For the past several weeks, former Oakland public school teacher Anthony Cody has been engaged with the Gates Foundation on issues surrounding education reform, poverty's impact on learning ability, charter schools and other issues. This
September 14, 2012

For the past several weeks, former Oakland public school teacher Anthony Cody has been engaged with the Gates Foundation on issues surrounding education reform, poverty's impact on learning ability, charter schools and other issues.

This week was the final exchange, and it was a doozy. Moreover, it parted an opaque curtain on how nonprofits view teachers and their contribution to the dialogue.

The discussions have centered around charter schools and how they play into the for-profit education push, particularly in schools serving impoverished students who are also not performing on standardized tests. Cody's final entry concerned the profit motive in education "reform." I have the impression the Gates folks really didn't appreciate what he said very much.

Cody wrote:

The market, by definition, seeks to tap the desire to make money as a motivation for solutions. Marketeers envision an environment where creative or ambitious entrepreneurs will establish new schools, new ways to educate, and this will result in efficiency and innovation. But a decade in, we are discovering some huge problems with the way market solutions play out in the real world.

In 2010, the Gates Foundation laid out a strategy for three specific innovations to reform the public education system. Public and corporate partners were listed, to share in the implementation of each innovative program goal.

For the innovation it called, "Measure of teacher effectiveness and systems for helping teachers improve," it labeled the risk "high." The partners listed are "U.S. Department of Education; school districts; charter schools; teacher groups." The risk spelled out in this plan was "Will teachers, including their unions, schools, districts, and states, be willing to change? Will budget cuts slow the work?"

Cody goes on to point out that the Gates Foundation takes a data-driven approach to education, and to that end has partnered with Rupert Murdoch's organization Wireless Generation to build tools to drive data-driven assessment of teacher performance. Can anyone see anything wrong with that picture? Cody did.

Wireless Generation is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. A year ago, the state of New York awarded a no-bid contract to Wireless Generation in part to compile a statewide database of student test scores. The phone-hacking scandal at Wireless Generation's parent company, News Corp., led the state comptroller to void the contract out of concerns about privacy. However, the state later decided to move forward with the database project, at least in part as the result of the Gates Foundation's prior sponsorship of a multi-state student-data system worth $76 million—$44 million of which went to Wireless Generation. In other words, the Gates Foundation has the financial wherewithal to make sure the systems it favors go through.

Cody also pointed out that private equity investors are being primed for large investments in education, pointing to a recent seminar marketing piece put out by Capital Roundtable. When I say that there's an enormous amount of money waiting on the sidelines for privatized education, it's not just a feeling. Here are the numbers Capital Roundtable touted in their marketing piece:

Education is now the second largest market in the U.S., valued at $1.3 trillion. So while an industry of this size will always be scrutinized by regulators, the most onerous recent changes are likely over, and investors should face an easier climate down the road. And while eventual passage is not guaranteed, several pieces of legislation favoring the for-profit industry have been proposed in Congress.

In the K-12 space, the federal “Race To The Top” initiative has enabled a growing level of privatization in the K-12 segment, and rewarding districts for embracing alternative models, technological advances, and locally-based criteria.

And this:

You’ll hear why the recovering economy is a motivating force for prospective for-profit education students. Industry self-regulation combined with greater employment prospects are making consumers more comfortable they will come out of for-profit programs with a job.

They're not even embarrassed. They're selling it.

Suffice it to say, the strongest Gates Foundation pushback was on Cody's assertions about their role in privatizing education and what they stand to gain as a result of that process. At the end of his post he lists five different areas where they have been actively promoting the privatization/capitalization of public education, including:

  • $2 million grant for the Anschutz-produced movie Waiting for Superman, which also gave Michelle Rhee her launch into profitization ventures.
  • Funding for Jeb Bush's Excellence in Education Foundation, another group pushing privatization.
  • Seed money for the parent trigger tricker group Parent Revolution, the spark for the current "Won't Back Down" anti-teacher movie released this month.
  • Funding for the Media Bullpen, a group which grades media coverage on how supportive they are to the charter school narrative.
  • Funding to create the Cities for Education Partnership, which specifically states as a goal the acceleration of "growth of high-impact entrepreneurial education solutions".
  • Finally, there is their grant to ALEC, intended to drive legislation on data-driven solutions. Despite their promise not to further fund ALEC projects, they didn't cancel the existing grant either.

Cody made a strong case for how the Gates Foundation specifically moves in the direction of the privatization movement, how they use philanthropy to undermine public education, and how that philanthopic effort does a disservice to public education.

Remember, the goal of private equity is to build a market on the backs of our kids' education. And non-profits are contributing millions -- possibly billions -- to that effort.

The Foundation's response was swift and stern. It began with this:

As I have reflected on these exchanges, my meeting with Mr. Cody here at the foundation, and my life's work as an educator with a deep commitment to equity and opportunity, I must agree with how Mr. Cody started his last column: we have different realities.

