Gates Foundation Apologizes Once Again for “Learning Organization” Missteps

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Susan-Desmond-Hellmann

2010_08_05_techonomy_124 / Doc Searls

May 24, 2016; Education Week, “EdWeek Market Brief”

Sue Desmond-Hellmann, marking two years as the CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), recently posted her vision of the kind of organization its founders wished the Foundation to become: “From the beginning, Bill and Melinda wanted their foundation to be a learning organization; one that evolves and course corrects based on evidence. We want to get continually smarter.” In one of their areas of major interest and investment, education, they seem to be widely missing this mark.

Desmond-Hellman asks, “What if all children—especially the poorest—had an equal opportunity to reach their full potential?” The Gates Foundation’s answer to this important question lies in in the failures of public education; for them, it’s the root cause of our growing societal inequity.

The Gates Foundation’s leadership believes firmly “that education is a bridge to opportunity in America.” In 2009, Bill Gates wrote:

Within the United States, there is a big gap between people who get the chance to make the most of their talents and those who don’t. Melinda and I believe that providing everyone with a great education is the key to closing this gap. If your parents are poor, you need a good education in order to have the equal opportunity that our founders promoted for every citizen.

The huge resources of the BMGF have been marshaled in support of a series of initiatives that ignore other possible reasons for our societal inequity as they seek to radically change how we teach our children and provide public education. Billions of dollars later, their results are marginal.

After more than five years of foundation support, in 2009, Bill Gates reported on the failure of their investment in “small schools”: “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” The foundation’s lessons learned from this experience did not result in any questioning of their core belief that the answer to building a more equitable society would be found within our public schools. They just shifted their focus to increasing the number of charter schools, creating test-based teacher evaluation systems, improving school and student data management, and setting universal standards through the common core curriculum. Each has struggled, and none appear to have been effective.

In 2014, the BMGF supported InBloom, an effort to create a national educational data management system, shut down after parents protested the collection and storage in the cloud of data on their children. Various states withdrew their support, and NPQ reported last September on the failure of one of these Gates-funded initiatives, Empowering Effective Teachers.

Desmond-Hellman has led the foundation as it has invested heavily in the effort to create a national set of learning standards, the Common Core Curriculum. Despite over $300 million in foundation funding, alliances with other large foundations, and strong support from the U.S. Department of Education, the effort has drawn bitter opposition and decreasing support. The strong push that the DoE gave states to implement the Common Core was seen as an unwanted intrusion of federal power into local schools. The use of Common Core to build a testing regimen for students and teachers was seen as disruptive and ineffective. Test data show little impact on bridging the inequity gap in states using Common Core.

Would not an organization that seeks to be a learning organization want to step back and consider whether their core assumptions are on target in light of their difficult experiences? Perhaps, but not the Gates Foundation. Desmond-Hellmann remains “optimistic that all students can thrive when they are held to high standards. And when educators have clear and consistent expectations of what students should be able to do at the end of each year, the bridge to opportunity opens. The Common Core State Standards help set those expectations.” Not a word about the impact of poverty, or the trauma of community violence, or systemic racism as even small considerations.

The problem as seen by Gates is not the strategy, but the high level of resistance they have found to their attempts to implement it:

Deep and deliberate engagement is essential to success. Rigorous standards and high expectations are meaningless if teachers aren’t equipped to help students meet them. Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well equipped to implement the standards. We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators—particularly teachers—but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.

The evidence that their assumptions are flawed when it comes to ensuring all children have equal opportunities is very clear. What is not clear is whether the foundation’s leadership is brave enough to step away from such a large investment and make the strategic changes their experience demands if they are committed to their mission. Management guru Peter Senge has some words worth being heard in the offices of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “Breakthroughs come when people learn how to take the time to stop and examine their assumptions.” Is this too much to expect when children’s lives are in the balance?—Martin Levine

  • Third Sector Radio USA

    Recognizing tunnel vision, or escalation of commitment to a failing course of action can be difficult to identify, especially in large bureaucratic organizations not dependent on others for resources.

    There are many things right about our education system, and perhaps improving it should start from an appreciative perspective. The problems in the system are wicked complex problems, because they are interdependent on other concern: poverty, racism, classism, gender disparities, and others, which are wicked problems on their own. We are learning that focusing on one aspect of wicked problems will have little lasting effects. It ‘s a shame that the Gates Foundation, that purports to be a learning organization (which in their case, appears to be defined as grantees must learn from the patronizing grantor) does not seem to understand that wicked problems require deliberation to overcome the challenge of an increasing marginal cost; deliberation with participants who often have a better understanding of synthesizing problems and qualities; deliberation that must be constant, not merely summative. It’s a shame, because the Gates Foundation has resources that can be injected into communities to become more successful in addressing the wicked problems they must.

  • Bravo, Martin Levine, for an unfortunately rare example of “speaking truth to power” in the philanthropic sector. Your observation that Gates did not address “the impact of poverty, or the trauma of community violence, or systemic racism as even small considerations” suggests that its founders and staff are not only arrogant but also willfully ignorant. Indeed, there is absolutely no reason to believe that education is a systemic bridge to opportunity in America. Gates is simply trying to perpetuate the myth that individual opportunity can, if I may use profanity, “trump” transforming existing power relations and fundamentally changing public policy re the allocation of public revenues.

