How Billionaires Rule Our Schools

Excellent article by Joanne Barkan in Dissent. A few quotes (it’s a long article!):

“Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools

“By Joanne Barkan
“THE cost of K–12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year. So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum? Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels.
“To justify their campaign, ed reformers repeat, mantra-like, that U.S. students are trailing far behind their peers in other nations, that U.S. public schools are failing. The claims are specious. Two of the three major international tests—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and the Trends in International Math and Science Study—break down student scores according to the poverty rate in each school. The tests are given every five years. The most recent results (2006) showed the following: students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math. When the poverty rate was 10 percent to 25 percent, U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate rose still higher, students ranked lower and lower. Twenty percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75 percent. The average ranking of American students reflects this. The problem is not public schools; it is poverty. And as dozens of studies have shown, the gap in cognitive, physical, and social development between children in poverty and middle-class children is set by age three. 

“Drilling students on sample questions for weeks before a state test will not improve their education. The truly excellent charter schools depend on foundation money and their prerogative to send low-performing students back to traditional public schools. They cannot be replicated to serve millions of low-income children. Yet the reform movement, led by Gates, Broad, and Walton, has convinced most Americans who have an opinion about education (including most liberals) that their agenda deserves support.

“No Silver Bullet 

“The sorry tale of the Gates Foundation’s first major project in education reform has been told often, but it’s key to understanding how Gates functions. I’ll run through it briefly. In 2000 the foundation began pouring money into breaking up large public high schools where test scores and graduation rates were low. The foundation insisted that more individual attention in closer “learning communities” would—presto!—boost achievement. The foundation didn’t base its decision on scientific studies showing school size mattered; such studies didn’t exist. As reported in Bloomberg Businessweek(July 15, 2010), Wharton School statistician Howard Wainer believes Gates probably “misread the numbers” and simply “seized on data showing small schools are overrepresented among the country’s highest achievers….” Gates spent $2 billion between 2000 and 2008 to set up 2,602 schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia, “directly reaching at least 781,000 students,” according to a foundation brochure. Michael Klonsky, professor at DePaul University and national director of the Small Schools Workshop, describes the Gates effect this way:

‘Gates funding was so large and so widespread, it seemed for a time as if every initiative in the small-schools and charter world was being underwritten by the foundation. If you wanted to start a school, hold a meeting, organize a conference, or write an article in an education journal, you first had to consider Gates (“Power Philanthropy” in The Gates Foundation and the Future of Public Schools, 2010).’

“In November 2008, Bill and Melinda gathered about one hundred prominent figures in education at their home outside Seattle to announce that the small schools project hadn’t produced strong results. They didn’t mention that, instead, it had produced many gut-wrenching sagas of school disruption, conflict, students and teachers jumping ship en masse, and plummeting attendance, test scores, and graduation rates. No matter, the power couple had a new plan: performance-based teacher pay, data collection, national standards and tests, and school “turnaround” (the term of art for firing the staff of a low-performing school and hiring a new one, replacing the school with a charter, or shutting down the school and sending the kids elsewhere).

“To support the new initiatives, the Gates Foundation had already invested almost $2.2 million to create The Turnaround Challenge, the authoritative how-to guide on turnaround. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called it “the bible” for school restructuring. He’s incorporated it into federal policy, and reformers around the country use it.”


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Published in: on January 19, 2011 at 4:06 am  Comments (10)  

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This post was so enticing, I had to read the whole article and it is rich! Thanks billions:) Seriously. I could see a few of the dots but this put it all together beyond any shadow of doubt what-so-ever.


    • Yeah, I agree, it was a great article. It’s scary how just a small handful of lowlifes — who have managed to amass billions for themselves — have arrogated to themselves the authority to determine policy for educating the poor. And they are so, so wrong.


  2. why would you call him a lowlife? he is more serious about seeing school improvements than the majority of teachers and union officials one can meet in a nonpublic setting in many major cities. all we see here is resistance and obstructionism to any change? you just question his approach. he is honest and open about what he is doing. would you prefer, say, a bd. of ed. like the incompetents we had in DC? which pre-Rhee supt. would you say did a wonderful job?


    • That’s easy.
      Most of our leaders in DCPS have been utterly incompetent.
      At least the teachers are in the classroom, trying hard to do the right thing.
      Gates, Broad, and so on have been wrong on just about everything.
      What personal experience do YOU have in inner-city classrooms, Jawalarlal?


      • Oh, and another thing. If you are talking about Bill Gates, the one thing that separated him from most other computer programmers and innovators of his era is that he insisted on becoming very, very wealthy as a result. Most of the rest of them did a lot of their work for free, to distribute to everyone for nothing. Not Bill Gates.


  3. Sir. You sound very angry, even to the point of hating anyone who is not destitute. I am not a resident of Ward 8 but I know what is up in our schools. And you need to recognize that parents know what is and is not going on in them. Look at the results. You, as a famous educator, should know better.


    • JB,
      Your comment is, as usual, blissfully fact-free. For one thing, I ain’t no famous educator. And for another, one thing that actually distinguishes this blog from most others is that I do, in fact, look at the actual, factual, results and data. I don’t just blather. Unlike some folks.
      Once again: what actual connection do you have with the DC schools?


  4. Longtime resident/taxpayer/school parent/focused observer of public education here and elsewhere.

    Though not an admirer of Gates’ or Broad’s products and services in their business lives, I like their public interest and foundation spending as private citizens. They have next to nothing to gain personally; Gates’s expenditures in healthcare here and overeseas is a good illustration of that. All a businessperson could want from public schools is educated employees and customers.

