Educating for Democracy: Looking for Education 'Reform'? Follow the Money

In the most recent issue of Dissent "Got Dough? Public School Reform in the Age of Venture Philanthropy," Joanne Barkan reveals the connection between the philanthropic educational projects of such mega-foundations as those run by Bill Gates and Eli Broad and the changes in public school policies over the last decade. She demonstrates how most of the "reforms" advanced by these groups have proven to be ineffective, if not harmful, to public education.

Among the public education policy changes that these foundations are continuing to support are:

1.The establishment of an increasing number of charter schools as a substitute for regular public schools. These schools have been shown to be, in most cases, no better, and often worse, than those they replace, as revealed in a study by Stanford University in 2009 in which 83 percent of charter school students performed no better and more than a third worse than those in regular public schools.

2.Merit pay as a way to incentivize teachers to "improve" their students' scores on standardized tests. This measure has had no appreciable effect on scores according to a Vanderbilt University study released in September of last year.

3.The extensive use of standardized tests to measure and improve student learning. There has been no evidence that these tests have succeeded to any significant degree in raising the quality of public education. This is evident from the flat numbers on national assessments of student learning over the past ten years according to a National Research Council report.

The report also warned that "value added" assessments of teachers, the latest "innovation" that Bill Gates has come up with to "recognize good teaching," were quite inaccurate as a measure of effectiveness in teaching. According to a leading economist, Jesse Rothstein, who analyzed data collected by the Gates Foundation to justify the use of this method:

"40 percent of the teachers who scored in the bottom quartile based on their students' state standardized test scores actually placed in the top half of teachers when an alternative assessment was used."

4.The oft-repeated mantra that our public schools need "reform" because they are "failing" in comparison to other countries. This ignores the fact that according to the test results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and the Trends in International Math and Science Study, the most recent of which came out in 2006:

"In U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent [students] ranked first in reading, first in science and third in math...even when the poverty rate was 10- -- 25 percent U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science."

(Barkan, p. 2) What brought down the overall scores of the nation's schools in this comparison were students in schools with high-- 75 percent -- poverty rates which are 20 percent of all schools in the United States. (Ibid.)

The rest of Barkan's article demonstrates that despite these clear indications that poverty is linked to poor school performance and that the "reforms" of Gates do not work, the Department of Education, state governments, and municipalities such as New York City and Chicago are embracing these measures as a way to "improve" our education system. Among the strategies taken by these charitable foundations is the Broad Foundation Superintendants Academy which trains future school superintendants many of which were former members of the military and business executives to implement these failed reforms. "In 2009, 43 percent of all large urban school openings for superintendants were filled by Broad Academy graduates" (Barkan, p. 3).

The flagrant disregard for actual evidence that their methods are not working yet continue to be enthusiastically supported by public officials is clearly revealed by the attitude of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who regards "the bible' for school restructuring a Gates Foundation document, The Turnaround Challenge. Among its recommendations are: performance-based teacher pay, data collection, national standards--which can be misused as another form of standardized testing--and school "turnaround

"--"the term of art for firing the staff of a low-performing school and hiring a new one, replacing the school with a charter, or shutting down the school and sending the kids elsewhere"

(Barkan, p. 6). These "turnaround" methods have been shown to have a destructive impact on the learning of public school students as I myself have noted in previous blogs.

As far as the so-called "reform" is concerned of the No Child Left Behind program of the Bush Administration by the Obama Administration's "Race to the Top" grant of $4.3 billion, almost all of the failed measures to improve schooling already mentioned re-included as requirements for cash-strapped state education departments to get these grants.

Barkan's article lists the many instances of misinformation, distortions, and blatant disregard of data contradicting the effectiveness of these foundations' programs and their influence in controlling the way in which the media report educational issues. A prime example was the tightly scripted "NBC News Education Nation" program that was aired the week of September 27 of last year in which the anti-union Steve Brill, who has done hatchet jobs on unions for The New Yorker and New York Times, was a "moderator" at one of the panels. Looking over the panel of "invited guests," I saw mostly CEO's and such noted "educators" as Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein of NYC and Michelle Rhee, former head of the D.C. public schools. Absent were such eminent "real" educators as Linda Darling-Hammond, Lois Weiner, and Diane Ravitch. (Prof Ravitch indicated to me that:" I had speaking engagements in California that week. I asked if they would let me participate from the NBC studio in LA and they refused." (personal communication; 1/15/11).

The most high-profile effort to get the public behind charter schools, of course, was the Gates-Broad sponsored film "Waiting for Superman" which seemed to indicate that the only hope of a highly selected group of young learners to get a good education was to win a spot in a charter school through a lottery. (See my critique of the film)

Barkan does an excellent job of "following the money" to show not only how influential these foundations are but their apparent imperviousness to data that contradict their approach to educational "reform." Barkan concludes: "The imperious overreaching of the Big Three [Gates-Broad-Walton] undermines democracy just as surely as it damages education." But I believe that this deliberate and willful ignorance is not just, as she sees it, "faith in the superiority of the private business model...[or] the blinding hubris that comes from power" (p. 12) but something even more alarming.

What I believe is an important part of the agenda of these corporate "reformers" is to destroy the teachers unions by eliminating tenure. This objective was recently described in the Huffington Post as an "educational reform" of Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. To call Christie's proposal to eliminate teacher tenure as "reform" is like describing a plague of locusts as "innovative crop rotation." But to put Christie in a larger perspective, one of the requirements for "Race to the Top" funding was eligibility for tenure: "Does the state grant teacher tenure in fewer than three years?" If the answer was "yes," this disqualified applications for these funds. (Barkan, 8) By increasing the number of years a teacher must wait before being granted tenure, this requirement serves to begin the destruction of the power, small as it is, of the teachers' unions to protect their members from arbitrary firings, many of which will be based on "fiscal considerations."

The new mantra, "fiscal responsibility" because of the economic downturn, is becoming an excuse for laying off teachers, cutting pensions and benefits and, as Christie will be doing, looking for ways to make public education, more "cost effective." With this strategy the system will be under continuing siege from those who profess to be its "saviors." This approach will extend, I believe, to other public service employees as the downward spiral away from economic justice continues.

I would not be surprised if in the next decade, the Gates-Broad brand of "educational reforms" continues to expand and drive the best and brightest out of teaching; it will no longer be a "profession" but a "skill" requiring not much more than following scripted texts and drilling students to take mind-numbing tests. Of course, the elites will still be enjoying the benefits of the latest educational practices with the remnant of those educators who are fortunate enough to actually be able to "teach."

As the economy continues to flounder because, I believe, of basic structural defects such as the tax system which flagrantly benefits the very wealthy, the public schools can be used as the convenient "whipping boy" for the failure of the economy to produce good-paying jobs for most middle and working-class Americans.

The Obama Administration will be using the occasion of the "State of the Union Address" to showcase the President's future plans for education. If they are dictated by the Gates-Broad "educational philosophy" and not by common sense and a recognition that the agenda being advanced is not working and must be stopped, the future for public education for the vast majority of young learners in this country will be dim.