Teachers Flunk Bill Gates on School Improvement!

Dear Commons Community,

This has not been a good week for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  On Monday, The Chronicle of Higher Education published two articles critical of the way the Foundation operates with political, corporate and media collaborators to influence education policy.   Now The Huffington Post is reporting that a website has been set-up by K-12 teachers expressing their views (letters) on the contribution of the Gates Foundation to school improvement.  

“The Huffington Post has sifted through the letters, which tell stories of students and school districts that have been impacted by the Microsoft mogul. Below we have compiled a list of the themes most mentioned in the writings.

The top seven things that educators and education activists want Bill Gates to know:

7. Schools should teach children things that can’t be tested, too. While the standardized tests the Gates Foundation supports measure quantifiable skills, such as writing and math, some educators think schools should also place an emphasis on teaching students skills that would develop their emotional intelligence and vocational abilities. As John Chase notes in his letter to Bill Gates, “Critical reading and thinking skills are very important, but I do not believe they trump or supersede the equally if not more important ‘soft skills’ that help students to succeed and overcome the real ‘tests’ in life.”

6. One size does not fit all in education. Many letters lament the stress and self-esteem issues that result when bright students underperform on standardized tests. Some note that schools would be much happier places if there were less emphasis on standardized tests and more importance placed on individualized learning. As Michelle Cosgrove writes, “With the ever increasing emphasis on high stakes testing and usage of cookie-cutter curricula, we are expecting ALL children to drink the exact same water at the exact same time…and then punishing them when they will not or cannot.”

5. Teacher evaluations should not be heavily tied to test scores. This seems to be one area in which both groups’ philosophies align. While Bill Gates previously supported policies that strongly tied teacher evaluations to test scores, in recent months he has made statements suggesting he is changing course. According to a recent op-ed written by Gates in the Washington Post, “the country needs … thoughtfully developed teacher evaluation systems that include multiple measures of performance, such as student surveys, classroom observations by experienced colleagues and student test results.”

4. Not all reformers have it right. While most letters do not doubt Gate’s good intentions, some fear the philanthropist is taking advice from the wrong people. Some letters say that Gates should avoid listening to reformers like Michelle Rhee, with whom he previously appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

3. Give education professionals a seat at the table. The stated purpose of “Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates” is to give teachers, education researchers, parents and students a democratic means of influencing the Gates Foundation in its education policy and financial decisions. Indeed, several letters express concern that the wants, needs and experiences of teachers –- who inevitably know schools best –- are overlooked in the realm of education policy. As first-grade teacher Gretchen Conley wrote in her letter: “Invest in us. Believe in us. I’ve never been invited to the table to talk about assessment with policy makers.”

2. No Child Left Behind was bad. With the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 came the rise of standardized testing across the nation. The Gates Foundation has supported the principles of NCLB, but educators and activists want Bill and Melinda Gates to know that this has been bad for their students’ educations. According to Linda S. Hudson, “High stakes testing is expensive, ineffective, and inefficient, and, according to some research, has been correlated with higher drop out rates.”

1. Implementing Common Core standards will not fix things. The Gates Foundation has provided $150 million in grant money for organizations to invest in Common Core implementation. Educators on “Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates” bemoan this, writing that Common Core standards will continue the trend of high-stakes testing in school. Instead of trying to fix education by investing in Common Core standards, one writer tells Gates to invest in poverty reduction instead. Writes Carmen R. Andrews, “The only people benefitting from the Common Core Standards and attached over-testing are those creating the tests and supporting materials.”

I would suggest that Bill and Melinda Gates would be better off working in areas where their billions might be better used.  However, if they feel they must be involved in education, they should: 

  • provide no strings attached grants;
  • listen to educators and not corporate and technology-oriented colleagues;
  • stop installing their operatives in federal and state education departments.


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