Bite the Rich Man’s Hand That Feeds Us

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plans to spend $3 billion in the next few years on K-12 education.  It had assets of over $30 billion at the end of last year, and presumably a lot more where that came from–Bill Gates’ bank account.  Warren Buffet, his fellow trustee, is the second richest man in the US.  Maybe their visible hands can feed our struggling schools just the diet they need.
Or maybe not.  The July 10 cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek (“Bill Gates’ School Crusade”) notes that the Foundation spent “hundreds of millions of dollars” starting in 2000 “to revitalize schools by making them smaller, only to discover that student body size has little effect on achievement.”  (See Picturing the Uncertain World, 2009, by Howard Wainer, a Wharton School statistician.)  With confidence undiminished by this error, the Gates Foundation now commits $290 million to a well-publicized, model program in Tampa, Memphis, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles, based on the “emerging consensus” that “quality of teaching affects student performance.”  While the veteran reader is sleepily nodding his or her head at the obvious truth, the Bloomberg sentence goes on, “and that increasing achievement is as simple as removing bad teachers, identifying good ones, and rewarding them with more money.”
It doesn’t sound simple to me.  Let’s leave aside important specific questions that research is just beginning to address, such as whether this year’s leading “good” teachers, by the measure of improvement in students’ test scores, will remain on top of the “good” pile next year (the answer seems to be no, according to a Florida study reported in this article).  Leave aside all the less-than-super teachers, down to and including the “bad” ones, who might actually learn to teach better, with a little help from their colleagues.  Leave aside the matter of whether tests exist that might tell administrators which bad art teachers to fired along with the bad math teachers.  Leave aside the uncertainty that should trouble fans of No Child Left Behind, and most other ed reformers of the last decade:  what evidence is there that test-driven schooling makes for good education?  Leave aside the even more critical question, “what is schooling for?”–to which Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, and almost all of our power brokers reply in unison:  it’s for training workers and improving US competitiveness in the global economy.  That simple?
No matter.  The Gates Foundation can bet a few hundred million here and a few hundred there on educational clichés or new ideas.  Its efforts may fail again, or they may change how US schools teach kids–but either way, without doing research, without talking to teachers, without being elected by citizens to change our society.  Where do they get this right?  From making and keeping large sums of money.  From scarfing up the social surplus and using it to mold the future of the world. This is a bad idea, whether the hand feeding us belongs to the liberal Gates or to one of the more numerous right-wing billionaires.
It’s a bad idea for there to be rich people.  It’s especially bad to let them use their wealth for what they consider the general welfare.  I wish progressive teachers were teaching, whenever possible, about the harm that private wealth does, and about how to bite the rich.
–Richard Ohmann

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