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A parent writes to Gates and Zuckerberg: You asked for advice on education. Here’s mine.

From left, Bertis Downs, manager of the band R.E.M., with U2 producer Jacknife Lee and R.E.M. band member Mike Mills at opening night of U2’s eXPERIENCE tour on May 2. Downs is also a public school advocate. (Courtesy of Bertis Downs)

Tech giants Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg just joined in a new education initiative with the stated aim of helping kids who have trouble learning — and they say they are seeking advice from people in a range of fields on how to proceed. Here’s advice for them from Bertis Downs, a Georgia public school parent and public school advocate who was manager and legal counsel of the band R.E.M.

Both Gates and Zuckerberg have already spent fortunes on education reform programs — though the results may not be what they had hoped.

Gates funded efforts to create small schools out of big ones — which can work for some students when done properly — but he abandoned it, saying it hadn’t worked as he expected. Then he put hundreds of millions of dollars into experiments with evaluating teachers with student standardized test scores, a practice assessment experts say isn’t fair or valid. Gates, through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also spent hundreds of millions of dollars to create and implement the controversial Common Core State Standards. And he has spent a good deal more money on many smaller education projects. He has admitted that education philanthropy has been, to say the least, challenging.

Bill Gates has a(nother) billion-dollar plan for K-12 public education. The others didn’t go so well.

As for Zuckerberg, he gave $100 million to the Newark public school system, much of which was used on consultants as the district pursued a controversial reform strategy that included expanding charter schools and school choice. His Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is now promoting new reform models, including “personalized learning,” which sounds as if  it makes sense but is, in many instances, nothing more than computer-based learning for kids who sit in front of screens for a good part of their school day.

To Mark Zuckerberg from a former classmate: Why I’m ‘alarmed’ by your new school reform effort

Now, Gates and Zuckerberg are teaming up (though they have not yet committed a dollar amount) with the idea of finding new technologies that can help children who struggle with the basics: reading and math. And this time, they are looking for expert advice on how to proceed. Here’s what their “Request for Information” says:

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) are jointly exploring whether transformative education solutions can be developed through an accelerated research and development (R&D) effort. This approach would bring together interdisciplinary teams from education research, human development research, learning measurement, evidence-based technology-enhanced practice, professional development, neuroscience, and other fields. The teams would produce models, practices, tools and other resources that are designed to achieve specific, measurable improvements in student outcomes (both academic and nonacademic) across a large range of education contexts. For further background reading on this effort, please consult this detailed overview.
CZI and BMGF are requesting information on the current state-of-the-art and bold evidence- or strong-theory-grounded visions for new, ambitious developments in the program areas listed below. The included links provide in-depth information on each program area.
  1. Improving Writing: Developing the Requisite Habits, Skills, and Strategies

  2. Improving Mathematical Understanding, Application, and Related Mindsets

  3. Measuring and Improving Executive Function

To begin a response to one or more program areas, please visit this link.


  • We welcome all promising ideas for how to use existing and new knowledge and tools to achieve dramatic results against the challenges we describe.

  • We encourage responses from individuals, groups, or collaborations both inside and outside the education community, including but not limited to practitioners, universities, university-affiliated research centers, not-for-profit research institutions, professional development organizations, government-sponsored labs, and public and private companies.

Here’s a post from Downs with some rather unorthodox advice for Gates and Zuckerberg. Downs advocates for public education in Clarke County, Ga., where he lives, as well as across the country. He was an adjunct professor teaching entertainment law and music law at the University of Georgia Law School. And he is a board member of the nonprofit advocacy group People for the American Way and the nonprofit education advocacy group Network for Public Education.

