Diane Ravitch Takes Down Gates Foundation Role in U.S. Education

Ravitch

July 5, 2012; Source: Diane Ravitch’s Blog

If you don’t know who Diane Ravitch is, you should. Be assured that the die-hard advocates of privatized approaches to education reform know this brilliant New York University education professor, who was once seen as generally supportive of the conservative critique of public education, but has drifted to being equally critical of charter schools and school vouchers. (See her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, and NPQ articles on her here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

The July 5 entry in her personal blog is titled, “I Am Puzzled by the Gates Foundation,” a commentary on a guest column by “Chemtchr” in Anthony Cody’s column for Education Week discussing the “leveraged philanthropy” model of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Chemtchr takes off on the Foundation’s concept of leverage, which, in her mind, seems to be significantly focused on public-private partnerships in which the partner is a large corporate behemoth as interested in profits as it might be in social good, the latter suffering at the expense of maximum profits. She ticks off Gates Foundation partnerships Monsanto (on sustainable agriculture), GlaxoSmithKline (vaccination), Pearson Education (a British education services firm Gates has apparently recruited on U.S. school reform), and others. She also notes that Gates grants or investments that “are positioned to leverage control of policy analysis and news outlets,” such as the Foundation’s sponsorship of the Guardian’s coverage of global development issues and its partial funding of Education Week itself on education reform. It is a devastating critique, not that it suggests that Gates intentionally promotes corporate profits, but that the Foundation’s leveraged philanthropy takes it that way nonetheless.

Ravitch responds to Chemtchr by focusing on the Foundation’s education leverage. While she assumes correctly that the richest man in the world doesn’t need to pursue profits through his philanthropy, Ravitch takes on the Foundation’s education strategy and concludes, “I think their efforts to ‘reform’ education are woefully mistaken.” In three paragraphs, she lays out her own devastating critique of the Gates Foundation:

“I am puzzled by their funding of ‘astroturf’ groups of young teachers who insist that they don’t want any job protections, don’t want to be rewarded for their experience (of which they have little) or for any additional degrees, and certainly don’t want to be represented by a collective bargaining unit.

I am puzzled by their funding of groups that are promoting an anti-teacher, anti-public education agenda in state after state. And I am puzzled by the hundreds of millions they have poured into the quixotic search to guarantee that every single classroom has a teacher that knows how to raise test scores.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone at the Gates Foundation has any vision of what good education is, or whether they think that getting higher test scores is the same as getting a good education. I wonder if they ever think about their role in demoralizing and destabilizing the education profession.”

Addressing the influence of Gates’ discretionary grantmaking, Ravitch adds, “They want accountability for teachers, but who holds them accountable?... They may be well-meaning but they are misinformed, and they are inflicting incalculable damage on our public schools and on the education profession.”—Rick Cohen

About

Rick Cohen

Rick joined NPQ in 2006, after almost eight years as the executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Before that he played various roles as a community worker and advisor to others doing community work. He has also worked in government. Cohen pursues investigative and analytical articles, advocates for increased philanthropic giving and access for disenfranchised constituencies, and promotes increased philanthropic and nonprofit accountability.

  • Tom King

    I understand Rick and Diane’s concern. Education is a frustrating issue, whichever side of the fence you sit on. Diane seems most worried, however, about the supposed deleterious effects of the Gates Foundation’s support for a non-unionized, dare I say, free market approach to education. As soon as anyone funds a group that is even looking at an approach that rewards performance rather than time served, the pro-union crowd rises up with pitchforks and torches.

    Myself, I’ve watched too many outstanding teachers over the years fired because they rocked the union boat, or made other teachers look bad or taught in ways that upset their colleagues or drifted outside the holy curriculuum. One of my favorite teachers, Marva Collins, left the public school system and started a private school that quickly filled up with kids who had been kicked out of the Chicago Public School system. I’ve met some of those kids and they are miles ahead of their peers. Marva could never have taught like she did in the unionized public school system. It would never have been tolerated.

    What the Gates Foundation’s support of non-unionized teachers (those who want to be nonunionized) does is add a competitive element to education. How that profits Microsoft, is something of a mystery to me? And any school that doesn’t like it is free to not take their money and do what they want, just as my college chose not to accept government education grants and the strings that come with them. The public school system is in dismal shape in much of America. Even the kids know it and are rebelling even more than we were back in the 60s.

    Kids and parents both want education that teaches them to do something valuable, something marketable. Companies want trained workers too. So why is it so bad to teach kids more things that get them good jobs and start successful careers? Funding innovation won’t damage the unionized education system if, as they claim, their system is better. If kids aren’t getting a good education, parents will refuse to pay for it.

    Why not, let’s try something new and see if it works better before we summarily pitch out the bath without checking if the baby is still in there. The biggest complaint parents like me have is that unions protect bad teachers, reward them with steady raises and benefits no matter what sort of miserable teacher they prove themselves to be.

    I’m wondering why paying teachers by how well their kids learn isn’t a good idea. So what if some students are poorly motivated, poorly disciplined and troubled. Shouldn’t we as parents be willing to pay teachers who have the ability to handle those tough kids, motivate them and inspire them. And I’m tired of hearing teachers whine about the poor quality of their students. I worked with multi-diagnosis emotionally disturbed kids. They came from horrific homes. I did things with my kids that people said couldn’t be done. My kids struggled; a few let me down, but for the most part, they made me proud to be their teacher. I worked outside the teacher’s unions and the education system. Our kids had the best outcomes records in the state next to other treatment centers and we were hated by our colleagues and our government supervisors for showing them up.

