A Colonizing Agenda
Wayne Au on Bill Gates’ Education Failures
Illustrator: Mike Konopacki
Janine Jackson, program director at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and host of their weekly radio show CounterSpin, interviewed Rethinking Schools editor Wayne Au over the summer about the failure of Bill Gates’ educational initiatives. This transcript of the interview has been edited for clarity and length.
JANINE JACKSON: A new report from the RAND Corporation concludes that the multimillion-dollar teacher evaluation project, championed and partially bankrolled by Bill Gates, did not increase teachers’ effectiveness or improve students’ academic performance, including the low-income minority students that were presented as the initiative’s major beneficiaries.
It’s important to note that while the Gates Foundation underwrote a reported $215 million of this project, that was less than half; school districts supplied the rest. So we’re not talking about an episode of perhaps naive corporate noblesse oblige, troubling as that would be. But a lot of public resources were put into this “use test scores to evaluate teachers” project that many, many educators knew from the get-go was misdirected.
WAYNE AU: That’s unfortunate, but I think it makes sense if you look at things in the current context. The same thing happened with Common Core and Race to the Top as well. And we have a situation where public school districts are strapped for cash, we have class sizes that are exploding, teachers paying out of pocket for classroom resources, and so school districts are hurting for money.
And what often happens is philanthropists like the Gates Foundation say, “Hey, we have this project. Would you partner with us on this? And we’re investing this much money in doing this thing, but you need to come and give X amount of dollars to this project as well, and devote your resources.” It’s within this context of what I characterize as austerity funding for public education that many districts agree to partner with these foundations, because it looks like they’re bringing money in.
Unfortunately, what happens is that many of the districts end up finding — this was the case with Common Core as well — that the money coming in for these new programs pales in comparison to what it took to implement the programs, or to cooperate with the research, and with these different kinds of programs.
And so it’s one of those things where we end up having our public dollars, public tax dollars, being sucked away into this whole other enterprise. And this is the sad part of it: Even though there is this philanthropic money coming from the Gates Foundation, and public money coming from the school districts, often either nonprofits or for-profit corporations that are creating the data tools for these things; they’re the ones who get this money, and make money off of this kind of research project.
JACKSON: Right, it seems as though it’s ultimately about privatization, isn’t it, this gospel of the private sector and market forces being the right response to everything?
AU: Oh, absolutely, and you get that from the Gates Foundation all the time. Gates is very clear. He’s trying to create, and he’s said this before, market conditions and market forces where everybody’s working to make money, but this will be in the best interest of kids and education; and that’s how he frames this entire agenda. For me, that’s the greatest fallacy of this idea of researching teachers in the way that the Gates Foundation did, and unfortunately in concert with the school districts. We’ve known for decades, from the research base, that teachers are critically important in terms of how students learn things, how students experience classrooms.
However, we also know that test scores are very limited measures of student performance, what students know, what students learn. Therefore, they are minimal in terms of measuring what teachers teach.
But here we have the Gates Foundation pushing high-stakes standardized testing, which teachers have very little effect on; the research has shown this for a long time, that if you take any standardized test score, a teacher influences somewhere between 18 to 25 percent, depending on the study you’re looking at, and everything else is external factors. There’s all this stuff outside of schools that accounts for 75 percent of a test score. This is if you want to believe the test scores. So we’re talking food security, housing security, access to adequate healthcare, dental care, livable wages for their parents. These are the things that impact test scores, but this is only if you’re going after test scores as your main measure.
JACKSON: Yeah, and all of those other factors — like food security, like housing — that of course, if you think about it, have an impact on test scores. That, to me, makes the making of props of Black and Brown kids and underserved kids especially cynical.
AU: Oh, for sure. I see this as a colonizing agenda, because what we have are predominantly white, super-wealthy elite philanthropies, like the Gates Foundation, putting these programs into mostly Black and Brown, working-class communities. And it creates this dynamic where you have these rich missionaries saying, “We know what’s best for you and your kids, we’re going to do these things.” Meanwhile, it treats these children, these Black and Brown children, as experiments. And so the power dynamics are really, really skewed.
At the same time Gates, here in Washington state, is opposed to a more progressive tax structure. He’s fought against efforts here to improve our tax structure so that we could give more basic services to more people in the state. We have one of the most regressive tax structures. And so there’s a great irony in — maybe irony is the wrong word — but you can just see the problems with these super-elite, white corporate folks saying, “Hey, we know what’s best for these communities.”
And that’s also illustrated by the fact that Gates wasn’t using these measures to study the teachers of his kids at the elite rich private schools in the Seattle area. None of these reforms are for his kids. These are reforms for everyone else’s kids.
JACKSON: Right. Well, the Gates Foundation, like others, has a strategy. They make their own echo effect, and part of that, as you know, is funding education journalism. That’s something else that you have, as one headline had it, “tangled with” — Gates-funded education blogs, so there’s an impact in the way these things are covered.
AU: There’s no mistake that mainstream media has not followed up on the failure of the Gates study and interventions into teacher evaluation, because, again, here in Seattle, the Seattle Times’ education reporting is partially funded by the Gates Foundation, like this “focus on solutions.” There was a whole granting programming around that, but when you talk to those reporters about what they’re allowed to report on, they say, “Well, Gates doesn’t control us.” But then I’ll ask, “How come you’re not reporting on this? We know ethnic studies helps kids do better in school, particularly low-income Black and Brown kids.” And they’ll say, “Well, it’s complicated.”
We see the same thing in educational research. So it’s not just these major philanthropies impacting reporting; they’re also impacting what kind of research gets done, because they have their own funding machine that funds particular kinds of research. And so they fund research on teacher evaluation and then, in turn, everyone who is chasing after grants starts trying to build their agendas around that so they can get the Gates money. But Gates only funds stuff that falls in line with standardized testing, and everything else that’s part of their neoliberal choice/market agenda.
JACKSON: And another frustration from the media perspective is that all of those sources who pointed out the flaws in this teacher evaluation agenda from the beginning, and who were able to say quite clearly what the problems were, those sources — and now RAND is coming along, essentially certifying that point of view — those sources are still not going to be the ones who get to weigh in when the next big-money idea for education comes along, even though their concerns have borne out in this case.
AU: Oh yes, no one ever talks to teachers. No one ever talks to parents. None of these big philanthropies goes to communities to engage them. They like to pretend they are, and they say, “Well, look, we’re working with this nonprofit or that nonprofit.” But all of that is also a bit fuzzy and a little shady, because maybe the nonprofits that they use are themselves funded by the Gates Foundation, and are about promoting a particular agenda.
But there are social justice-minded community activists committed to public education, parent activists; these folks need to be brought into the conversation, along with teachers, along with unions. They should be involved in the decision-making, in the agenda-setting. Because we know what’s wrong on the ground level, we know what’s going on.
And we know that all these major reforms — from small schools, to Common Core, to the teacher evaluation stuff that Gates has been doing, those three major projects that they funded — they’ve been failing everywhere. They’ve been doing this massive, anti-democratic, top-down model of education reform, and they only pretend to talk to the folks down on the ground. Instead they believe they know what’s right, and they’re just going to work their power and their money to get that implemented, until it doesn’t work.
Learn more about FAIR and CounterSpin at www.fair.org. Pick up a copy of Au’s two latest book projects — Teaching for Black Lives and A Marxist Education — at teachingforblacklives.org and haymarketbooks.org.