Broad and Gates: Deja Vu All Over Again

Last week, Eli Broad (he pronounces it "Brode") and Bill Gates announced that they would spend $60 million to make education an issue in the presidential campaign. This compares to $22.4 million the Swift Boaters spent in 2004 and to the $7.8 million AARP shelled out. "I have reached the conclusion as has the Gates Foundation, which has done good things also, that all we're doing is incremental," said Broad. "If we really want to get the job done, we have got to wake up the American people that we have got a real problem and we need real reform." Broad did not specify what the "job" was or the "real problem" was, but Gates in the past has lambasted public schools for not scoring as high as their counterparts in Europe and Asia and predicted dire things for the economy if the schools don't shape up. (He probably didn't read the essay I sent him, "Yo, Bill Gates, If You're So Rich, How Come You Ain't Smart?", substantial parts of which appeared as "Education's Groundhog Day" in the February 2, 2005 issue of Education Week).

When you are dealing with 50 million students pre-K-12 and five million teachers, what can you do besides something "incremental?" Incrementalism shouldn't be shunned, especially in education where the really important outcomes aren't known until well after school ends. Efforts to reduce the poverty level of the elderly have produced incremental change, but over a long period of time, the impact has been enormous. We used to have more poor old people than poor children, but old-age poverty is now about one third of what it is in children under age six. Of course, the CDF is not AARP.

While $60 million looks like a lot in terms of getting the discussion going, in the world of education, it's chump change. My district's budget is over $2 billion, more than the $1.8 billion that Gates has doled out to education so far. Houston spends $170 million a year on maintenance and operations alone.

To date, the agenda has all of the excitement of drying paint: longer school year, longer school day, stronger and more uniform standards, merit pay for high-quality teaching. The longer school day is iffy. It appears to be a factor in the success of the Knowledge Is Power Program schools, but there are lots of other things happening in KIPP schools and the degree of their success is still a matter of substantial controversy except for those on the right. On the other hand, kids in Edison schools spend about 50% more time in school than do students in regular public schools and the Edison schools have nothing to show for it.

Of course, no two people agree on what constitutes high quality teaching so a few details will need to be worked out there. (Last week at North Carolina State, I debated William Sanders, the most prominent advocate of value-added evaluations of teachers, and I will have a post about that shortly). And if merit pay is such a great idea, how come no one does it? I recently tried to find countries that used some pay-for-performance program for teacher compensation. The closest I came was Chile, but even there the awards have to go to the schools, not individual teachers, because Chile only tests kids in three grades. There are some new merit pay programs in Denver and Houston and we'll have to watch those closely, but most merit pay schemes in this country have had short, unhappy lives.

And speaking of testing: the initial Broad-Gates statement didn't, but if you are talking about higher and more uniform standards, and if you are talking about merit pay, you are also talking about some kind of assessment system to see how close schools are coming to meeting those standards and which teachers get more moolah. For the moment, I just repeat the words of Bob Sternberg, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University: "The increasingly massive and far-reaching use of standardized testing is one of the most effective, if unintentional ways we have created for suppressing creativity."

To me, Broad-Gates is just the latest installment of corporate America attempting to control education: "The business man has, of course, not said to himself, 'I will have the public school train office boys and clerks for me so that I may have them on the cheap,' but he has thought, and sometimes said, 'Teach the children to write legibly, to figure accurately and quickly, to acquire habits of punctuality and order, to be prompt to obey and not question why'" - Jane Addams, 1897