Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Gates Foundation Education Reform Machine

Several years ago in an op-ed for the Washington Post, Bill Gates set a goal of 80% of high school graduates earning bachelor degrees by the year 2025. At the time, I was shocked at the absurdity of the goal from a business standpoint and I wondered, "Is Microsoft going to hire all these highly educated people?" Because the American economy which is supported by 30% of its adults with bachelor degrees certainly can't sustain that level of education with the commensurate salaries to justify it. It just seemed, from a businessman's point of view, to be a terribly poor decision, both inefficient and unnecessary. It just seemed so ... un-Bill Gates-like.

Of course, the nation had to listen - and even many applauded mindlessly - because the idea came from Bill Gates and his Gates Foundation, arguably the biggest behemoth in education reform by sheer vastness of resources and the ability to impose its will. When billions of dollars are on the table, people listen. Even when the direction proves to be misguided. Certainly, the Gates Foundation has had its share of mis-steps, precisely because it is dealing with a very un-business-like issue. The huge investment in smaller schools to improve results is one example. The aligning with controversial people like Michelle Rhee is another. Yet, I don't mean to dismiss or disparage Bill Gates or the Gates Foundation because I firmly believe in the goal they are after. And they are doing many things right. Supporting people like Sal Khan and the Khan Academy is one notable achievement that can't really be bad for education. However, the jury on Gates' positive versus negative impact is still out. This week, The Chronicle of Higher Education weighs in with a slew of commentary on the Gates Effect:

Marc Perry and others question the Gates Effect after the Foundation has spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on education initiatives.  Notably, not all - or even many - in the education sector are singing the praises of the cash infusion "Some experts have complained that the Gates foundation approaches higher education as an engineering problem to be solved. Most important, some leaders and analysts are uneasy about the future that Gates is buying: a system of education designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology, and—these critics say—narrowly focused on equipping students for short-term employability."  There is reason for concern, as education is simply not a business, and there are too many intangibles to turn it into a system of widgets and bean counting.  In another piece Katherine Mangan examines "How Gates Shapes State Education Policy," and this raises concerns about the democratic process to be sure. Certainly, there is no reason to completely dismiss Gates contributions, as the state doesn't have exemplary records on reform. And addressing the unacceptable rates of remediation for college students is a primary goal to say the least. The Chronicle also features an interesting info-graphic on the role Gates and his Foundation have played.  But where is this all really going, asks John Thelin. The Gates' certainly hope to see results for their investment and efforts, if not now then within fifty years of their deaths. So the pressure to produce is driven in a market way that again may compromise the education field. And its those potential costs - and collateral damage - that is the concern of Robin Rogers who worries about The Price of Philanthropy.

The reality is that Gates and the Gates Foundation are the premier force in education reform. So, they must be acknowledged. The Chronicle has done a nice job of continuing the conversation. And, for more critical analysis and links to studies on Gates' goals and success, check out Anthony Cody's insightful piece for EdWeek Mr. Gates Goes to College.

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