#StackRanking and Other Immoral Horrors: The Invisible Hands and Invisible Morals of Bill and Melinda Gates

Invisible hand

Dear Bill and Melinda,

I would like to explore the cause and effect of your Microsoft system of stack ranking on the lives of children and teachers.  What happens when your actual policies don’t match your “advertised” ideology?  What brings you both to speak so moralistically and yet act so immorally?   Do your “invisible hands” lead to your invisible morals? How has public education evolved to become so impersonal while you label your reforms as “personalized learning”? Intent is very hard to prove,  but what can explain this paradox?

Why do you force an impersonal, punitive system of stack ranking and what you call “personalized learning” onto “other people’s children” and teachers in America’s public schools, but not onto your own children?  (Note:  As Pasi Sahlberg explains in Global Education Reform Movement, I realize it is important not to nationalize corporate education reform, but for the purposes of this letter, I will focus on US public schools and society).

There is a very wide achievement gap between your personal moralistic mottoes – your moral WORDS  – and your impersonal immoral ACTIONS.  Your actions don’t match your words, Mr. and Mrs. Gates.  Through your words you pretend to give us all “what we want”, what SELLS; the touchy-feely script that leads readers to think you are grounded in morality.  While those of us who are professional educators can agree – you are no expert on education; you are an expert at propaganda. Through your actions you behave immorally and impersonally as pure capitalists.

"Personalized Learning"

“Personalized Learning”

Here’s one example of this mismatch of words and actions.  How about these “cubicles for kids” for impersonal? And yet you call this type of education “personalized learning“?   Is this what you want for our nation’s children when you say “college and career ready”? What is behind this mismatch of “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy?

Consider this impersonal, scripted lesson from engageny.org, NYSED’s “web site for materials and resources related to the Regents Reform Agenda,” that was posted by Chris Cerrone at The Chalkface.  It uses a Pavlovian obedience training method on kindergarteners.  Notice their lackluster expressions.

You evidently consider BIG DATA — like your company inBloom where you partner with hacker Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein to mine private student data — to be for what purpose, you say?  You consider inBloom to be for “personalized learning” as written about here by Anthony Cody:

“The Gates Foundation has worked with Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify to create a new non-profit called inBloom. (formerly the Shared Learning Collaborative). Their mission is “inform and involve each student and teacher with data and tools designed to personalize learning.”

Here’s another example of your mismatch of words and actions.  As students at Seattle’s Lakeside School, your children benefit from true personalized learning.  Lakeside does not use Common Core Gates-led Standards, nor does it use scripted lessons.  High-stakes testing and BIG DATA from inBloom are non-existent at Lakeside School.  You wouldn’t want the Microsoft backed unconstitutional NSA/PRISM world to get their hands on the private data from your children, would you?  No, of course not.  Instead, at Lakeside School your children can be taught how to become the future data miners in M760 Computer Science IV:

M760 Computer Science IV
This semester-long course continues the sequence of Computer Science II/III for students interested in further
exposure to advanced topics in computer science… Other areas such as data mining, cloud computing,
robotics or other advanced topics may be covered based on student interest as time allows. (My own emphasis added.)

After teaching the children of the 1% how to do more data mining or other advanced computer science topics based on student interests, Lakeside students are guaranteed real personal learning as described below… Where are your morals now, Mr. and Mrs. Gates?

“Lakeside’s 5th- to 12th-grade student-centered academic program focuses on the relationships between talented students and capable and caring teachers. We develop and nurture students’ passions and abilities and ensure every student feels known.

Each student’s curiosities and capabilities lead them to unique academic challenges that are sustained through a culture of support and encouragement. All students will find opportunities to discover and develop a passion; to hone the skills of writing, thinking, and speaking; and to interact with the world both on and off campus. Lakeside trusts that each student has effective ideas about how to maximize his or her own education, and that they will positively contribute to our vibrant learning community.”

Stack Ranking Children: How could you and Melinda be so cold and impersonal as to not realize how children who fail your high stakes tests feel about themselves?  In this piece, Diane Ravitch considers the following question:  What happens to kids who don’t graduate?  In New York State, where the 2013 Common Core high stakes tests failed 70% of all students, a Long Island parent writes:

“Recently, my 10-year-old daughter asked me what it would take for me to let her stay home from school forever,” she said. “Not tomorrow. Not next week. Forever. She said: ‘I’m too stupid to do that math.’ Your child is broken in spirit when they have lost their confidence and internalized words like stupid. That damage is not erased easily.”

