Arguments on Education Reform and Foundation Funding

Arguments on Education Reform and Foundation Funding

Arguments on Education Reform and Foundation Funding

On January 12, Dissent and the Nation hosted a panel featuring Joanne Barkan, Dana Goldstein, and James Merriman, moderated by Pedro Noguera, to discuss Barkan?s article ?Got Dough?: How Billionaires Rule Our Schools.? The following are their opening remarks.

(Those interested can also listen to an interview with Barkan on ?Against the Grain,? a show on Berkeley?s KPFA 94.1, here.)

Joanne Barkan
Dana Goldstein
James Merriman

Joanne Barkan?s Opening Remarks
I?d like to make four points, provide some examples, and draw a conclusion.

First: We?re now living through an unprecedented effort by private foundations to determine K-12 public education policy at the national, state, and local levels. Three funders?the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with road) Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation?working in sync, command the field. Whatever nuances differentiate the motivations of the Big Three, their goals for overhauling public education coincide. They want to introduce market principles?a business model?into running individual schools and school districts: the principles include choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision-making. They fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don?t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher. Other foundations?Ford, Hewlett, Annenberg, Milken, to name just a few?often join in funding one project or another, but the education reform movement?s success so far has depended on the size and clout of the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate.

Second: The foundations are having tremendous success. A few billion dollars of their 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.

There are three main reasons for their success. There has been significant synergy created by Gates, Broad, and Walton working in sync and often designing and funding projects together. (This is not a conspiracy; the foundations work openly and legally.) Support for the ?reforms? spans the political spectrum?from conservative Republicans through the Democratic Party to most of liberal public opinion. Barack Obama?s choice to head the Department of Education, Arne Duncan, comes out of and is part of the education-foundation nexus. He served on the board of the Broad Foundation until he joined the DOE. He has made partnership with private foundations the defining feature of his DOE stewardship. In October 2009, the department?s online newsletter declared that the department was ?open for business? with philanthropies. Finally, there is the extraordinary wealth and power of the Gates Foundation. It is more than six times larger than the next largest foundation in the United States, Ford. It is thirty times larger than Walton.

Third: What do these foundations fund in education? The list includes turnover programs to close schools and expand the number of charter schools; large-scale experiments inside schools with standardized testing regimes, data-collection software, and teacher evaluation plans; research groups and think tanks to produce studies of their programs and surveys; TV networks for programming, news organizations for reporting. They spend many hundreds of millions each year on outreach to promote their perspective to the media, government at every level, and voters.

Fourth: This list alone can?t communicate the scope of the foundations? activities and influence. One needs to know the specifics of how and where they operate. I gave about seventeen examples in my article. In this talk, I?ll have time to summarize just four.

? By law, private foundations cannot give money directly to elected officials, but one way the Gates Foundation exerts political influence is by regularly paying for research, policy development, and conferences for the national associations of elected officials. These organizations include the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, National Conference of State Legislatures, United States Conference of Mayors, National Association of Latino Elected Officials Education Fund, and National Association of State Boards of Education. Gates also contributes to the Council of Chief State School Officers (most of whom are appointed, not elected).

? Nothing illustrates the operation of Arne Duncan?s ?open for business? policy better than the administration?s signature education initiative, Race to The Top (RTTT). The ?stimulus package? included $4.3 billion for education, but for the first time, states didn?t simply receive grants; they had to compete for RTTT money with a comprehensive, statewide proposal for education reform. It is no exaggeration to say that the criteria for selecting the winners came straight from the foundations? playbook (which is, after all, Duncan?s playbook). To start, any state that didn?t allow student test scores to determine (at least in part) teacher and principal evaluations was not eligible to compete.

States were desperate for funds (in the end, thirty-four applied in the two rounds of the contest). When necessary, some rewrote their laws to qualify: they loosened or repealed limits on the number of charter schools allowed; they permitted teacher and principal evaluations based on test scores. But they still faced the immense tasks of designing a proposal that touched on all aspects of K-12 education and then writing a complicated application. What state has resources to gamble on such a venture? Enter the Gates Foundation. It reviewed the prospects for reform in every state, picked fifteen favorites, and, in July 2009, offered each up to $250,000 to hire consultants to write the application.