    The problem with governments and unions and even schools is that they mistake sameness for fairness. Do too well; stick your head above the crowd and they WILL lop it off the first chance they get. Unions all meant well in the beginning, but like Dr. Jerry Harvey, then at UT Austin, once pointed out, “They’ve come to believe their job is swamp maintenance and forgotten that their original purpose was to drain the swamp.”

    Just one man’s opinion.

    Tom King

  • michael

    Ravitch says: “I am puzzled by their funding of ‘astroturf’ groups of young teachers who insist that they don’t want any job protections, don’t want to be rewarded for their experience (of which they have little) or for any additional degrees, and certainly don’t want to be represented by a collective bargaining unit.

    I suspect Ravitch is referring to Gates support for Teach For America and Students First. To call them ‘astroturf’ shows a remarkable detachmnet from reality. Both were founded by people who came up thru the public education system and came to the conclusion ‘We can do better than this”.

    As for Ravitch’s concern for ‘young teachers, there are a couple of additional points to consider. One is that most young teachers who leave the profession do so because of the ossified bureaucracy which infects our public school system. Second is that the insane union practice of Last In-First Out means that in case of layoffs, the youngest teachers are most at risk of losing their jobs regardless of talent or ability. So the ‘job protection of collective bargaining is no job protection at all.

    Gresham’s Law applies here: the bad driving out the good. Dedicated people are no longer interested in working ‘within the system’ when the system is ossifed and decaying. Becasue of technology like the Khan Academy and funding sources like the Gates Foundation, we’re giving a new generation the chance to create new and effective models of education. Let us embrace the new and forget the exhausted who are desperately clinging to a worn out status quo.

  • Tom King

    Michael hits the nail on the head. When we built the US education system around the German model we were in essence trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. The United States was settled by waves of people seeking opportunities outside the ancient and “ossified” societies of Europe. One Harvard sociologist once wrote a treatise suggesting that people with ADHD tended to migrate to the US at higher rates and because there is a genetic component, we inherited a nation with an inordinate number of restless, high energy people in it. It accounts for the impulse to move away from the more settled East Coast to the West, which continued percolating ADHD folk westward till they hit the West Coast and invented California. (It explains a lot – this theory).

    The German graded system was designed to teach kids to show up on time, sit still and do repetitive work all day while their supervisors kept up a steady monitoring of their production. Great if you are training future workers for arms factories and munitions plants (which, as it turns out, they were). Not so great for the kind of kids we have in great abundance. Some kids do well in a graded setting. I taught at a one teacher school in New Mexico where I had 14 kids on 7 reading levels and at least 8 of them were diagnosable with ADHD. When I started the kids were on average 3 grade levels behind. Their previous teacher was loved by the school’s board of directors (4 of the five of whom were retired teachers), The parents had demanded a new teacher on threat of pulling their kids out of the school. My classroom was a moveable feast. We did a lot of cross-grade mentoring with older kids helping younger kids with their work. That year my class reached grade level on average – some exceeded it. My parents were meeting in their homes for prayer groups praying I would stay. The school board asked me to leave. Apparently my school room didn’t look like a school room was supposed to.

    I think Gates’ support for these new education entrepeneurs is admirable. The fossils in the education establishment are really gonna hate it.

    Tom King

  • Tom King

    Michael hits the nail on the head. When we built the US education system around the German model we were in essence trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. The United States was settled by waves of people seeking opportunities outside the ancient and “ossified” societies of Europe. One Harvard sociologist once wrote a treatise suggesting that people with ADHD tended to migrate to the US at higher rates and because there is a genetic component, we inherited a nation with an inordinate number of restless, high energy people in it. It accounts for the impulse to move away from the more settled East Coast to the West, which continued percolating ADHD folk westward till they hit the West Coast and invented California. (It explains a lot – this theory).

    The German graded system was designed to teach kids to show up on time, sit still and do repetitive work all day while their supervisors kept up a steady monitoring of their production. Great if you are training future workers for arms factories and munitions plants (which, as it turns out, they were). Not so great for the kind of kids we have in great abundance. Some kids do well in a graded setting. I taught at a one teacher school in New Mexico where I had 14 kids on 7 reading levels and at least 8 of them were diagnosable with ADHD. When I started the kids were on average 3 grade levels behind. Their previous teacher was loved by the school’s board of directors (4 of the five of whom were retired teachers), The parents had demanded a new teacher on threat of pulling their kids out of the school. My classroom was a moveable feast. We did a lot of cross-grade mentoring with older kids helping younger kids with their work. That year my class reached grade level on average – some exceeded it. My parents were meeting in their homes for prayer groups praying I would stay. The school board asked me to leave. Apparently my school room didn’t look like a school room was supposed to.

    I think Gates’ support for these new education entrepeneurs is admirable. The fossils in the education establishment are really gonna hate it.

    Tom King

  • michael

    Just to add to Tom’s point…when you look at two critical aspects of public schols you see how out-of-date they’ve become.

    One is the school calendar runs September thru May which was orginally designed to accomdate an agricultural society (100 years out of date); and two we place kids in big box factories and move them along like an assembly line which spits them out at the end with a certificate which has a Manufacturer’s Date stmpled on it (50 years out of date)

    Ravitch is at that stage of her life where her formative models were in the 60s-70s…..I believe that’s why she has trouble understanding the new possibilities awaiting us out there.

  • Jim Davis

    I am surprised by Dr. Ravitch vitriole. She swings from right to left in the education debate. Has she ever wondered about her own “demoralizing and destabilizing” over the years? I do agree that the Gates Foundation has been both misinformed about the approach and shared that with their representatives to no avail. However, they are not evil and at least they are tying something, while the profession sits idlly by acting as victims instead of taking a lead in creating the possibility that 21st Century Education should be.