    The Gates Foundation, like philanthropy in general, serves two basic purposes in America: (1) to maintain the good will of the public about the inequities of wealth by providing a portion of vast fortunes to society in the form of “charity;” and (2) since the late 19th century, to divert attention from creating a democratic socialist public sector to eliminate the worst aspects of monopoly capitalism. As I have said many times, philanthropy – it helps you stand on your own two knees.

  • I am to assume you refused to post my comment that I sent several hours ago. If so, shame on you for being so afraid of a little controversy.

  • As far as public education goes, what we see is the tip of the iceberg when we look at schools. The huge, lumbering base of that iceberg is comprised of major culture changes in homes and parenting today as well as in the governing structures (special interest groups) that “move” the base. To try and move the tip without understanding how to more the structure underneath it will always cause failure. That is, education really is about adults today, not about children. It’s about adults arguing over processes, not results. In addition, the same philosophy of the educating community of 50 years ago, when schools began a downward spiral, is still in place today.

    For a teacher/principal who spent 30 years looking into the eyes of frustrated and scared students in inner city or poverty settings because, too often, of weak and ineffective curriculum materials, weak and ineffective leadership at all levels, weak and ineffective parenting, and weak and ineffective teacher training (and administrative training), I can tell you that public schools really are a bastion of socialism. Everyone is supposed to be equal, even if it is at a lower level of performance. That is, as long as you look like you’re working or that you have good intentions, your reward is to remain in place, in spite of your results.

    Richard Daley, former mayor of Chicago, once explained that he measured the potential success of a task according to its “people, program, and paperwork.” Like an equilateral triangle, all sides should be equal in demands, he said. If one side is consistently taking more time and energy, that side is weakening the other two.That’s the side that has to be cleaned up–fast. I learned that to do that, some folks had to be fired. But unions fight to keep every warm body. That is, in fact, their job and they do it well. Weak administrators just move on to another job, often with a special interest group.

    Finally, let’s admit the focus in schools is not about excellence. That would mean there will be inequity among students, which in fact there is in the real world. Nevertheless, that focus on equity means we lose a lot of students and adults who would love to achieve excellence in their work. They simply are discouraged from doing that. We therefore play at teaching “rigor” and the kids know this. They, if not their teachers and parents, know when they are not required to learn–really learn, which is hard work. By the time they get to high school, they know they have been scammed. This produces malaise, to quote Jimmy Carter. This produces resistance. This produces failure by adults, which produces failure for our children.

    This is professional negligence.

    • stlgretchen

      Bravo, Niki. Well stated.

    • Julie Kramschuster

      Nki, my experience as a teacher, parent and community member in urban and other public schools has been NOTHING like yours. Our focus IS about excellence. Weak administrators — I don’t know what you mean by this, really — would definitely be a problem. I would call a strong administrator one who supports her teachers — fighting with the unions is not necessary. I’ve never seen a union “fight to keep every warm body”. What I see is teachers who are not successful choosing to move on in another profession — because teaching, if you are not very good at it, is too hard (it is plenty hard if you are pretty good at it). Of course, not all kids emerge “ready for traditional four year college” — and this should not be our goal. I am 57 years old and have witnessed during my lifetime schools engaging students at a MUCH higher level — both as to expectations and opportunities. The idea of a downward spiral in education is just not a fact. School is much more rigorous now than when I graduated from a relatively well-off high school in 1976, and although not all kids are as successful as we would like, that is due to factors well beyond the control of schools — or outside the schools’ ability to provide resources that the students need.

      • Julie,
        I’m pleased that you have had such a positive response in public education. My own goal was to strive toward excellence, of course, but I saw that general mission within school buildings slowly dissolve with a growing, politically charged world that focused on funding, vendors, and education “research” that had little to do with teaching content knowledge, but a lot to do with ideology. I did, indeed, have to fight to get rid of some weak and lazy teachers. I would much rather have spent my time on curriculum issues (finding proven materials and not the fads that soaked up so much of our time) and teacher support in working with parents. However, getting rid of weak teachers did support my strong staff who got tired of picking up the pieces left by the weak staff who had their union phone number on speed dial. Your blanket statement that “fighting with unions is not necessary” is not something I can accept since I had to live it.

        Defining a strong administrator: He/she supports the students FIRST who deserve a proven curriculum that is geared for the world in which they must live, survive, and ultimately thrive. Teachers who also see this as their priority and realize that results matter–they really do–then get full support against anyone who interferes with them, whether it’s undisciplined students, parents or district staff.