Understandably, the other states cried foul; so did the National Conference of State Legislatures: Gates was, in effect, picking winners and losers for a government program. After some weeks of reflection, Gates offered the application money to any state that met the foundation?s eight criteria. Here, for example, is number five: ?Does the state grant teacher tenure in fewer than three years? (Answer must be ?no? or the state should be able to demonstrate a plan to set a higher bar for tenure).?

Who says the foundations (and Gates, in particular) don?t set government policy?

On October 9, 2009, Edward Haertel, chair of the National Research Council?s Board on Testing and Assessment (BOTA) sent a letter report to Arne Duncan to express BOTA?s concern about the use of testing in RTTT?s requirements.

Reflecting ?a consensus of the Board,? the nineteen-page letter reviewed the many scientific studies that demonstrate the pitfalls of using standardized test scores as a measure of student learning, teacher performance, or school improvement. BOTA recommended that the DOE use these studies to revise the RTTT plan. Unfortunately, as Haertel explained in his cover note, ?Under National Academies procedures, any letter report must be reviewed by an independent group of experts before it can be publicly released, which made it impossible to complete the letter within the public comment period of the Federal Register notice [for RTTT?s proposed regulations].? The scientists needed a peer review of their work, so they missed the Federal Register deadline, and that meant Duncan could ignore their recommendations?which he did.

? The Broad Foundation?s two signature programs are the Broad Superintendents Academy and the Broad Residency. The mission of both is to move professionals from their current careers in business, the military, law, government, and so on into jobs as superintendents and upper-level managers of urban public school districts. In their new jobs, they can implement the foundation/ed-reform movement?s agenda. In particular, the Broad programs implement the idea that a business or military manager makes a better leader of a school system than a professional educator.

According to the foundation?s website, ?In 2009, 43 percent of all large urban superintendent openings were filled by Broad Academy graduates.? The Residency program has placed more than 200 residents in more than fifty education institutions. In foundation-speak, both the Broad Academy and Residency are ?pipelines?: they maximize the foundation?s investment by changing the composition of the education workforce.

? Media influence is also important. In 2009 the Gates Foundation and Viacom (the world?s fourth largest media conglomerate) made a groundbreaking deal for entertainment programming. For the first time, a foundation wouldn?t merely advise or prod a media company about an issue; Gates would be directly involved in writing and producing programs. As a vehicle for their partnership, the foundation and Viacom (with some additional funds from the AT&T Foundation) set up a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization called the Get Schooled Foundation. In July 2010, Get Schooled hired Marie Groark, then senior education program officer at Gates, as its executive director.

Gates and Broad also sponsored the documentary film Waiting for Superman, which is by far the ed-reform movement?s greatest media coup. With few exceptions, film critics loved it. Critics of the reform agenda found the film one-sided, heavy-handed, and superficial. The foundations have also set up a media watchdog website called the Media Bullpen. The launch date is Jan. 31, 2011. It will provide ?rapid-fire reviews of education news as it hits.? The funders describe the site as a ?groundbreaking journalistic media/policy platform dedicated to media/public understanding of topics in K-12 education and education reform.? Gates provided $275,000 in seed money in June 2010. The Walton Foundation, the Gleason Family Foundation, and the Bradley Foundation provided additional funds. The group operating the site is called the Center for Education Reform.

In conclusion, I will offer two reasons why this foundation intervention is a problem. First, the quality deficit: The reforms being pushed by the foundations?standardized tests to evaluate students, teachers, and schools; charter schools; merit pay for teachers?are not based on research showing success. Meanwhile, an increasing number of studies indicate that they provide no benefit over regular public schools or are harmful. The two largest and most comprehensive foundation-backed reform programs?Chicago?s six-year Renaissance 2010 project and New York City?s eight-year effort?have failed in their stated goal to raise student test scores significantly.

Second, the democracy deficit: All children should have access to a good public school. And public schools should be run by officials who answer to the voters. Gates, Broad, and Walton answer to no one. Tax payers still fund more than 99 percent of the cost of K-12 education. Private foundations should not be setting public policy for them. Private money should not be producing what amounts to false advertising for a faulty product. The imperious overreaching of Gates, Walton, and Broad undermines democracy just as surely as it damages public education.

