image courtesy of http://www.good.is.
Dear Bill and Melinda,
Our hopes were dashed when you ignored our invitation to attend Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error Book Tour in Seattle tonight. Your silence and your continued lack of response to any one of the teachers’ letters to you on this website speak volumes to Americans, particularly public school students, parents, teachers, and administrators.
We prepared some great questions to ask you, but since you apparently have “opted out,” we have instead created this mock interview. Our questions to you are shaped by key arguments Diane Ravitch makes about you and your foundation in her latest book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Knopf). Your responses are excerpts taken from a variety of speeches you have given on the state of education in the U.S. Of course, your “status quo” answers only highlight the truth of Ravitch’s book. The fact that you and Melinda will not attend suggests to us fear on your part that your high power gambles in this casino game you are playing with public tax money are coming to an end.
The Gates Foundation is the largest funder of corporate education reform initiatives. You have awarded grants to charter school organizations, think tanks, and even to the national teachers’ unions: the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. You fund anti-union teachers and financially back teacher evaluation plans that tie teachers’ ratings to test scores and support merit pay. Your foundation has spent $147.9 million alone on the development of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the backbone of ed reform, which you claim is necessary if our students are to be “college and career ready.” You have partnered with Pearson, the Common Core test makers in New York State, to create online CCSS curriculum, and you invested in inBloom, the controversial database that collects and stores confidential student data (Ravitch, 23-24). Your consultants even aided Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, in creating Obama’s Race to the Top legislation (Ravitch, 28). How much teaching experience do YOU have? How much time have you spent in the classrooms of our nation’s schools, particularly those in low-income areas? Why do you think that you, a college dropout and non-educator, are qualified to lead the ed reform movement?
Bill Gates: “Equity has been the driving ideal of our foundation from the beginning. It’s a test we apply to every grant – here in the United States and around the world. Equity is a value I learned from my parents. My mom and dad were both dedicated to community service.
Melinda and I faced similar questions as we started our giving. What is the key inequity in this country? What is the pivotal issue for the future? For us, the answer is education. Education is the great equalizer.
Yet perversely, the great equalizer in America is stained with inequality. Our public schools range from outstanding to outrageous. And where a child’s school is located on that spectrum is a matter of luck – where you live, when you were born, who your parents are. There is already enough in life that depends on luck. When it comes to education, we should replace luck with equity.” – National Urban League, July 27, 2011
“When I speak about our foundation’s work in education one of the questions I get all the time and sometimes even in sort of an excusatory tone is, “Is it true that you support charter schools?” Well, I love that question because I like to answer, “Yes. We are guilty as charged.”
I’ve had a chance to visit a number of charter schools. One of the most memorable visits was a few years ago in Houston, Texas where Melinda and I got to see both KIPP and YES work there. And we were amazed by what we saw. We agreed those schools were good enough that we’d feel great sending our kids to those schools as much as any school private or public in the country.” – National Charter Schools Conference, 6/29/10
You and other corporate ed reformers are behind a campaign to spread the message that public schools are “failing.” In 2005, your foundation spent $2 billion to convince school districts to replace so-called “broken” comprehensive high schools with small schools. In 2008, this initiative was deemed a failure because the small schools didn’t provide a balanced curriculum (Ravitch, 39-40). The costly Common Core, which you also funded, is yet another experiment in trying to improve our nation’s schools and teachers. In New York State, 2/3 of students in grades 3-8 “failed” the new Common Core math and English-language arts assessments. Who is to say that this latest initiative won’t flop as well?
Bill Gates: “These new common core state standards in Math and English Language Arts pinpoint the concepts that are crucial. The standards are a staircase, and each step equips you to do more complex tasks. The standards in math are similar to the standards used by countries that outperform us in international tests.
The standards in English Language Arts emphasize the ability to read text, analyze it, and apply it at ever higher levels of complexity – with ever greater independence. This is the core of the core. It opens the door to everything.
The common core, rolled out with the right tools and templates, will let teachers teach the content they want, and still focus on the skills and concepts that students most need to learn.
The common core state standards are led by the states, not the federal government; they are about goals, not methods. Their purpose is to create great learners, not to transmit facts.
In addition, the common core will help deliver a huge advantage that our schools have never had before: a large market for new innovations that can help teachers teach at a high level and still reach each child.
Imagine if kids poured their time and passion into a video game that taught them math concepts while they barely noticed because it was so enjoyable. We’ve been supporting the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington, which has developed a free, on-line game called Refraction. The goal of the game is to rescue animals whose ships are stuck in outer space. The ships require different amounts of fuel, powered by lasers. So the players have to manipulate fractions to split the lasers into the right amount of fuel.
As the kids play the game, the teachers watch a dashboard on their computer that tells them how each student is doing, so they know instantly if the student is getting it or not. Teachers no longer have to wait for the unit test to find out if their kids understand the material.
