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Living in Dialogue: The Strangely Incurious Bill Gates

Gates: There’s a lot of issues about governance, whether its school boards or unions where you want to allow for experimentation, in terms of pay procedures and management procedures, to really prove out new things. As those things start working on behalf of the students, then I believe that the majority of teachers and voters will be open-minded to these new approaches. And so we have to take it a step at a time – they have to give us the opportunity for this experimentation – the unions, the voters. The cities where our foundation has put the most money in is where there’s a single person responsible. In New York, Chicago and Washington, DC, the mayor has responsibility for the school system. So instead of having a committee of people, you have that one person. And that’s where we’ve seen the willingness to take on some of the older practices and try new things, and we’ve seen very good results in all three of those cities. So there are some lessons that have already been learned. We need to make more investments, and I do think the teachers will come along, because, after all, they’re there because they believe in helping the students as well.

What is remarkable to me about this statement from 2008 is how similar it is to what Gates is saying in 2015. In 2015, there is an air of vagueness as he attempts to explain why it’s been harder to “make progress” with public schools than with world health problems. And then he returns to familiar talking points from years ago, even though few people would seriously cite the public school systems of Chicago or New York City as models of successful transformation.

And his facts are simply wrong.

In his recent comment, Gates dropped Washington, DC, from his list of cities where the strong mayor has worked wonders. But a 2013 study took a close look at Chicago, New York and DC, to see if the confidence in strong mayors was justified. The report, Market-oriented education reform’s rhetoric trumps reality, found the following:

  • Test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more, in “reform” cities than in other urban districts. Reported successes for targeted students evaporated upon closer examination.
  • Test-based accountability prompted churn that thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily bad teachers.
  • School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money.
  • Charter schools further disrupted the districts while providing mixed benefits, particularly for the highest-needs students.
  • Emphasis on the widely touted market-oriented reforms drew attention and resources from initiatives with greater promise.

Research on charter schools consistently find that charter schools do not, in fact, yield better results than comparable public schools. And when charter schools post the high graduation and college acceptance rates that Gates mentions, there are usually high attrition rates hiding in the wings.

If Gates relies on research his foundation has paid for, perhaps he is indeed living in an information bubble. Two researchers recently looked at how the Gates and Broad Foundations “got everyone singing from the same hymnbook,” and found something that should deeply concern an honest scientist. A Gates Foundation insider told them:

It’s within [a] sort of fairly narrow orbit that you manufacture the [research] reports. You hire somebody to write a report. There’s going to be a commission, there’s going to be a lot of research, there’s going to be a lot of vetting and so forth and so on, but you pretty much know what the report is going to say before you go through the exercise.

If Gates relies on reports that result from this sort of process, all he will do is get his own preconceived beliefs fed back to him with a patina of science, but no real integrity.

In 2013. Gates said, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.

So apparently we have another eight years before he will feel obliged to take stock of the impact of his spending in this area.

If Bill Gates were a scientist engaged in large scale research using human subjects, he might have some supervision, someone who might ask him more pointed questions than he usually gets from outfits like CNBC. In the absence of such supervision, he has the nation’s teachers, parents and students to hold him accountable.

Students who opt out make the strongest statement possible regarding the value of the tests Gates has sought to make ever more consequential. Teachers who declare that their consciences will not allow them to administer these tests have taken a clear moral stand. If the research subjects needed for an experiment can manage to unlock their cages, all bets are off.

If an experiment has clearly failed and is causing harm, then it must be ended. And if the techno-philanthropist in charge has stopped paying attention to the evidence that shows his hypotheses were wrong, hires people to pump out reports and PR hype to try to hide that fact, and ignores the harm being done – somebody needs to let him know his time is up. Not another decade, not another year, not another month. It is time for the Gates Foundation to divest from education reform. Your license to experiment is hereby revoked.

What do you think? Has the time come to revoke Bill Gates’ license to experiment with the schools and children of America?

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Anthony Cody

Anthony worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high-needs middle school. A National Board certified teacher, he no...