Dana Goldstein?s Opening Remarks

Joanne?s article in Dissent is invaluable in terms of documenting the revolving door between the Gates Foundation and allied groups and the Obama administration?s Department of Education. At the K-12 policy level, this partnership is easiest to see in the shared focus on what I call managerial education reform, as opposed to instructional or social education reform.

Let me explain my terms. Like the Gates Foundation, the Obama administration has chosen to devote the majority of its K-12 education policy firepower to influencing how teachers are evaluated and paid; overhauling staffing in failing schools; and to expanding the charter school sector. These management-related reforms, while often worthwhile, take place outside of the classroom. They do not address the content students learn or how they are taught that content and assessed on their progress; this agenda indicates teachers should be ?developed? to improve their practice, but gives little hint as to how to do so.

An important exception is the administration?s support for the Common Core Standards Initiative, which is a partnership between forty-two states to create shared curriculum standards in high school English and math. This is a positive development that will hopefully lead to a deeper education for kids. But overall, I think it?s fair to say that the national education reform conversation?as led by Arne Duncan, President Obama, and Bill Gates?does not regularly or meaningfully engage with questions of instruction and curriculum for kids, or professional development for teachers. Yet all the most successful school reforms, whether they take place in a charter school or a traditional public school, whether in the United States or abroad?do engage with these questions.

Let?s consider an example of the shortcomings of the managerial approach: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie?s state of the state speech yesterday, which?in the wake of his PR tour glomming onto Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg?s $100 million donation to the Newark public schools?centered on a call to do away with teacher tenure and institute teacher merit pay. ?I propose that we reward the best teachers, based on merit, at the individual teacher level,? Christie said. ?Perhaps the most important step in that process is to give schools more power to remove underperforming teachers. The time for a national conversation on tenure is long past due. Teaching can no longer be the only profession where you have no rewards for excellence and no consequences for failure to perform.?

It is typical for proponents of these policies to elide or completely ignore the following questions that logically arise: How will we identify who is a good teacher and who is a bad teacher? If we use children?s standardized test scores to do so, will the result be more tests, more teaching to the tests, and a narrowing of the curriculum, as we know happened nationwide in the wake of No Child Left Behind? How will we assess teachers who teach subjects that are difficult to test, such as art, music, or physical education? And perhaps most crucially, in a climate of teacher pay freezes and pension and benefit cuts, where will all the new, better teachers come from once we fire all the underperforming teachers? If we can?t find enough such people, how, specifically, will we remediate and improve the skills of our current teaching force?

If you?re interested in some answers to those questions, I am happy to give some policy ideas during the Q&A, but for now, I want to stick to the topic of corporate philanthropy in defining this agenda.

I think we have to be careful not to condemn all private philanthropic efforts to improve public schools. The facts are that almost every successful school reform effort in the country?including the instruction, curriculum, and professional development-focused reforms I believe are most important?receive some measure of private financial support.

The Gates Foundation, for example, which I believe is naïve in its obsession with test-based teacher evaluation and pay, also does wonderful work supporting the Common Core Standards Initiative I mentioned early, supporting early childhood education, and supporting efforts to improve career readiness programs at community colleges, which serve some of our neediest young adults as they enter a very challenging job market.

And way before Mark Zuckerberg and Cory Booker ever met at a July conference, leading to that big flashy $100 million donation, Newark was home to a plethora of promising school reform efforts that rely, at least in part, on private funding from philanthropies including the Schott Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Prudential Foundation, and Victoria Foundation.

For example, from what I understand of the Global Village Zone, Pedro Noguera?s very exciting project coordinating instructional reform, teacher coaching, and social services across seven traditional neighborhood public schools in Newark?s Central Ward, it has raised about $300,000 from private donors, some with a long history of committed engagement in the Newark public schools.

