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Living in Dialogue: Think it Up: Has the Gates Foundation Turned a Corner?

Last night I watched the hour-long telethon called Think it Up! sponsored by the Gates Foundation. I have to say, it was a far better program than their last television extravaganza, Education Nation. The emphasis was on building support for schools and teachers to do exciting, engaging projects, and that is a good thing. While we had to endure a bit of Justin Bieber hopping around in his pajamas, eventually we got some messages about what our schools need.

One of the celebrities said this:

Every student in America deserves the chance to learn and become the person they aspire to be. And that means every classroom should have what it needs to encourage great learning. Every science class should have equipment if students and teachers want to create projects in biology or chemistry or physics. Every history class should have the most up-to-date materials so that students can learn about and from the past. There should be paint brushes and oil paints and art classes so students can try to blow more minds than Banksy. And music classes should always have keyboards playing, guitars strumming, and someone banging on the drums. Please, please let’s empower our students and teachers to do these amazing things. Go to Thinkitup.organd donate…

She is absolutely correct, that every student should have this. And it is a great starting point for a campaign. My only question is why it is necessary to put out a begging bowl to fund these things? Don’t we have a more effective “crowd-sourced” funding system in place to provide for the funding of public schools? Why can’t we simply have corporations and wealthy individuals who have cornered the vast increase in wealth over the past decade pay their fair share of taxes, and then fund our schools from that revenue?

But perhaps I should be grateful. The message this time is so very different from what we heard in 2009 from Waiting for Superman, and from Gates himself on Education Nation and Oprah. Then the emphasis was on getting rid of “bad teachers” who were dragging down our schools. The public schools were declared to be so broken, in fact, that they should be abandoned and replaced with charter schools. Charter schools featured strongly in last night’s show, to be sure, in many of the examples of innovation. But we did not have a sledgehammer taken to the public schools.

Students were encouraged to propose ideas for projects that would interest them to their teachers, and teachers were invited to submit their proposals to be funded. I think projects are a great way to engage students and it is wonderful for teachers and students to work together to develop ideas that will serve their communities, as was suggested here.

Comedian Jessica Williams announced a campaign asking students to “reimagine high school” in new ways. This could generate some interesting ideas. The odd thing was that she cited US performance on international tests to justify the need for this innovation. And this brings me to my biggest problem with the whole program. To be clear, I support project based learning. I think it is wonderful to engage students in extended inquiry into real-world issues and challenges. However, I do not think this is entirely compatible with instruction focused on raising test scores.

The best projects do not focus narrowly on a set of testable outcomes. They focus on real world issues and meaningful student products. One of those in last night’s program was a day of peace organized by students at a Chicago charter school. This engaged students in their community, and was meaningful in all sorts of ways that would never be measured on a test — even a “Smarter Balanced” test. Many of the teachers who are now being asked to do projects are also being evaluated with the systems that the Gates Foundation aggressively promoted six years ago in their collaboration with the Department of Education on Race to the Top. Remember, the Gates Foundation offered their staff to work with states to develop their Race to the Top grant applications, and central to these were plans to include test scores (VAM) in teacher evaluations. Now. many teachers’ jobs depend on meeting a constant demand for higher scores. And the related  Gates Foundation project, the Common Core, has delivered tests that are yielding significantly lower scores.

We have a paradox. The Gates Foundation has re-engineered the school system so that teachers run the risk of losing their jobs if they do not focus all possible time and energy on raising test scores. But now they have seemingly shifted gears and are all excited about having everyone do these great projects. What is going on here? Aren’t these folks supposed to be systems thinkers?

The biggest problem with this scenario is that we arrive back at a situation where the gap between wealthy and poor will be wider than ever. As this week’s release of SBAC scores in California has shown, we have the same class and race gaps that tests always deliver. Therefore teachers of poor students, of English learners, of African Americans, will be under the greatest pressure to raise their scores — since these tests are supposedly the hallowed indicators of one’s “readiness for college and career.” So who will get the most access to exciting, innovative projects? It will be students at schools not under such intense pressure to raise test scores. Those at schools with low scores will get scripted programs guaranteed to raise scores. Their teachers will get timelines and benchmark tests to make sure their instruction is aligned to the test.

I do not know if the Gates Foundation has had a sincere change of heart and decided that meaningful projects is the path towards greater learning — or if this is just a charitable venture they are doing. But they have helped create an accountability system that increases a caste system of education, and students most in need of the engaging projects they are promoting will have difficulty getting them, unless the Common Core accountability system is abandoned.

So here is my idea to “reimagine” a high school. Imagine a school where teachers are paid really well for their education and level of experience. That way we will have a mix of experience levels, and newer teachers can learn from colleagues with decades in the classroom. Imagine a school where class sizes are small — under thirty, so teachers have time to give individual students attention. Imagine a school where the facility is well resourced and modern, and teachers have the materials they need. Imagine the resources needed to support all this comes from public funding, from the tremendous wealth generated by the largest, most robust economy the world has ever seen. Teachers need not spend their own money, beg, hold bake sales or even write proposals to Donors Choose to get the materials they need to teach. Imagine teachers have the autonomy to develop projects, or to pursue other instructional models they feel will inspire their students and serve their community. Imagine student learning is demonstrated in all sorts of ways, and not reduced to test scores for purposes of false accountability systems. Imagine local communities like Bronzeville in Chicago are given real control over their schools, and their innovative proposals do not require people going on hunger strikes to be heard. Imagine corporate philanthropies no longer get to decide what is best for the rest of us and circumvent democratic processes to get their way.  These are my re-imaginings. What are yours?

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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...