        A bit of background: I graduated from high school in 1958 and from college in 1961, spent 17 years in journalism, and 30 years in education. My teaching time usually included having one white student among my Hispanic and African American kids in my math classes in Waco, TX, and having to help break up gang fights almost daily; being the only white teacher in the all Black high school in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed; and being a math teacher/principal on an Indian Reservation where students kept saying they couldn’t achieve in the white man’s world and I kept saying that was bullspit. (As an Indian, I could say a lot of things that white teachers couldn’t–or so they thought.) As a counselor at a high school near Fort Hood, TX, where 46 languages were spoken in the school district, I saw lots more of gang fights. It was only when I was principal in an upper middle class, 85% white elementary school in Seattle that I knew what it was like to find parents wanting to volunteer in the classrooms. That was a steep learning curve!

        I’m also happy that you are finding more students working at a much higher level of expectations and opportunities than what you experienced as a student. But I must confess that I bristle at the idea that others of us who learned under classical or traditional methods are somehow less “rigorous” in our thinking or performance, or that students today who follow such classical studies are being short-changed academically. The data simply do not bear out the fruit of promises made by many in academia that, for example, girls and minorities cannot learn math like white males, that writing and talking a lot create transcendence of content learning to other areas, or that technology is the answer to closing the achievement gap.

        In closing, I am strongly encouraging everyone to read a fantastic paperback titled The Seven Myths About Education, by a teacher in England named Daisy Christodoulou. She succinctly lays out the destruction being created in Great Britain’s schooling and does it with clarity. It is the mirror image of America’s trail and trial in public education.

        For data-based information about blood and bruising in the world of math education for grades K-12 and the twisted world of textbook publishing, I encourage you to read John Saxon’s Story, a genius of common sense in math education. (See http://saxonmathwarrior.com.)

  • Perhaps you can share with me why you did not post my comment that I sent earlier today?

  • Delia Coleman

    This is the key sentence for me: “We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators—particularly teachers—but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.” Emphasis on parents and communities. When will our sector understand that solutions begin with listening to those affected by the issue? Blah blah unions charter schools blah. Maybe if we listened to community members more about what successful educational achievement looks like and treated them like assets rather than deficits to be managed philanthropic strategies would be more successful.

    • Julie Kramschuster

      I think by “sufficiently engage educators” the Gates Foundation means they haven’t been able somehow to really force the parents and teachers to comply and shut up! [Many non-teachers have suggested I write my concerns to the Gates — I can only respond with frustration that many, many have tried to “engage” with the Gates, but Gates is simply not interested in what people who work in the classroom think]. The Gates conduct and views are beyond outrageous.

  • parent010203

    “…all students can thrive when they are held to high standards…” says Sue Desmond-Hellmann

    If Sue Desmond-Hellman actually believed this, then one of the primary evaluating tools of the Gates Foundation would be to see how many at-risk and low-performing kids who win the lottery for so-called “successful” charters leave and why are they dropping out of such supposedly high-performing charters so frequently and returning to an underfunded public schools. Especially when those supposedly very successful Gates-funded (and other billionaire funded) charters have huge resources to spend. Ms. Desmond-Hellman would want to know exactly where those drop-outs from charter schools with the “high-standards” she espouses are going and it would set off alarm bells if she was finding at-risk kids returning to low-performing public schools. She would not simply say “hey that failing school with no resources also lost kids so I’m sure the reason so many very poor kids left that great school we are funding needs not be examined closely. It’s all fine – their parents just hate good schools and love failing ones because they are poor.” Can you imagine if middle class parents were pulling their kids from a supposedly excellent and definitely well-funded public school in huge numbers? The funders would be curious and suspect there was probably something wrong with the school. But if at-risk kids disappear, it is assumed that their parents just prefer terrible schools over a great one. The casual racism of the Gates Foundation leaders and other reformers is appalling.

    I find it very revealing that grant organizations like Gates ignore attrition or justify high rates by pretending there is no difference between failing schools losing a child who moves away or finds a better school and huge cohorts of at-risk kids mysteriously leaving those high performing charters and enrolling in far lower performing schools after either winning the lottery (but being discouraged from enrolling due to barriers) or starting on day 1 in the school.

    It’s a good thing that Gates doesn’t fund drug research as I’m sure there are plenty of charlatans ready to take their money to prove their new drug works by doing studies where a huge number of the sickest patients drop out and are replaced with healthier ones! Or try to enter the study and are somehow discouraged by requirements designed to weed out the sickest before they even enroll. Given the way Gates evaluates schools, no doubt Gates would use the same limited data to declare the drug a success! Based on their study where only the healthiest of patients remained and the sickest patients were drummed out! And then Ms. Desmond-Hellman can announce “All patients are helped when using this drug — see my proof!”

    If you want to know why education reform is not working, it is because the funders are less interested in real evaluation tools and more interested in success stories for their public relations. Any school that loses large numbers of kids and achieves good results is cheating. Period. If a school is good, parents will jump through hoops to stay, unless of course, the people at the school make it clear that their child isn’t wanted. But the reform movement has ignored this basic common sense and done everything they could to convince people that there is something different about at-risk parents that would make them leave the best schools. And yet have the chutzpah to announce that if only schools had “high standards” like the one where the lowest performing at-risk kids are made to feel unwelcome, they could thrive!