Also in Newark, the Children?s Literacy Initiative is doing groundbreaking work on early child literacy?an especially crucial area for reform, because we know that students who read below grade level in third grade will never really catch up to their peers, and have a very high chance of dropping out of high school. CLI, a Philadelphia-based non-profit, has received a $22 million federal grant from the Obama administration to expand its efforts, but one of the requirements of that grant is to match the funds with additional money from private donors. Without that extra private funding, CLI told me, they simply could not do the work they are doing.

Indeed, the Obama administration has structured many of its social spending programs, in education and other fields, around the idea of matching private and public dollars. This is politically expedient; the Republican Party is in a full-on, Tea Party-induced tax revolt. In order to pursue social change in this political climate, it is necessary to look to funding streams both inside and outside of government.

By mentioning this reality, I am not suggesting that we ignore the limits of private philanthropy in transforming public education. Again, I?ll return to the example of Newark, New Jersey. Governor Christie?the guy who gave the speech maligning tenure yesterday?has also cut $819 million from New Jersey?s education budget while generally attacking public employees and seeking to cut back on their pensions and benefits.

He has publicly disparaged the legacy of Abbot v. Burke, the groundbreaking 1985 New Jersey Supreme Court case that equalized funding between New Jersey’s richest and poorest school districts. Abbot ushered in an era of both instructional and social education reform in New Jersey focused on the neediest kids: With the billions of extra public dollars that flowed from this civil rights ruling, Newark and thirty other high-poverty New Jersey cities launched universal preschool and full-day kindergarten and provided greater access to social workers, computers, in-school meals, summer programs, and intensive small-group reading instruction.

The Abbott system was regarded as a national model. According to a recent report from the Schott Foundation?a private funder?during the years of full Abbott implementation, from 2003 to 2008, Newark was the national urban leader in closing the high school graduation gap between black and white males. Seventy-five percent of the city?s black male students graduated from high school in 2008, compared with just 41 percent of black males in Washington and 28 percent in New York City?the two districts whose managerial school reform policies are most often cited as models by ?reformers? across the nation, who admire New York’s vibrant charter school sector and Washington’s controversial new teacher merit pay program.

The history of Abbott in New Jersey offers a reminder that truly transformative, statewide school reform can only be accomplished through significant public funding, and with government not only involved, but setting the policy agenda and insisting upon reforms that directly impact all children by expanding their access to proven instructional strategies?like intensive early-childhood literacy lessons?and crucial social services, like preschool and social workers.

James Merriman?s Opening Remarks

The claim that Ms. Barkan makes in her piece, ?Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools? is that philanthropists and, in particular, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (together with the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation) are able to make a decisive difference in the policies and practices and agenda of public education in the United States. In other words, three billionaires (presumably advised by staff) are able to control the direction of public education.

As Ms. Barkan makes clear, she thinks this is a bad thing, though it is not clear if she does so for the general policy reason that private money should not influence public policy (no matter the policy at issue) or if she simply disagrees with the particular public policies that these philanthropists support. As I do not read anywhere criticisms of, for example, probably the single biggest philanthropic endeavor, namely the Annenberg?s grant of more than a billion dollars to enhance art education in public schools (with very little payoff as it turns out)?or, for that matter, the Ford Foundation?s backing of left-wing community empowerment initiatives in the sixties and seventies (abandoned as a failure)?I can only assume the latter.

I think a careful review of her own article makes clear that her thesis is, at the very least, unproven. She is not able to show convincingly that philanthropic funding has caused the results she claims. Nor do I think anyone could?and the thrust of my remarks this evening is to try to convince you of this.

Let me be clear. I am in no way saying that these three foundations have not pushed for the policies that Ms. Barkan imputes to them. They have clearly been influential (though there are more differences in their approaches than Ms. Barkan seems to appreciate). Nor am I suggesting that they have not been successful in influencing the direction of public education in many districts through their strategic funding initiatives?it would be foolish to suggest otherwise, and Ms. Barkan shows some of the ways in which that has happened. But she attributes to them a power they simply do not have, and her article fails to articulate the causation that throughout she claims exists.

But before I attempt to demonstrate this, it is necessary to clear away some misunderstandings and factual inaccuracies, of which there are a number?a cause for concern given that this was published in what I believe remains a serious journal. I?ll highlight five.