Teachers have not had these tools before. Fragmented standards that differ from state to state and district to district have made it hard for innovators to design tools to reach a wide market. The common core will help change that.
In the classroom of the not-too-far-off future, kids will have computer devices with phenomenal interactive content. This will allow teachers to do what they call “flip the classroom.” Instead of learning a concept in class and applying it at home, students would learn the concept at home, on video, and apply it in class, where they can get help from the teacher.
When students learn a concept on video, they can take as much time as they need and learn at their own pace. They can pause the video, rewind it, or just listen to it all over again.” – Education Commission of the States Annual Conference July 11, 2012
In 2010, you told our nation’s governors that teacher effectiveness should be based on test scores, which would render irrelevant teachers’ level of education and years of service. You have used this argument to call for an end to tenure and to base teachers’ compensation on test scores. Unions, you say, protect bad teachers and serve as roadblocks to high academic achievement, which you argue is evidenced by increasing test scores. This is false. According to Diane Ravitch, “The states with the strongest unions have the highest test scores. Conversely, the states where unions are weak or non-existent have low achievement.” “What unionized cities with low test scores have in common is high poverty and racial segregation” (Ravitch, 125-126). What are your corporate ed reform policies doing to address racial segregation and to improve the lives of families living in poverty? Obviously dismantling unions and ending tenure isn’t the answer to raising student achievement.
Bill Gates: “Let me acknowledge that I don’t understand in a personal way the challenges that poverty creates for families and schools and teachers. I don’t ever want to minimize it. Poverty is a terrible obstacle. But we can’t let it be an excuse. Melinda and I have been involved in some remarkable schools that prove that all students can succeed. We know you can have a good school in a poor neighborhood. We’ve seen them and been inspired by them, and so have you.
So let’s end the myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education.
It’s the other way around. Improving education is one of the best ways to solve poverty.
The first step in reforming anything is to find out where that thing is being done well – and why. When our foundation studied the highest-achieving schools, especially the schools where poor children were doing well, we found mounting evidence that the single most important factor in a successful school is effective teaching. Data now show that students with great teachers learn three times as much material in one year as students with ineffective teachers.
The impact of the teacher is pivotal. BUT – that does not mean that parents, principals and administrators have fewer obligations. It means they have greater obligations … to support teachers — to provide them with the training and the college-ready curriculum and the resources they need to help their students.
To truly support teachers, we have to understand excellent teaching. So for us, the challenge became: let’s analyze the teachers whose students are making the biggest gains, identify what they do, and figure out how to transfer those skills to others.
Then – and this is the key shift – we are working to take these insights and use them to develop a teacher personnel system that can identify the top performers, capture their best practices, and give all teachers feedback that helps them improve.
We’d like to see this kind of personnel system put in place in school districts across the country.
Because Melinda and I believe that education is a civil right.
Late last year, Melinda and I went to Memphis to visit some of the schools that are involved in our work. When we were there, we went to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. We were guided by Reverend Billy Kyles, who was with Dr. King that day in 1968. When I walked through the Museum, I saw evidence of all the progress made since Dr. King died – in voting and housing and employment and public accommodations. But I thought: we may have made the least progress in the area that today matters most.
Education may be the hardest civil rights fight of all. Discrimination is harder to prove, and people often don’t know what levers to pull to fix the problem. I know from my perspective, school reform is a hard cause to communicate. I’m inspired by the leaders who do it well.
When I was in Memphis, I met a woman named Tomeka Hart. She is a civic leader, and member of the school board, and the President of the Memphis Urban League. She talked to me about the racial history of the Memphis schools, outlining the obstacles that stand in the way of improvement. She is a strong backer of reform, including our foundation’s teacher initiatives, but she was candid about the challenges.
She said that there was pushback, and that she and other school board members were taking a beating in the community. But they took on the challenge of making sure people had information and understood the reason for change. Now they have widespread community support, because Ms. Hart and her colleagues had the skill and passion to make the case.
That’s what Tomeka Hart and the Urban League are doing in Memphis. That’s what Esther Bush and the Urban League are doing in Pittsburgh. That’s what Warren Logan and the Urban League are doing in Chattanooga.
These are civil rights leaders for the 21st century.
We need activists who can turn frustrated parents into informed protestors. We need communities who will stand in the schoolhouse door—not to keep people from coming in, but to keep students from dropping out. And we need students to understand that twelve years of school today is not enough; every student needs a meaningful credential beyond high school.
Higher education is crucial for jobs. I was studying some of the graphs and charts in the Urban League’s State of Black America report, and the statistics on labor participation caught my attention. Overall, black participation in the labor force is below white participation—but the gap comes exclusively from the large number of black students who never finish high school. Once they have graduated high school, African Americans on average do just as well—or better than—whites.
Education is the great equalizer. But to get that equality, they have to GET that education. That’s what will “put urban America back to work.” National Urban League, July 27, 2011
– Katie and Susan, Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates