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Creating Educational Monocultures

I have just returned from a workshop at the Columbia Journalism School, "Private Money, Public Schools," on the press and private educational foundations, and a similar presentation at the Americas Society. I now have reservations about using the phrase "the billionaire's boys club" when describing the sincere, but misguided investments by Bill Gates, Eli Broad and other true believers in data-driven accountability, even as I have gained greater insights into where these "reformers" went wrong.

Great papers by scholars such as Sarah Reckhow, Robert Reich and Joanne Barkan, along with recent analyses in Newsweek, USA Today, The Washington Post and the Charlotte Observer help explain how philanthropists -- who fully understand the need to subject their efforts to evaluation -- squandered billions of dollars on "reforms." In doing so, they have often made conditions worse for students in our toughest schools. "Reformers" have tried to learn the lesson of previous initiatives, where donors' money became no more than buckets of water in a sea of dysfunction. The billionaires, however, have forgotten lessons that should be obvious to any businessmen.

In an effort to leverage donations, "reformers" have adopted a strategy of "convergence" or "flooding the zone." You can say that foundations have become "self-referencing, mutually dependent organizations," or you can say that donors have consciously sought to be "in cahoots with each other," but, either way, they seek to focus a critical mass of resources on targeted school systems. These private foundations have concentrated on charter schools and districts with mayoral control, so that they would not face the messiness of the democratic process. Moreover, they fund-seek district leaders who will bring in teams of like-minded, data-driven administrators in order to quickly implement a coherent, aligned, systemic strategy. This tactic is similar to the approach of Teach for America, KIPP and schools in Washington D.C. and New Orleans, where cadres of inexperienced educators are socialized into tight, dedicated teams.

Even worse, as described by Sam Dillon in The New York Times, the Gates Foundation has been quietly seeding a full range of policy institutions with advocates for their agenda.

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.'

Given the deplorable conditions in our urban schools, there is much to admire in the sense of urgency that private donors bring to education. Because they seek rapid, transformational change, however, data-driven "reformers" have no time for dissent. Alternative viewpoints, whether they come from the hard-earned experiences of veteran teachers, or journalists and scholars asking tough questions, are a distraction from the strategy of convergence. For instance, questions whether instruction-driven efforts in the classroom can close the achievement gap are dismissed as "low expectations." Calls for socio-emotional interventions in our toughest neighborhood schools often are condemned as "excuses." Diversity of professional opinion is seen as a luxury that our toughest school systems can not afford.

Ironically, these businessmen understand the need to diversify financial risks within the context of their own fiduciary duties. They would never invest all of their corporations' money in a single, speculative, high-risk, high-leverage investment fund. Although corporate leaders can be caught up in the euphoria of the moment, few would claim that advocates of prudent investment strategies should be banished from their own finance departments, and that no opposition to high-yield gambles should be permitted.

Similarly, many of these caring donors have a record of investing in health and environmental causes around the globe. (They remind me of Davis Guggenheim, who created "An Inconvenient Truth" and then directed "Waiting for Superman," which contradicted the basic principles of his previous environmentalism. Remember Guggenheim's assumption that our incoherent public education system was badly "designed," and it should be redesigned so that teachers could open up the skulls of students and pour knowledge into them? His naivety recalled that of the builders of Aswan and Glen Canyon dams.)

In a different venue, I could see a liberal like Broad, or a neoliberal like Gates, seeking to restore bio-diversity. Surely they would not doubt the foolishness of creating environmental monocultures. For instance, these businessmen would not reject, on principle, scholars who claim that an over-reliance on a single crop can produce unintended environmental damage. We no longer see foundations building mega-dams and imposing massive technological fixes on all types of environmental challenges, all over the world, while ignoring local cultures.

But, "reformers" still seek to build educational monocultures. The data-driven crowd does not want to be slowed down by the clash of differing ideas. They want to rapidly destroy the educational "status quo" in order to save our diverse school systems. So, one rushed "silver bullet" after another is funded. Then, without subjecting these experiments to peer review, they are "scaled up."

In one sense, the conferences made me more hopeful that funders, especially the Gates Foundation, will develop some modesty. As was explained to Robert Reich, the foundation understands how difficult it is to get objective evaluations of their programs from school systems. They know that systems won't bite the hand that feeds them by providing honest feedback. The result has been a "continual tension" between its researchers and its advocacy and public relations staff. On the other hand, the foundation is like the defendant who killed his parents and plead for mercy because he was an orphan. How can donors seed systems with true believers, and then complain that bad news is not allowed up the chain of command, making it impossible to "show all our warts, and learn from failures?"

In a future post, I will further explain why private foundations need to be more risk adverse. While acknowledging the constructive potential of some "reforms," such as the small school effort, I will explain why businessmen need to apply the lesson of "first, do no harm" to education.

Then, after admitting that I have no background in finance, I will offer a single-minded, winner-take-all investment strategy to produce transformational change in our corporate system. My only demand is that none of my proposals be vetted by experts, and that all private foundations join as one in immediately implementing this amateur's opinions...

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighbo...