“They’ve Been Doing This Massive, Anti-Democratic Model of Education Reform”

Janine Jackson: A new report from the RAND Corporation concludes that the multi-million-dollar teacher evaluation project, championed and partially bankrolled by Bill Gates, did not increase teachers’ effectiveness or improve students’ academic performance, including the low-income minority students that were presented as the initiative’s major beneficiaries.

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, a generally critical assessor of what’s called “education philanthropy,” covered this new report. But most corporate media appear uninterested in this challenge to a set of ideas about “failing public schools” and how to fix them, that they themselves play a notable role in promoting.

Our next guest has critically engaged the Gates Foundation’s educational forays for years now. Wayne Au is professor at the University of Washington/Bothell Campus, and interim dean for diversity and equity on campus. He’s also editor at Rethinking Schools. He joins us now by phone from Seattle. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Wayne Au.

Wayne Au: Thanks for having me.

It’s important to note that while the Gates Foundation underwrote a reported $215 million of this project, that was less than half; school districts supplied the rest. So we’re not talking about an episode of perhaps naïve corporate noblesse oblige, troubling as that would be. But a lot of public resources were put into this “use test scores to evaluate teachers” project, that many, many educators knew from the get-go was misdirected.

That’s really unfortunate, but I think it makes sense if you look at things in the current context. The same thing happened with Common Core and Race to the Top as well. And we have a situation where public school districts are totally strapped for cash, we have class sizes that are just exploding, teachers paying out of pocket for classroom resources, and so school districts are really just hurting for money.

And what often happens is philanthropists like the Gates Foundation say, “Hey, we have this project. Would you partner with us on this? And we’re investing this much money in doing this thing, but you need to come and give X amount of dollars to this project as well, and devote your resources.” It’s within this context of what I would actually characterize as austerity funding for public education that many districts agree to partner with these foundations, because it looks like they’re bringing money in.

Unfortunately, what happens is that many of the districts end up finding that—this was the case with Common Core as well—that the money coming in for these new programs actually pales in comparison to what it took to implement the programs, or to cooperate with the research, and with these different kinds of programs.

And so in the end, it’s one of those things where we end up having our public dollars, public tax dollars, just being essentially sucked away into this whole other enterprise, and which often—and this is the sad part of it—even though there is this philanthropic money coming from, like, the Gates Foundation, and this public money coming from the school districts, often either nonprofits or for-profit corporations that are, like, creating the data tools for these things, they’re the ones who are actually getting this money, and essentially making money off of this kind of research project.

Right, it seems as though it’s ultimately—and if you scratch, you can see it, and they sometimes even admit to it—I mean, it’s ultimately about privatization, isn’t it, this gospel of the private sector and market forces being the right response to everything?

Oh, absolutely, and you get that from the Gates Foundation all the time. Gates is very clear. He’s trying to create, and he’s said this before, market conditions and market forces where everybody’s working to make money, but this will be in the best interest of kids and education; and that’s how he frames this whole entire agenda. For me, that’s the greatest fallacy of this whole idea of researching teachers in the way that the Gates Foundation did, and unfortunately in concert with the school districts, is that we’ve known for decades, from the research base, that teachers arecritically important in terms of how students learn things, how students experience classrooms. However, we also know that test scores are very limited measures of student performance, what students know, what students learn. Therefore, they are very minimal in terms of measuring what teachers teach.

But here we have the Gates Foundation essentially pushing high-stakes standardized testing, which teachers have actually very little effect on; the research has shown this for a very long time, that if you take any standardized test score, a teacher actually influences somewhere between 18 to 25 percent, depending on the study you’re looking at, and everything else is actually external factors. There’s all this stuff outside of schools that account for 75 percent of a test score. This is if you want to believe the test scores, right? So we’re talking things like food security, housing security, access to adequate healthcare, dental care, livable wages for their parents; these are the things that actually impact test scores, but this is only if you’re going after test scores as your main measure.

Again, they’re super limited, and honestly they don’t really measure what the students learn, and therefore also don’t really measure what teachers are teaching. And so here we have this massive investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, underwritten by the Gates Foundation, these districts and politicians and policymakers investing in it on the public education side, really trying to go after something that we’ve known has been fake, and it’s been a rabbit hole that we knew wouldn’t increase student performance. We’ve known that for a long time.

Yeah, and all of those other factors—like food security, likeousing—that of course, if you think about it, have an impact on test scores. That, to me, makes the making of props of black and brown kids and underserved kids especially cynical, and suggesting that this kind of scheme is going to uplift them and help them in particular.

Oh, for sure. In a way, I really see this as a colonizing agenda, in a sense, because essentially what we have are predominantly white, super-wealthy elite philanthropies, like the Gates Foundation, putting these programs into mostly black and brown, working-class communities, right? And it creates this dynamic where you essentially have these rich missionaries saying, “We know what’s best for you and your kids, we’re going to do these things.” Meanwhile, it sort of treats these children, these black and brown children, as experiments, right? And so the power dynamics are really, really skewed.

All at the same time that folks like Gates, here in Washington state, he’s very opposed to a more progressive tax structure. He’s actively fought against efforts here in our state to improve our tax structure so that we could give more basic services to more people in the state. We have one of the most regressive tax structures. And so to me there’s a great irony in—maybe irony is the wrong word—but you can just see the problems with these super-elite, white corporate folks just saying, “Hey, we know what’s best for these communities.”

And that’s also illustrated by the fact that all these reforms…. You know Gates wasn’t using these measures to study the teachers of his kids at the elite rich private schools in the Seattle area. None of these reforms are for his kids. These are reforms for everyone else’s kids.

Right. Well, the Gates Foundation, like others, has a strategy. They make their own echo effect, and part of that, as you know, is funding education journalism. That’s something else that you have, as one headline had it, “tangled with” — Gates-funded education blogs, so there’s an impact in the way these things are covered.

There’s no mistake that mainstream media has basically not followed up on the failure of the Gates study and interventions into teacher evaluation, because, again, here in Seattle, the Seattle Times’ education reporting is partially funded by the Gates Foundation, like this ”focus on solutions,” and there was a whole granting programming around that, but when you talk to those reporters about what they’re allowed to report on, they say, “Well, Gates doesn’t control us.” But then I’ll ask a follow-up and say, “Well, how come you’re not reporting on this, like we know ethnic studies helps kids do better in school, particularly low-income black and brown kids.” And they’ll say, “Well, it’s complicated.”

And so it’s clear that there’s this agenda that happens, that the Gates Foundation is going to fund, we used to see it with Education Nation and stuff every fall, on NBC or whatever, and they would promote this particular agenda, and at the same time, unwilling to promote things that don’t align with that agenda.

And we see the same thing in educational research as well. So it’s not just these major philanthropies impacting reporting; they’re also impacting what kind of research gets done, because they have their own whole funding machine that funds particular kinds of research. And so they are funding research on teacher evaluation and then, in turn, everyone who is chasing after grants starts trying to build their agendas around that so they can get the Gates money, but Gates only funds stuff that falls in line with standardized testing, and everything else that’s part of their neoliberal choice/market agenda.

And another frustration from the media perspective is that all of those sources who pointed out the flaws in this teacher-evaluation agenda from the beginning, and who were able to say quite clearly what the problems were, those sources—and now RAND is coming along, essentially certifying that point of view—those sources are still not going to be the ones who get to weigh in when the next big-money idea for education comes along, even though their concerns have borne out in this case.

Oh yes, no one ever talks to teachers. No one ever talks to parents. None of these big philanthropies go to communities to engage them, really. They like to pretend they are, and they say, “Well, look, we’re working with this nonprofit or this nonprofit,” right? But all of that is also a little bit fuzzy and a little shady, because maybe the nonprofits that they use are also themselves funded by the Gates Foundation, and are about promoting a particular agenda.

Versus there’s social justice–minded community activists committed to public education, parent activists; these folks need to be brought into the conversation, along with teachers, along with unions, frankly, as well. They should be involved in the decision-making, in the agenda-setting. Because we know what’s wrong on the ground level, we know what’s going on.

And we know that all these major reforms—from small schools, to even Common Core, to the teacher- evaluation stuff that Gates has been doing, those three major projects that they funded—they’ve been failing everywhere. And in part because they’ve been doing this massive, anti-democratic, top-down model of education reform, and they only pretend to talk to the folks down on the ground, and instead really focus on—they believe they know what’s right, and they’re just going to work their power and their money to get that implemented, until it doesn’t work.

We’ve been speaking with Wayne Au, professor at the University of Washington/Bothell, where he is also interim dean for diversity and equity, and he’s an editor at Rethinking Schools. Wayne Au, thank you so much for joining this week on CounterSpin.

Right on. Thanks for having me.