An Open Letter To Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg:
I hear you guys are looking for feedback from people involved in public education — teachers, school board members, parents, and many others.  I write to you as a public school parent.
Since I spend time in my kids’ schools and other public schools, I talk to teachers, students, other parents, school board members and principals on a fairly regular basis. What I hear consistently is that the education policies of recent years, however good or bad the intentions, are disrupting public education — but not in a way that could be considered positive for anyone who truly wants to improve and transform our nation’s schools.
Our teachers are at a breaking point. Mandated standardized testing remains out of control, with kids over-tested and teachers spending too much time on test prep. Many teachers are evaluated in a discredited method based on their students’ standardized test scores. Our teachers and schools have been beaten down through a narrative — that they don’t work at all — which you and other rich philanthropists have spent millions of dollars to perpetuate. These and other factors are contributing to a real crisis of morale among our educators.
But let’s not talk in generalizations. Let’s get personal. You both attended private high schools (though Mr. Zuckerberg did go to a fine public high school for a while) as well as Harvard, and, of all people, know what makes a good school: great teachers with commitment and experience and opportunities to grow professionally into better teachers, engaged and involved parents, reasonable class sizes, proper supports for needy students, adequate facilities, and a rich and varied curriculum including exposure to the arts and physical education.
What we all need and want is pretty straightforward: schools that are the center of their community headed by strong leaders who foster and encourage a learning environment of mutual support and collaboration. That sounds a lot like the school your kids now attend, have attended, or you want them to attend, doesn’t it? (Yes, I know Mr. Zuckerberg has a very young daughter and two of the Gates children have already graduated from a private high school.)
So why can’t the policies and politics you support mirror those priorities and practices for all our nation’s schoolchildren? Why have you funded efforts that have taken our schools in a different direction? You surely consider all of America’s kids just as worthy and deserving of good educations as your own kids.
But what would you think if your kids’ schools pushed the mechanized, de-professionalized vision of “public education” that have come from school reforms and reformers whom you have supported?  What if the private Lakeside Preps or Sidwell Friends had inexperienced teachers, large class sizes, excessive high-stakes testing, hiring and firing teachers based on test score results? How would you and other tuition-paying parents like that? Would you feel like you were getting your money’s worth?
Are you living up to John Dewey’s long-ago vision of good schools for all our kids?:
“What the best and wisest parents want for their own children, that must the community want for all of its children?”
If policies you have supported are such a good idea, why haven’t they been adopted in the schools either you or other reformers have supported? I think we can figure out the answer to that: those policies are not what will result in a stable, talented, dedicated teaching corps, the kind of teachers any great educational enterprise needs at its core.
So since you are seeking honest feedback, here’s mine: Why not see now, or in the future, if your own kids want to try your local public schools?  Then take the leap of faith so many of us do every morning when we send our children off for their school day at the neighborhood school. I happen to know Seattle and Silicon Valley schools have some great teachers and great schools.  There are plenty, and not only the acclaimed teacher Jesse Hagopian at Garfield High School in Seattle. I bet your neighborhood public schools would be plenty good (although the teacher morale might be a bit on the low side these days).
Your kids, and those of your reformer colleagues, would do just fine and the schools could certainly use the infusion of enthusiasm and social capital you would bring to PTA meetings and school council meetings. I think you would be amazed how much you’d learn and how much your kids would learn — in the classroom and beyond. A teacher I know in Raleigh, North Carolina, does a beautiful job of articulating some of the advantages of a public school experience especially for affluent kids:  “Why Affluent Parents Should Demand Diverse Schools for their Children.” Read it if you will. My kids have benefited in some of these same ways as well.
The really great thing about our public schools is that they are resilient. Despite the beatdown they have been subjected to over the years, despite the drubbing they take in the media and through federal and state policies, most of our public schools do a good job of educating our kids. And this is thanks to the committed and gifted teachers still teaching year after year.
My own kids have had great teachers in Athens public schools, wonderful extracurricular opportunities, great friends, and bright futures as products of their dynamic and caring school communities. Your children would be okay in public schools too — in fact, I would contend most advantaged kids actually receive a better education as a result of the social fabric of a thriving public school.  Cultural diversity is inherent in a typical, regular school setting like the ones my kids attend — and they are better off for that.
I know, Mr. Gates, that you have been quoted as saying you never really know what’s going to work when it comes to reforms — that it takes years to know for sure whether they are working.  Putting a child in a public school would give you firsthand experience — and I suspect the policies you endorse from your unique perch might see a marked improvement with your own exposure to their effects. You would see how they actually work out in practice and how they affect teaching and learning in the classroom.
Our schools have challenges for sure, and the problems need to be addressed and real improvements made. But if both of you and your fellow reform mover/shakers could actually see what we public school parents see, you might actually help and not harm the real improvements we all know are needed in our public schools. Hint: it isn’t more and earlier standardized testing and more stressed-out teachers!
Please consider what might well be the single smartest thing said about education at the United States Capitol in a long time — from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.):
“My experience in the education world is that there are really two worlds in it. One is the world of contract and consultants and academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal state and local level. And the other is a world of principals and classroom teachers who are actually providing education to students. What I’m hearing from my principals’ and teachers’ world is that the footprint of that first world has become way too big in their lives to the point where it’s inhibiting their ability to do the jobs they’re entrusted to do.”
And please bear in mind the words that Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall penned 40 years ago, as part of his stirring and prophetic dissent in Milliken v. Bradley:
“Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever begin to live together.”
Bertis Downs,
Attorney, Parent, Athens GA
(Board member, People for the American Way;
Board member, Network for Public Education)
(the author’s opinions represent only himself)