Bill Gates and the Shadow Department of Education

Bill Gates was inescapable as I was writing The Hustle. The first reason was that he is the most famous and prominent alum of Lakeside, my former private school, which features heavily in the book.

But as the reporting of the book led into education, both public and private, it seemed that every road eventually pointed to the Gates Foundation — at least every road with a solvent financial future. Gates had popped in $40 million to support Lakeside’s efforts to increase “diversity” and its Global Learning Program, which sends students on trips overseas. The Gates Foundation is also the primary funder of the Rainier Scholars program, which targets a select group of high-testing minority students in the Seattle Public Schools with weekend classes, summer school and intensive mentoring, the goal being to get them into private schools or the gifted programs of the Seattle Public Schools.

It was obvious the Gates Foundation plays a huge, behind-the-scenes role in shaping education policy — for example, the Foundation’s desire for metrics and measurable results has made potential recipients of funds sensitive to the need to show test scores and other signs of progress. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with testing, but it’s an open question as to how reliable these measurements are, and how much they can be ginned.

The bigger question is if it’s a wise idea to have one man’s foundation driving so much of our education policy. It’s great that Bill Gates wants to use some of his Microsoft fortune to experiment with education — certainly some of the initiatives he’s funding can help point the way out of our educational morass. But if he demands that teachers be monitored and made “accountable,” he should be held to the same standards.

On that note, The New York Times today ran a fascinating article on the Gates Foundation’s increasing efforts to influence policy:

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.

“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 interesting bits from the article:

***Gates spent $2 million on a “social action” campaign focused on the film “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ”

***In 2009, the foundation spent $3.5 million creating an advocacy group to buttress its $290 million investment in programs to increase teacher effectiveness in four areas of the country: Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., Pittsburgh, Memphis and Los Angeles. A document describing plans for the group, posted on a Washington Post blog in March, said it would mobilize local advocates, “establish strong ties to local journalists” and should “go toe to toe” with union officials in explaining contracts and state laws to the public. But to avoid being labeled a “tool of the foundation,” the document said the group should “maintain a low public profile.”

***Two other Gates-financed groups, Educators for Excellence and Teach Plus, have helped amplify the voices of newer teachers as an alternative to the official views of the unions. Last summer, members of several such groups had a meeting at the foundation’s offices in Washington. Two Bronx teachers, Sydney Morris and Evan Stone, founded Educators for Excellence in March 2010, to argue against seniority-based layoffs. But it was a $160,000 donation from Mr. Gates months later, Ms. Morris said, that allowed them to sign up 2,500 teachers.

Well worth reading the whole thing.


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