinda Gates’s claim of 62 percent.

And then there is Denver. The Gateses expressed their delight that there are reformers in place from top to bottom in the state. Not everyone in Denver agrees, however, that the city is making progress. Jeannie Kaplan served on the Denver School Board from 2005 to 2013. This is what she told me about Denver “reforms:”

“The University of Washington’s Center on Re-inventing Public Education (which is heavily subsided by the Gates Foundation), recently published its study of how education reform was faring in 50 urban districts.  Out of 37 districts for which data was available regarding closing the gap on reading and math, Denver was dead last. Nationally the gaps stood at around 14 percent, in Denver those gaps were 38 percent and 30 percent respectively.  And in the ten years since “reform” has been implemented these gaps have increased steadily in reading, math and writing. As for graduation rates, Denver was 45th out of 50 with a graduation rate at 65 percent.
Denver has flat ACT scores barely over 18.   Re-segregation is happening — three-quarters of Denver’s schools are “demographically homogeneous” as defined by The New York Times. If Gates think Denver is a success, he must not be looking at academic/education outcomes.  And I thought that was what a public school system was all about.”

Perhaps the most outrageous claim of all, however, was made about schools in Washington, D.C. Melinda Gates gushed about the city’s charters, praising Kaya Henderson for pushing charter school reforms into all D.C. schools. Awash in the Kool-Aid, she said that because of these reforms, “guess what, those kids are ready to go to college” (minute 13:13 on the video above).

Some graduates of D.C. schools are college ready, but the reality remains that only 64 percent of the district’s students even graduated in 2015 from high school in four years. Only 29 percent of all D.C. students met the SAT College Readiness Benchmark last year, compared with the national percentage of 41 percent. Still fewer black students in DC met the SAT benchmark—11 percent compared with 16 percent nationally.

Democracy gets in the way.

It was clear that the couple worry that the democratic process can undo their reforms. As Bill Gates wryly observed at the end of the interview, “The work can go backwards….nobody votes to un-invent our vaccine.” Melinda Gates told Ifill that she is disappointed by the “apathy of parents where schools are working for their kids, they happen to be in the honors classes or they happen to go to a good suburban school…those parents are trying to keep the school in check but they are not helping us think about the rest” (minute 23:35).

Clearly, Melinda Gates assumes that those who do not drink the Kool-Aid are terribly selfish. That parents might resist the Common Core, testing and charter schools because they believe they are not in the best interests of all children — rich and poor, suburban and inner city — is not something she accepts.

And so from the largest philanthropic foundation on the planet, we can expect not self-reflection but more of the same. Bill and Melinda Gates still believe that the academic playing field is made fair by three good teachers in a row and by charters schools in which six year olds robotically tell visitors what college they will attend.

They don’t seem likely to admit that in a school where 98 percent of the students receive free or reduced priced lunch, 50 percent do not speak English and 1 in 5 students have learning disabilities, you need to spend a lot of money, far more than is being spent today, and even then it will be an uphill battle. And they certainly will not take a long and hard look at a harsh economic system that benefits the mega-rich on the backs of the poor — a system in which losers are needed in order to create the unimaginable wealth and power that we see today in the hands of Bill Gates and other billionaire education philanthropists he praised.

[The three-great-teachers-in-a-row myth]

Melinda Gates said she was shocked to see high schools in Los Angeles with metal detectors at the door and students running into class to get out of the halls. I am shocked that she was surprised. Schools in areas devastated by high crime and poverty have been troubled places for decades. Yet despite poverty, violence, truancy, revolving standards, changing tests and the threat of closings, the teachers who go through the metal detectors every day still teach kids in emotional crisis, kids with special needs, kids who do not speak English, kids with interrupted learning, and kids who are forced to move every time a lease is up.

The happy Kool-Aid is not the elixir that will make it all okay for the kids who attend those schools, no matter how optimistic the Gateses may be.

[What are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett talking about?]