Simply, I believe all children can learn. I believe low-income children of color can learn when they have great teachers who believe in them, and treat them with the same passion, enthusiasm and intellectual rigor that they would treat their own children. And I believe in the skill and will of teachers, provided they are given the opportunity to teach, learn and lead as true professionals. I believe in John Dewey’s insight that learning in the process of living is the deepest form of freedom. In a nation that aspires to democracy, that’s what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society.

The balance of their response blooms from that seed. Indeed, part of the response quotes Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail as the foundation for this:

As lifelong progressives with a strong belief in social justice, we go back to Dr. King when we read such apologia for the status quo as Mr. Cody advances. Dr. King wrote in his iconic Letter from Birmingham Jail:

"For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see...that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’

Again, we acknowledge the issues of poverty that many of America’s children face. And we applaud and encourage the work of federal, state, local, faith-based, and community groups in addressing these issues of poverty. Many of them are our partners. However, the imperatives of equal opportunity do not have time to wait for far away social policies to change.

The good news is that we work with thousands of committed educators and leaders across this country - in districts, traditional schools, charter schools, non-profit organizations, universities – and all of them are committed to equity and opportunity. They also know that getting a good education is one of the surest ways out of poverty.

I note that they dodge the issue of those for-profit groups they do work with in this bit of pushback.

The bottom line in Gates' response to Mr. Cody is this: We will continue to do what we are doing because we cannot wait to fix education until poverty is fixed via social policy.

Different realities. Entirely different realities.

No one argues that education isn't the best ticket out of poverty. Mr. Cody certainly doesn't. It is because he believes in the power of education that he fights so hard for it. But the Gates Foundation has completely abandoned our system of universal education, calling it a system designed for the last century. That's not an expression of progressive values, no matter how much they like to quote Martin Luther King.

The system isn't the problem. If it was merely a "fix the system" problem, all classrooms across this country would have been updated for technological advances years ago, there would be textbooks for every student, class sizes would be manageable, and standardized tests would be occasional, not the giant elephant in the room that they are today.

Rather, teachers were made out to be the culprits in the "failing schools" mantra. Instead of being treated like professionals, they were demonized for belonging to unions, told they were paid too much and delivering too little. The public was told the only way to improve schools -- the sole pathway -- was to create schools which were outside of the traditional public school model, hire teachers who weren't members of a union, give those charters nominal public school status but allow for-profit school operators to manage their day-to-day affairs, and yes, put a whole lot of tax-exempt funds toward their creation and promotion.

Oh, and promote the idea of parent "choice." As a parent with 25 years in the public school system, I will testify to the fact that 99% of parents don't have the skills or background knowledge to make that "choice." What parents perceive as the correct choice for their child's education may actually be a detriment, as I discovered in two of three of my children's pathway through the education system. This is because parents know their children, but that doesn't automatically qualify them to know how to educate their children.

Mr. Cody wrapped up his post by asking a series of questions. Here's an example of part of their answer to his question asking whether the Foundation would consider redirecting their resources away from for-profit solutions into solutions which directly help children living in poverty. Their answer, in part:

Regarding investments that "directly respond to poverty such as smaller class size, libraries, health care centers…"-- our read of the literature and my own experience as a teacher and leading schools and districts is that an effective teacher's positive impact dwarfs the effects of class size reduction. As for libraries, that’s how we got our start as a foundation. Since 2000, we have invested $327 million in libraries across the country.

But as we have said, we target our resources here and abroad where we believe we can have the greatest impact: vaccines that save children from serious illness and death, more increased agricultural productivity that allow families to feed themselves and earn a living, access to contraception to ensure that women can decide when to have children, and a great teacher who can make a dramatic difference in the life of low income students in the United States.

In the end, it really is simply a question of different realities. Unless you have actually experienced what it is like to live in poverty, it's enough to provide a "really great teacher" and ignore class size or other conditions which hinder those kids' abilities to work to their full potential. Unless you have actually seen the impact of smaller class size on children's ability to learn, it's enough to cite the literature and ignore it in favor of profit-driven teacher evaluations.

Coming around full circle to Gates' assertion that all children can learn in spite of poverty or other hindrances, I can only ascribe that assertion to perceptions built outside of the present reality. Children don't learn if they're hungry. Children don't learn if they're wondering whether they'll have a place to go after school. Children don't learn if they're in danger, or ridiculed by other students for coming to school in too-small clothes with holes. Children in those circumstances who are also unfortunate enough to be in large classes just disappear. They're there, but they're not. Children are not data points. They're human beings with needs and wants and flaws and gifts. Teachers see that. Studies don't.

This is what Chicago teachers are dealing with and why they are on strike. Read this letter to see how their reality differs from the Gates folks. Also this on teacher evaluations. This article at The Nation speaks to those different realities too.

Those different realities really break down to this: The reality of 99 percent of us and the reality of 1 percent of us. As The Nation's article concludes:

Reuters recently quoted a spokesman for Stand for Children Illinois, a pro-education reform group that is a favorite charity of hedge fund managers, saying, “Teachers need to decide if they’re going to be part of this [reform] process or not.” They have, but it’s going to be on the terms of the 99%.

That's the reality. Their alternate reality is what we're battling against.

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