In the same article, Superintendent Rella talks about what is now being called the “Common Core Syndrome“:

“And as a result of our rigorous, gritty approach, students will experience increased anxiety, stress, behavioral problems, sleep deprivation, respiratory issues, self-destructive and self-abusive behaviors.”

Common Core Syndrome

And here, Mary Calamia — a clinical social worker  — gives testimony on how students are suffering this “Common Core Syndrome.”  Students are now mutilating themselves due to the high stress caused by stack ranking. Where are your morals now, Mr. and Mrs. Gates?

And in a recent conversation on Facebook, a young adult who was supposed to graduate last year shared how hopeless she feels after failing the Washington state End-of-Course math exam (EOCs) last spring, 2013.  She is devastated.  She stated:

“I had a 3.75 GPA, all my credits, plus an extra 1.5 credit hours. I failed the math test by 2 points and now I can’t graduate.  I’m just getting my GED eventually. I’ve already taken extra classes. I’m not going to do anymore work, too sad.”  – Anonymous Youth, source protected

A growing numbers of our students who have attended 13 years of school will be subjected to these EOCs.  I wonder how many students nationally will be disallowed graduation after passing 13 years of schooling, due to one end of course exam?  How many were denied graduation nationally in 2013 due to EOC’s? Who has that data?  How do you explain partnering with Pearson to create end-of-course exams that prevented nearly 7,000 children in your own backyard from graduating high school? Where are your morals now, Mr. and Mrs. Gates?

Stack Ranking Teachers: How do teachers feel after being fired by your teacher evaluation system, which is now tied to test scores? How about the teacher who was awarded Teacher of the Year one year, and the next was considered failing?  How does it feel to lose a lifelong calling to your stack ranking methods?  What does this loss do to an entire community? Where are your morals now, Mr. and Mrs. Gates?

Patrick Welsh wrote in USA Today:

 “As Rothstein puts it, ranking teachers by kids’ test scores “rewards or penalizes teachers for the kids they teach, not just for how well they do it.”

To me, ranking teachers on the basis of their student test scores is just part of a nationwide, politically driven movement to scapegoat teachers for the so-called achievement gap between the scores of whites and Asians and those of blacks and Latinos. The corollary assumption of this movement is that students are receptive vessels eager to be filled with knowledge if teachers just straightened up. The effects of family background, poverty, ethnic culture and other politically charged factors are ignored in favor of the myth that teachers can make up for any deficiency.

In a paper co-authored by Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, New York University’s Diane Ravitch and other researchers, one sentence in the conclusion stuck out: “The rule followed by any reformer of public schools should be: ‘First, do no harm’.”

The toxic atmosphere created in my school and in others across the country as teachers are scapegoated for their students’ test scores is ample evidence that dictum is being totally ignored.” – Patrick Welsh

If ranking teachers punishes them for the kids they teach, why would anyone want to teach in our schools of poverty – only to be punished?  Why would anyone want to teach children with special needs – only to be punished?  Why would anyone want to teach our children who are just learning English  – only to be punished?  Just how demoralizing can it get when teachers test scores are posted in the public view?  In Los Angeles, one teacher even took his own life when his test scores were published for all to see in the local newspaper.  Where are your morals now, Mr. and Mrs. Gates?

At one point, you penned an op-ed in The New York Times that calls publicly revealing individual teachers’ scores “a big mistake.” But now your actions once again do not match your words. We are mourning your involvement in Washington state, Mr. and Mrs. Gates – where you and OSPI are aiding the Seattle Times in publishing private student and teacher data.  How will children and teachers feel about this public humiliation in your backyard?Will this lead to more suicide?  Where are your morals now, Mr. and Mrs. Gates?

Bill Gates applauding

It seems that while children, teachers, and their families suffer you sit around funding and applauding all these inhumane policies.

It seems your morals have become invisible as well.  It appears  your “invisible hands” are up to their elbows in profit from corporate reform.   How else do you explain assisting Rahm Emanuel in the closing of 49 public schools in a high poverty area, firing  2,800 teachers/support staff — then opening 52 private charter schools — only to staff them with the least qualified Teach for America 5 week “summer camp” trainees?