    Also, I’m not active in the District’s own party politics, but I always talk with the candidates I may vote for and I always vote, as well as contribute what I can to campaigns. I am pleased with the little that the mayor has said and done regarding education. He needs to speed it up, though.

    Am generally disgusted with the tone and lack of substance in the school debate, and the full deck of cards that are constantly played.

    The schools have declined pretty constantly for decades, and almost all Board of Education members and superintendents have been, to be far too genteel, not up to the job.

    Union partisans often seem blinded by lack of understanding of parents, or they are just mad at parents. Parents may be the immovable object, however.

    And as the customers and billpayers, the teachers need to learn they work for the public good and the public. Many do not show that in what they say in person and on various blogs.

    I was an active Obama supporter and am going through the throes of disenchantment in many areas, but not education. I had to agree with his two-part statement about teachers last night. Teachers should take his words on board. If they just want to flame the president, they are not listening to what the people want, and he surely hears them now. Beating up Duncan is as much a waste of effort as beating up Rhee.

    And, Mr. B, you certainly are famous, at least in these parts.


    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply, JB.

      A couple of comments:

      (1) The US tax code gives extremely wealthy people the opportunity (at the expense of other taxpayers) to intervene in public policy in all kinds of ways. It is not an exaggeration to say that many obnoxious, predatory (criminal?) businessmen have been able to purchase the good will of the public by putting their wealth into things that appear to benefit the public. When we think these days of the names Rockefeller, Frick, Morgan, Carnegie, Yerkes, and Ford, we tend to think of the nice foundations, museums, telescopes, and research that their monies funded. Of course, that was OUR money that these robbers stole. No-one remembers today, for example, what an evil anti-semite and racist Henry Ford was, or how Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay suppressed steel workers’ totally legitimate desire for safer and less brutal working conditions, the right to collective bargaining, and much more. When these wealth individuals donate to charities or set up trusts, it is precisely because the tax code gives them huge benefits for doing so. Either they can pay this money to the federal or state treasuries, or they can spend it on anything they want – almost. In the case of Gates and Broad and the rest of the current handful of billionaires, they may think that they know what to do about public education, but the most charitable thing one can say, so far, is that they are consistently wrong. (If you want to accuse me of favoring some sort of socialism, that’s fine – I plead guilty.)

      (2) As a 3rd-generation Washingtonian, a 30-year veteran teacher in DCPS, a former DCPS student myself (starting 50 years ago this fall), a child of a former DCPS art teacher, and the parent of two young recently-married adults who went K-12 through DCPS, I have never been impressed by the superintendents and school boards we have had. (Janey and McKenzie weren’t too bad; the rest were appallingly dreadful. Vance reminded me of old, tottering, semi-fossilized Soviet leaders like Brezhnev, who were periodically propped up to give a TV broadcast about how everything was just hunky-dory.) I only had one principal who was any good (in my opinion). But of all of these DCPS leaders, I would have to say that Michelle Rhee takes the cake for being the most dishonest and mean-spirited, as well as the most clueless about what constitutes good teaching and learning. Which is precisely why I started this blog and retired earlier than I might have.

      (3) I agree that teachers are not saints, and that our two main unions (AFT and NEA) often make mistakes or just do the wrong thing. Some teachers (like some of those employed in *any* profession or line of work) need to be in a different job altogether. (And, contrary to the lies of Michelle Rhee, it’s never been all that hard for a principal who cares about education to get rid of a really bad teacher.) The interests of teachers in the public schools, those of the children in their care, and those of the parents of those students, should basically be at least on the same page. The (evil) genius of people like Rhee and Gates is that they have done an outstanding job in demonizing public school teachers and making the case that we deserve no due process, no pensions, and no respect. They have been quite successful in driving a wedge between teachers and parents. It’s really too bad.

      (4) I’ve been getting more and more disillusioned by Obama, too. But unlike you, one of my reasons is that I think he’s just about 100% wrong on how to improve public education.


      • Thanks.

        Love Vance as Brezhnev. Just right.

        As for the robber barrons complaint, you seem to overlook that they did not steal. In return for our money, we got cars, gasoline, a railroad ride, software, etc. And we bought these things voluntarily, if sometimes without a lot of choice. As for quality, that’s in the eye of the beholder. As for profit, they earned some.

        If you think a socialist economy works, tell it to the people who lived in one. (I detest sounding like a Republican or conservative, but you made me do it.) They’d think you were crazy. I’ve been to these places and experienced what they did, if only briefly.

        I don’t favor running public enterprises as a business for the most part. However, if there are things that work (incentives, perhaps–but no one’s proved that they work, e.g., for teachers). Attention to cost control and cost management, including opportunistic cost-cutting, is good. Measuring outcomes and outputs is great, if you can must enough rigor (but don’t expect perfection).

        Don’t reject things out of hand, especially from outside the education realm; we’ve proven that the education realm is poorly managed and wastes an incredible amount of money, dropping it on the floor.

        As for business takeovers some people fear, no one has proved you make money running schools–certainly not the charters or other nonprofits or the few for-profits. It’s a fools errand to think it’s possible. People have proven, without a doubt, it is very easy to run a loss, however.

        Selling things to schools? Fine, if the technology, content, furniture, etc.,is value added and a good value and is priced under competition. Problem is, and DCPS is a great example, most systems are incompetent or negligent buyers of things.

        Gates and Broad and any other demon you tar is not going to make a lot of money selling to schools. Their companies and others exploit the public purse underlying schools a lot less than, say, rapacious unions in some areas. In some places, close to home, teaching is often viewed as a jobs program, with a sense of entitlement. That really disappoints, even angers, the parents and taxpayers who view teaching as extremely important. They don’t want anything but the best. Straphangers and those who are not fully committed to the kids’ success, or who are not skilled need to find another career.


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