MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
For the past two decades Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation have been dropping millions of dollars into education schemes the billionaire was sure would transform America’s schools. Gates tried small schools, teacher incentives, and the Common Core to try to influence the achievement of public schools – all to no avail. (Further reading: Anthony Cody’s, The Educator and the Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation)
The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has invested millions of dollars into training managers to run school systems like businesses. They’ve put money into large scale teacher merit-pay experiments in school districts. They’ve supported legislation, including the so-called “Parent Trigger” which would allow a majority of a schools current parents to transfer a community owned public school to a for-profit charter company.
The Walton Family Foundation, run by America’s wealthiest family, has invested millions of dollars in the privatization of public education. They have supported the creation and expansion of voucher programs in Indiana and other states.
The attempts to improve America’s education by billionaires, none of whom have any training in education, have several things in common.
First, none of the schemes have been successful enough, or been replicable on a large enough scale to improve the country’s public education system.
Second, the money used to fund the projects hasn’t been sustainable. Some programs have failed when grants ended, because of the inability of the school systems to continue to pay for it.
Third, nearly all attempts to improve schools measure that improvement with standardized test scores which are often inadequate.
Fourth, America’s low international test scores are often cited as the reason for the billionaires’ interference in education. I have explained in detail why our students’ average scores are lower on international tests in The Myth of America’s Failing Public Schools.
Finally, none of the attempts by these wealthy families, even if we assume that they are altruistic in their desire to help children succeed, attack the root cause of low achievement in America. Poverty.
POVERTY: THE CRUX OF THE PROBLEM
The late Gerald Bracey wrote,
When people have said “poverty is no excuse,” my response has been, “Yes, you’re right. Poverty is not an excuse. It’s a condition. It’s like gravity. Gravity affects everything you do on the planet. So does poverty.”
David C. Berliner, professor and dean of the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education at Arizona State University, presented a brief titled, Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. The report explains how improvements of schools are not enough to overcome the out-of-school factors faced by children who live in high poverty areas.
…the negative effects of many [out-of-school factors] are concentrated in the schools that serve poor and minority children and families. This increases the burden on these schools in such a way as to make broad reductions in the achievement gap nearly impossible.
MONEY FOR NOTHIN’
Silicon valley billionaires are dumping their tax write-offs into America’s schools in the hopes, they say, of increasing test scores…and, if they can get a few bucks themselves in the process, so much the better.
The New York Times has a long article detailing ways that projects from tech entrepreneurs, like Netflix’s Reed Hastings and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, are influencing America’s schools. Once again they aren’t focusing on the real problem.
The influx of money from rich technology-king benefactors has an influence on what teachers are teaching…and how they teach. After all, when a teacher or school gets a grant for a half million dollars in hardware and software they generally don’t turn it down. The students, then, become the “de facto beta testers” for the billionaires’ ideas.
But does it actually help?
Tech companies and their founders have been rolling out programs in America’s public schools with relatively few checks and balances, The New York Times found in interviews with more than 100 company executives, government officials, school administrators, researchers, teachers, parents and students.
“They have the power to change policy, but no corresponding check on that power,” said Megan Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. “It does subvert the democratic process.”
Furthermore, there is only limited research into whether the tech giants’ programs have actually improved students’ educational results.
Once again we have billionaires dumping money into schools, and often into privatization schemes, without regard to actual research and often without public oversight.
Technology can be a powerful educational tool, when used correctly. Where did Mark Zuckerberg get his teaching credentials? Who is determining how these programs are used? Who is monitoring them to see if they work? Will the money disappear if the programs fail?
ANOTHER WAY: A LESSON FOR THE BILLIONAIRES – FROM SOME MILLIONAIRES
A New Jersey family won a lottery of nearly a half billion dollars…guess where it’s going?
Last year, the Smith family in Trenton, New Jersey, won the $429 million Powerball lottery, and they planned to use all that money to help fight poverty. Pearlie Mae Smith and her seven children meant what they said at a press conference when they promised to give that money back to their community.
…They used the money to pay off bills and student loans before they put it back into their community with the Smith Family Foundation. “We want to fund programs that directly affect systems of poverty so we can help change the systems or change the dynamics that are causing people to be in poverty,” Harold Smith told NJ.com. “Rather than just helping them find food or give away food, we can make it so they now have the ability to obtain employment, get their proper education in order to be able to go out and get their own food.”
The foundation will work with the city in order to provide both long- and short-term grants for Trenton. [emphasis added]
Imagine if Gates, Broad, The Waltons, and the rest tried to improve education by donating their billions to help fight poverty, like the Smiths, in cooperation with municipalities and states. If we reduce poverty we can reduce the negative effects of out-of-school factors that get in the way of student achievement.
In his Southern Christian Leadership Conference Presidential Address, on August 16, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said,
…we are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.