“The greatest evil perpetrated,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.”

Microsoft’s stack ranking system was ended for one reason and one reason only.  It didn’t work because it was human cruelty and you forgot you are working with humans.  You refuse to be a person.  Stack ranking creates a culture of cannibalism.  Read some of the excerpts from Vanity Fair:

‘Kurt Eichenwald traces the “astonishingly foolish management decisions” at the company that “could serve as a business-school case study on the pitfalls of success…

“Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes…

“In the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Sears had it nailed. It was top-notch, but now it’s just a barren wasteland. And that’s Microsoft. The company just isn’t cool anymore.”

“They used to point their finger at IBM and laugh,” said Bill Hill, a former Microsoft manager. “Now they’ve become the thing they despised.”

Children and teachers are being driven out of public schools by the droves also. So now in the same cannibalistic culture; teachers, children, and parents are beginning to realize that public education is on the same path to becoming the thing we most despise.  How can America’s teachers and their unions allow value-added teacher evaluations to be used as weapons to stack rank and to cut the career “throats” of their own? Isn’t that very cannibalistic response exactly what happened at Microsoft?  Paul L. Thomas wrote about Microsoft’s cannibalistic culture and schools here.  You promote this cannibalistic culture through your cold handshake: Our own unions support these cutthroat policiesCannibalism at work…

Cold handshake 3

Your cold, impersonal “invisible hands” have a grip around the throat of this very important public institution — our public schools.

Maybe your impersonal cold handshake with children, teachers, and unions can be explained because you and Melinda embrace capitalism much more tightly than you do your morals.

Does Michael Heller provide us with the real explanation of the disconnect between what teachers know to be so important – relationships which foster student voice in their own education leading to authentic personalized learning – and the “impersonal mis-match paradox?  Maybe this “impersonal-ism” can be explained by the very goals of capitalism:

The definition of capitalism’s impersonality:

All the elements of a new “institutional” definition of capitalism rest on a single hard-to-grasp hard-to-tolerate concept, possibly the most outrageous concept ever produced by social science. Capitalism is characterized mainly by the “impersonality” of its institutions.

Max Weber: “Today, the homo politicus, as well as the homo oeconomicus, performs his duty best when he acts without regard to the person in question, without hate and without love, without personal predilection, but sheerly in accordance with the impersonal duty imposed by his calling, and not as a result of any personal relationship.”

Oxford Thesaurus describes “impersonal judgment” as “neutral, unbiased, nonpartisan, unprejudiced, objective, detached, disinterested, dispassionate, without favoritism”. In capitalist countries the institutions are structured toward that ideal. They have evolved, or been designed, to achieve that principle as their means to ends.

The idea is that policy which is impersonal is oriented to rules rather than persons and is therefore more predictable, more calculable.

It is the procedures of an organization that become impersonal. The procedures by which decisions are made and implemented follow formal predetermined rules. They are not swayed by the motives or emotions of persons making decisions or by the interests of particular persons or groups of persons affected by decisions.

A state impersonal procedural norm = procedurally impersonal government.

State processes are governed by *general* rules for formal equality of treatment, deliberately and without discretion or special treatment. (my own sidenote – equality of impersonal treatment)

Institutions of an impersonal state are suffused, in Max Weber’s description, with “the horror of privilege and the principled rejection of doing business from case-to-case”…. (my own emphasis added)

Officials are effective because they act with minimum regard to personal relations, feelings, or popularity, but rather with maximum regard to assigned duties, circumscribed powers, and technical competence. The powers of officialdom do not rest on accumulation of political or material assets or the personality of officials. Instead power accumulates with expertise, aptitude, and the knowledge assets for leadership and administration. (My own side note: Enter the technocrats, e.g. Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan, et.al.)

The totality is the *interaction* of the institutional domains:

Capitalism is a procedural solution to the problem of spontaneously coordinating durable public institutions of market society. The invisible hand is the impersonal procedural norm. The norm is a coordination surrogate. This procedural norm shared by all three domains gives predictability or calculability in the absence of any single coordinating institution.

This author goes on to promote capitalism, and its impersonal invisible hand.  Is that your goal and the reason your words don’t match your actions?  To create the invisible hand as the impersonal procedural norm across all public institutions?  No wonder children and public school teachers find themselves at odds with a market driven corporate education reform.

