Last fall, I worked as a research assistant for the late Linda Bergmann. Linda was a brilliant academic and a great mentor; her particular area of of expertise was writing centers, where students of all levels come to work on their writing with expert tutors. I’ve long felt that writing centers are a symbol of what the university can be at its best, with students and teachers collaborating to improve work from a whole variety of departments and disciplines, on texts ranging from freshman compositions to doctoral dissertations, from poetry to resumes. Linda’s work, as a teacher, researcher, and administrator, flowed from Purdue’s Writing Lab and the Purdue OWL, and she was talented and dedicated at all of it.
I worked with Linda on a project that was attempting to port some of these virtues to the digital space. The project is ongoing and involves many researchers, so I won’t discuss it in depth. But at the time I was working on it, I was also diving into the growing media reports of resistance to the Common Core. I was inspired, in part, by the growing perception that the Common Core was being forced from above, without proper vetting or public debate, and in a way that cut the most important stakeholders– parents and teachers– out of the loop. More, I was interested because of the influence of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on this sweeping, rapid adoption. Doing educational and pedagogical research, talking with ed research in person and online, the Gates Foundation is unavoidable. Their influence is everywhere, and many people worry about what that means for the future of American education.
Then, literally an hour or two after I had been reading up on this type of concern and criticism, Linda mentioned in passing that the money they were paying me was Gates Foundation money. I had been working for the foundation without even knowing it.
I should say from the outset: it is absolutely a good thing that they provide money for that research, and all the other research they fund. As a grad student whose financial situation got a little bit easier thanks to that funding, I’m personally grateful. And while it’s essential to the integrity of any research that there be a firewall between the funders and the researchers themselves, I don’t pretend that organizations that fund research have no legitimate interests in the direction of that research. I’d rather this money be out there in the system than not. But there’s a certain size threshold beyond which that kind of influence can become something pernicious. With its incredible size, and the swiftly declining research support of governments in an age of austerity, my fear is that the Gates Foundation long since crossed that threshold.
I bring this all up because of this great piece of reporting by The Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Laton, on the way in which the Gates Foundation was able, with disturbing ease, to implement the Common Core throughout much of the country. I encourage you to read it in full. There’s two points I want to stress. First, that the evidence to support the claim that the Common Core will result in learning gains is thin on the ground. As the WaPo story reads,
Tom Loveless, a former Harvard professor who is an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said the Common Core was “built on a shaky theory.” He said he has found no correlation between quality standards and higher student achievement.
“Everyone who developed standards in the past has had a theory that standards will raise achievement, and that’s not happened,” Loveless said.
This is in keeping with a much broader divide between the rhetoric of education reform and the results of ed reform programs. So many of the boilerplate policy preferences of the ed reform movement, from charter schools to eliminating teacher unions to merit pay, have seen inconclusive or negative research results, and yet that never seems to pierce the elite conversation. Layton:
Jay P. Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, says the Gates Foundation’s overall dominance in education policy has subtly muffled dissent.
“Really rich guys can come up with ideas that they think are great, but there is a danger that everyone will tell them they’re great, even if they’re not,” Greene said.
That problem would not be nearly as acute if not for the size and power of the Gates Foundation. And this is point number two: above a certain size, funders like the Gates Foundation become a problem even if they have all the best intentions. I don’t doubt for a second that Bill and Melinda Gates personally, and most of the people who work for the Foundation, have all the best intentions in what they do. But then, the history of the ed reform movement is a history of the failure of good intentions.
There’s a palpable sense of worry among a lot of education researchers and people in the education nonprofit world, around the Gates Foundation. They’re just so dominant in funding and, through funding, influence. That manifests itself in a fear of publicly criticizing the foundation and its policy preferences. That may be a small fear, it may represent itself subtly, but if you multiply it across the broad world of education research and policy, it can have a major impact on what gets studied, how results are reported, and what is considered realistic policy. It’s easy to make this sound like some kind of explicit corruption, but it’s not that simple or that easy to judge. It isn’t so much a matter of people saying “I want that sweet Gates cash, I better get in line on charter schools.” It’s a matter of identifying what kind of research gets funded, of worrying about funding in the future, of recognizing that plummeting state and federal research dollars can make private foundations like Gates the only game in town. It’s not sinister, on either side of the equation, but it can have pernicious effects.
It’s also a matter of access. Layton describes Gates becoming frustrated and angry when pressed on questions about how the Common Core was implemented. It seems strange to me that he would grow flustered by what are very common concerns about the standards. But then I wonder: how often does he really encounter strong rebuttals to his own preferences in day-to-day life? There is a tendency for rich and powerful men to be surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear. And I think that’s what I worry about most, when it comes to these people at the elite end of the policy spectrum. Are they hearing the kind of criticism of ed reform policy they desperately need to? Does Gates understand that the dominance of demographic factors in educational outcomes is one of the most powerful and consistent findings in the history of education research? Has he seen the research that undercuts claims of sweeping gains from charter schools or merit pay? Has Obama? Has Arne Duncan?
I am not “against” the Gates Foundation. I think that the commitment Bill and Melinda Gates have made to dispersing their immense fortune in charitable ways is remarkable and admirable, however strongly I feel that philanthropy is not a substitute for government intervention. There are some educational projects that have been spearheaded or funded by the Gates Foundation that I find very admirable. But there’s also a set of policy preferences that they push that seem immune to evidence. The tendency of educational technologies to have no meaningful impact on student outcomes is another consistent research finding, and yet the notion that technology will solve our problems is so intrinsic to the Gates Foundation that I doubt they can ever come around on that issue. We’re sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into tablets and ebooks and smart whiteboards…. And yes: some people are getting very, very rich off of this expenditure of public funds. Will it work? We have to have researchers who feel comfortable and free to say no, if that’s what their research shows.
I don’t mean to overstate the case: such negative research is published regularly, and for all of its faults, the structure of our academic institutions, particularly tenure, helps researchers to feel confident in reaching conclusions that are contrary to the interests of entities like the Gates Foundation, Pearson, and the Department of Education. But for graduate students, for adjuncts, for those not yet tenured, for those worried about funding for the future, size alone can be an implicit threat that changes behavior.
None of these problems would be problems if not for the relative size and power of the Gates Foundation. If there were entities of comparable size, if government funding for research was more certain, if Gates was just one powerful force among many, there would be far fewer potential negative consequences. I will be completely upfront in saying that I am opposed to the education reform movement, because I think its proposed solutions don’t work, because I think it is captured by the profit motive, because I think it reduces complex social problems to simplistic, moralizing narratives, because I think it scapegoats teachers, because I think it’s an impediment to social progress. But there’s nothing illegitimate about foundations and nonprofits and individuals pushing for ed reform policies. What’s dangerous and unfortunate is when they are able to dominate the conversation without skepticism, review, and contrary evidence.
As it stands, well… read Layton’s piece. Bill Gates dictated one of the biggest changes to education policy in this country’s history, and though it was expensive, it was not hard. We all of us, left-wing and right-wing and center, have to ask ourselves whether it can possibly be healthy for a system made up of students, parents, teachers, and administrators to be so radically changed without the input of essentially any of them. We need to ask who owns our educational system, and why.