Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Behind Grass-Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates

The information in the chart above is now more than a year old and only partly reflects the scope of influence the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has brought to American education policy. (I'm not sure when I'll have the time to update it.) How does all that play out? To paraphrase Chuck Colson, When you've got them buy the wallet they're hearts and minds will follow.

This from Sam Dillon in the New York Times:
A handful of outspoken teachers helped persuade state lawmakers this spring to eliminate seniority-based layoff policies. They testified before the legislature, wrote briefing papers and published an op-ed article in The Indianapolis Star.

They described themselves simply as local teachers who favored school reform — one sympathetic state representative, Mary Ann Sullivan, said, “They seemed like genuine, real people versus the teachers’ union lobbyists.” They were, but they were also recruits in a national organization, Teach Plus, financed significantly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

For years, Bill Gates focused his education philanthropy on overhauling large schools and opening small ones. His new strategy is more ambitious: overhauling the nation’s education policies. To that end, the foundation is financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.

In some cases, Mr. Gates is creating entirely new advocacy groups. The foundation is also paying Harvard-trained data specialists to work inside school districts, not only to crunch numbers but also to change practices. It is bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations.

“We’ve learned that school-level investments aren’t enough to drive systemic changes,” said Allan C. Golston, the president of the foundation’s United States program. “The importance of advocacy has gotten clearer and clearer.”

The foundation spent $373 million on education in 2009, the latest year for which its tax returns are available, and devoted $78 million to advocacy — quadruple the amount spent on advocacy in 2005. Over the next five or six years, Mr. Golston said, the foundation expects to pour $3.5 billion more into education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy.

Given the scale and scope of the largess, some worry that the foundation’s assertive philanthropy is squelching independent thought, while others express concerns about transparency. Few policy makers, reporters or members of the public who encounter advocates like Teach Plus or pundits like Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute realize they are underwritten by the foundation.

“It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who said he received no financing from the foundation.

Mr. Hess, a frequent blogger on education whose institute received $500,000 from the Gates foundation in 2009 “to influence the national education debates,” acknowledged that he and others sometimes felt constrained. “As researchers, we have a reasonable self-preservation instinct,” he said. “There can be an exquisite carefulness about how we’re going to say anything that could reflect badly on a foundation.”

“Everybody’s implicated,” he added.

Indeed, the foundation’s 2009 tax filing runs to 263 pages and includes about 360 education grants. There are the more traditional and publicly celebrated programmatic initiatives, like financing charter school operators and early-college high schools. Then there are the less well-known advocacy grants to civil rights groups like the Education Equality Project and Education Trust that try to influence policy, to research institutes that study the policies’ effectiveness, and to Education Week and public radio and television stations that cover education policies.

The foundation paid a New York philanthropic advisory firm $3.5 million “to mount and support public education and advocacy campaigns.” It also paid a string of universities to support pieces of the Gates agenda. Harvard, for instance, got $3.5 million to place “strategic data fellows” who could act as “entrepreneurial change agents” in school districts in Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere. The foundation has given to the two national teachers’ unions — as well to groups whose mission seems to be to criticize them.

“It’s easier to name which groups Gates doesn’t support than to list all of those they do, because it’s just so overwhelming,” noted Ken Libby, a graduate student who has pored over the foundation’s tax filings as part of his academic work...

Other Gates funded groups cited in the piece:
  • The National Governors Association
  • Council of Chief State School Officers
  • Achieve Inc.
  • Alliance for Excellent Education
  • The Fordham Institute
  • New Teacher Project
  • American Federation of Teachers
  • National Education Association
  • Gates spent $2 million on a “social action” campaign focused on the film “Waiting for ‘Superman
  • Jeb Bush's Foundation for Educational Excellence
  • Educators for Excellence
  • Teach Plus
In what seems to be the exception rather than the rule,
The Center on Education Policy, which calls itself “a national independent advocate,” was awarded $1 million over two years to track which states adopted the standards. Its president, Jack Jennings, said he had nonetheless publicly criticized the Gates stand on other issues, including charter schools and teacher evaluations. “I feel free to speak out when I think something is wrongheaded,” he said.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Diane Ravitch. There is something a bit sinister about Bill Gates trying to define American educational policy. Now, whenever I hear about the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation I wince as much as I used to when Oprah Winfrey decided to turn her show into a literary salon and attempted to tell Americans what they need to read. Oprah's Book Club was insulting, so too are Bill Gates' pronouncements on what our schools need.

Anonymous said...

I will no more allow Bill Gates to influence my feelings about public education than I allowed Oprah's Book Club to tell me what books I needed to read. Both Gates and Winfrey are, in my view, powerful egotists who cloak their self-centered intentions in philanthropy.

There is a great deal at stake here. I do hope that most Americans can see that Gates wants to build public schools after his own image. He believes school teachers are the same as employees in a software firm. But by applying market principles to public education, Bill Gates is in clearly error. Most know the difference between a public school and a business.

Not content with dominating the computer industry, Gates thus seems determined to make his mark in public education. This leads one to ask: Does Mr. Gates have the credentials to be framing teh debate on education? Does he know the dynamics of learning? What educational theorists have influenced his view of pedagogy? And what does Mr. Gates feel all students should know and at what stage in their lives?

Oh, Mr. Gates, I cannot trust your intentions here. Thanks to Diane Ravitch and others, I'm seeing your dangerous side. And to think we were frightened of a William Ayres!