Pope Francis has come out to call out “trust” as something incompatible with capitalism, in his essay: “We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.”  He writes:

‘Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading.  It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.’

By your stack ranking, children and teachers become excluded, outcasts, “leftovers”. When your words don’t match your actions, we can’t trust you, Mr. and Mrs. Gates.  You don’t seem to have any self-awareness.  Chris Hedges warns us not to trust you in his essay from 2011, Why the United States Is Destroying Its Education System where he quotes Hannah Arendt:

As Arendt pointed out, we must trust only those who have this self-awareness. This self-awareness comes only through consciousness. It comes with the ability to look at a crime being committed and say “I can’t.” We must fear, Arendt warned, those whose moral system is built around the flimsy structure of blind obedience. We must fear those who cannot think. Unconscious civilizations become totalitarian wastelands.

“The greatest evildoers are those who don’t remember because they have never given thought to the matter, and, without remembrance, nothing can hold them back,” Arendt writes. “For human beings, thinking of past matters means moving in the dimension of depth, striking roots and thus stabilizing themselves, so as not to be swept away by whatever may occur—the Zeitgeist or History or simple temptation. The greatest evil is not radical, it has no roots, and because it has no roots it has no limitations, it can go to unthinkable extremes and sweep over the whole world.”

Your stack ranking system has no roots, Mr. Gates. It goes to unthinkable extremes and has already swept the world over.  But even corporate America has lost confidence in your immoral methods.  You see,  according to Bloomberg Businessweek:

‘ … corporate America has largely lost confidence in management programs that jam employees onto bell curves…

‘As the company shrinks, the rigid distribution of the bell curve forces managers to label a high performer as a mediocre. A high performer, unmotivated by such artificial demotion, behaves like a mediocre.’ ‘

It is time that the world follows suit and for once I agree with this one small part of the “business model”.  It is time that children and teachers are not jammed onto bell curves, and given a curriculum that demotivates both learners and teachers by such an artificial demotion, Mr. and Mrs. Gates.

What do students have to say about your  corporate reform? This Tennessee student, Kenneth Ye Farragut tells us exactly what the problem is and how the impersonal invisible hands of capitalism and Common Core have no place in our public education system.  He says high pressure standardized stack ranking systems plagues the lives of students in both China and America.

This valedictorian and Sir Ken Robinson have a paradigm shift for all of you with invisible hands and invisible morals:

It is time that our unions realize they are receiving a cold, impersonal handshake when they accept your money.  It is time that our unions break all ties with your invisible hands and all other corporate reformers.  It is time our unions stop accepting your money. It is time that America and the globe demands an end to all high stakes testing and punitive teacher evaluations tied to test scores.  It is time for America to follow Microsoft and put an end to stack ranking.  It is time for all public education to embrace a moral model of education based on equality and social justice  – one that provides ALL the freedom to teach, the freedom to learn – rather than competition that creates a few winners and many losers.  It is time that America sees your invisible hands and immorality for what they are: pure and impersonal unfettered capitalism.

First Do No Harm

It is time for America to demand an education that embraces a noble goal, disconnected from impersonal Capitalism   – a morally sound goal  – to “First, do no harm”. @DudleyTeaches and the Badass Teachers Association get it: Stop this madness!

From there, we can rebuild our children, our teachers, our public schools, our communities, and our democracy — without your invisible hands and your invisible morals.

Susan DuFresne, Gen Ed and Special Ed Kindergarten Teacher, Co-author of Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates


About Highlighting Members' Needs

We are running for the following Renton Education Association positions because we believe in the following planks: Becca Ritchie, Candidate for REA President, Nelsen Middle School, Computer Tech Susan DuFresne, Candidate for Primary Executive Board, Maplewood Heights Elementary, Integrated Kindergarten ✅  Demanding a healthy work-load/life balance. ✅  Bargaining competitive professional compensation. ✅  Challenging the status quo test culture with: Less is more! ✅  Emphasizing our professional expertise. ✅  Prioritizing equity and access for all. ✅  Utilizing 2-way 21st century communication tools. ✅  Acting in solidarity with all unions. ✅  Supporting ALL members. ✅   Implementing developmentally appropriate K-3 curriculum/assessment.
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