Bill Gates Is Not The Devil.

gates-devilHis massive, unregulated, opaque, and technocratically-dominated influence on public education may be very troublesome

…but honestly, some of the vicious (or do I mean viscous) mud-slinging I’ve been seeing around these parts make it a little hard for me to sing my Billy Bragg Labor Day tunes. We all need evidence, people. Where’s your Common Core?

(OK, maybe that wasn’t the right question.)

Put less flippantly: it seems to me that one can ask critical, hard and necessary questions about Gates funding without assuming that accepting money from them makes your organization a cheap front for corporate school takeover.

We need people who do that– and here’s one of them. I introduce to you today Ken Libby, a doctoral student and blogger at the University of Colorado Boulder.

While skating around looking for non-polemicist texts on Gates, I stumbled across this post of Ken’s at the Shanker Blog, which I highly recommend reading. I sent him an email, as I tend to do, and now I gleefully follow him on Twitter (@kenlibby) where amongst erudite and interesting links, he also he posts some of the more hilarious examples of Extreme Edu-Makeover under the hash tag #CORESPIRACY.

What follows is an edited version of an extended email conversation we had over the summer.  ~ DS

Given your research, what sort of summative one-sentence statement would you make about what Gates funds in education?

If I only get one sentence, it would be: Gates funds lots of work in education and is without a doubt a significant factor in education reform, but the foundation is only one factor among many.

On the one hand, it is quite staggering to see the extent to which the foundation spreads money among a significant number of organizations that support similar policy positions. Critics make a big deal of this: either that Gates alone is pushing for something, or that the foundation is large enough to sway the kind of work that happens.

On the other hand, a lot of other things are happening in education that Gates doesn’t (and likely cannot) control: major budget cuts, other reform pushes (e.g., vouchers), and politics more broadly. Personally, I think a lot of Gates criticism overlooks the context in which the foundation operates. For instance, what would Gates’ work look like absent NCLB accountability systems? How about without the economic turmoil of the last five years? How about, as Larry Cuban notes, the larger trend of “unvarnished embrace of market-driven capitalism and business practices that has swept across all U.S. institutions, including schools”?

So statements like “Gates funds everyone” should be taken as a bit tongue-in-cheek. There are still a significant number of conservative philanthropies involved in K12 education, a collection of more liberal philanthropies, and local foundations that support education work.

What facts about the Gates Foundation do we not know– or hear about enough?

Gates doesn’t fund StudentsFirst. The foundation didn’t support Michelle Rhee’s DC teacher contract. Maybe I’m reading more into it than is appropriate, but I think the foundation’s distance from Rhee is indicative of a different, less brash approach. (There was some support for TNTP, which Rhee founded, early on, however.)

The foundation is also known for changing directions. It’ll be around for about 50 years after Bill and Melinda die. There’s still a good chance – looking in the longer term – that the foundation one day takes a very different approach to education reform. It’s actually kind of fun to think about.

Do you have any examples you like of Gates funding divergent educational approaches, and/or changing course, as you mention? 

The foundation’s work in Washington State is different than their more nation-wide strategy. They do a good amount of work with early childhood ed and some interesting stuff bringing together different agencies that work with children and families. But the foundation also supports a lot of education reform advocacy in the state, and Bill personally contributed to the ballot measure that allows charter schools.

Other divergent strategies… the foundation supports the Cristo Rey Network, a private Catholic school network. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen support for voucher advocacy, although some grantees may support it. Nothing too radically different: no unschooling, “progressive” stuff, etc.

As far as changing course, the foundation started off just giving out money to school districts to buy technology. That was early 2000s. By mid-2000s they were doing the small schools thing pretty intensely, but then Tom Vander Ark left and the foundation focused more on teacher evaluations, Common Core, and charter schools (to some extent). It also got more involved in supporting education advocacy. Small schools funding is gone. So yeah, they’ve changed course before– and probably will do so again.

Are you aware of places where the Foundation supports voices critical of the Foundation?

Ed Week receives Gates funding, and there are several bloggers over there who are very critical of Gates. (Not So Obvious Disclosure: I have published over at Ed Week in the past, as well as at ASCD’s blog InService. ASCD also has Gates funding. ~ DS)

Diane Ravitch recently linked to a post that purports to audit– extremely critically– Gates funding in education. What are your thoughts on it?

When we highlight Gates’ role in the standards (or education), we sometimes forget that there are a whole lot of other important players with a variety of different viewpoints, positions, and resources. Maybe it’s just a word, but even suggesting Gates “purchased” these services seems to imply that organizations have been bought off or bribed. I just don’t think that’s the case in many instances. There are plenty of orgs that have long supported standards – the Fordham Institute, for instance. Fordham’s support pre-dates CC and even Gates. Others support the standards because the commonality facilitates product development. And it’s not difficult to find teachers who actually like the standards for a variety of reasons. (Fairly Obvious Disclosure: I am– cautiously– one of them. ~ DS)

Also, the AEI grant linked to in Mercedes’ first post is supposed to explore the challenges of Common Core. Yet if you look at what Rick Hess is saying, it’s not at all pro-CC! Heck, one of the articles Mercedes links to has Hess saying he’s not on board with CC.

 The tone of posts like these strike me continually as unhelpful– but those facts are upsetting (as they always have been).

Yes. That upsetting feeling is nagging. Even the harshest critics are correct that the foundation’s work is very influential. But too much of the talk about Gates and philanthropy more broadly can be characterized as mud slinging or conspiracy theories.That stuff gets attention. More reasoned discussions, like the recent Boston Review forum, do a much better job of helping us understand philanthropy, including the possible benefits and disadvantages of these kinds of foundations.

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