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The Becoming Radical: The Very Persistent Delusions of Billionaire-Edureformers

Billionaire-Edureformer extraordinaire Bill Gates “sat in a gray easy chair” at Clemson University’s Tillman Hall (yes, that Tillman Hall) to pontificate once more on education reform.

Gates soothed the crowd by explaining “that if they get frustrated at the lack of change in American education policy, they should ‘go into a charter school’ to see quality change,” reported Nathaniel Cary.

And, on que, “Gates defended the Common Core,” and of course, “innovation,” before tossing out his old standby: “Improving the quality of teachers across the country is the only way to close the gap for all students, an initiative his foundation supports [read: ‘purchases’], he said.”

Delusion 1: Gates has financed and perpetuated the same accountability policies started in the early 1980s. If there is a “lack of change” in education (and there is), it is very much at Gates’s feet (or enormous wallet).

Delusion 2: School choice, including charter schools and public school choice, has resulted in outcomes that are indistinguishable from traditional public schools, as I detailed in 2010, and as the Center for Public Education concludes in this October 2015 analysis:

In general, we find that school choices work for some students sometimes, are worse for some students sometimes, and are usually no better or worse than traditional public schools. We hope that this report will inform the ongoing conversation about the efficacy of school choice in the nation’s efforts to assure every child is prepared for college, careers and citizenship.

Delusion 3: After thirty-plus years of education accountability driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes testing, what does the research reveal?:

There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced test score advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum….

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.

Delusion 4: What do we know about teacher quality and its impact on student achievement—or, is teacher quality the “only way” to close the gap? Teacher quality, in fact, is less significant than “unexplained”:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998;Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

With apologies to George Saunders, Gates lounging comfortably in a state university building named for a murderous racist while spouting what at best are misrepresentations and at worst out-and-out lies about education reform is just another example of the very persistent delusions of billionaire-edureformers.

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?:...