First, contrary to Ms. Barkan?s claim, Learn NY (which Bill Gates did contribute to) was not established to lobby Albany or the City Council in New York to allow an override of the term limits law (and thus allow Mr. Bloomberg to run for and win a third term?Mr. Bloomberg was, as we know, perfectly capable of handling that campaign by himself). As is a matter of public record, Learn NY?s purpose was to build support for the extension of the state mayoral control law, a campaign that was successful in large part because the United Federation of Teachers threw the full force of its substantial political muscle behind it. Thirty seconds of fact checking would have uncovered the error.

Second, and even more importantly, Ms. Barkan claims that there is no credible evidence of student improvement in New York City public schools in the last eight years. Well, actually, there is. I refer you, to among other things, Children First and Student Outcomes 2003-2010, a paper by James Kemple, the executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, a not for profit that, yes, receives philanthropic funding from foundations supportive of the education reforms but whose governing board includes, among others, the provost of NYU, the heads of the teachers and principals unions, the president of Bank Street College, and others in no way associated with education reform (or even sympathetic to education reform ends). Mr. Kemple finds positive and significant effects that are attributed to those reforms. And other studies have as well (and some I hasten to say have not)?so I?m not sure what Ms. Barkan means by ?no credible evidence? except perhaps that evidence, to be credible, must fit her view of the world as it should be??ideology pleading at the feet of science,? indeed.

Third, and in a similar fashion, Ms. Barkan asserts that a study out of Vanderbilt showed ?definitively that merit pay does not produce higher test scores for students.? Well, actually it showed no such thing?and the use of the word ?definitive? to describe almost anything involving something as complex as schools is, by the way, simply comical?there is hardly anything definitive in the dismal world of education research. The simple fact is that the study does provide some good evidence that merit pay does not in the short run apparently incentivize teachers to be better teachers (as measured by test scores). But the fact is that this is not why proponents of merit pay back merit pay?or at least not the only reason. The other reason and hypothesis is that merit pay (and other incentive /structural changes) will over time improve the quality of the people who go into teaching and stay in teaching. This is not a crazy idea, particularly given what we know about the present talent pipeline, though it has yet to be proven that it works either. But one thing is for sure?it has not, contrary to Ms. Barkan, been proven out either way.

Fourth, while Ms. Barkan gets right that Broad and Gates announced a $60 million campaign to win bipartisan support for an education reform agenda, and that it worked, she neglects to mention that very little of that money ended up actually being expended?in part because the campaign didn?t have a very compelling or ambitious agenda. By doing so, she gives the misleading impression of its size and effectiveness (and to boot tendentiously compares it to the Swift Boat campaign). Moreover, she simply fails to note the elephant in the funding room. During that same election cycle, the national teachers unions spent about $71 million in political activities?this does not include the tens of millions more at the state and local level.

Fifth, Ms. Barkan makes the following statement after explaining that total funding for public schools is well over $500 billion annually (actually that was in 2006-07?the figure now is likely to be at or above $600 billion). ?How much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum?? However, as Ms. Barkan well knows, that few billion that she speaks of is actually not a few billion at all, but closer to $550 million–a much smaller sum?and a change of figure that makes her thesis that much less plausible.

I mention these five inaccuracies not simply to make a point about journalistic standards (though given the venue that is entirely appropriate), but because each of these inaccuracies has something in common with the others?they aren?t just wrong randomly, they are wrong in a pattern?a pattern of making facts fit her storyline?and as I?ll suggest now, Ms. Barkan evidently feels the need to bolster her narrative because it won?t of itself hold up to scrutiny.

The way I read this piece?and I think a common narrative that is out there is something along these lines–is that Eli Broad and Bill Gates and the various members of the Walton family conceive of an idea, figure out how to provide funds to further it, and then fund it?and as a result things happen. But this picture fails to account for how things have actually worked and the complexity of the actors and entities involved.

Let?s take the example of the Obama administration and the fact that its positions on public schools, unions, and education reform align in many ways with education reformers. Ms. Barkan wants us to come away believing that Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, has basically sold the Department to the triumvirate. She points to his notice that the Department is open for business with philanthropy and the fact that many of his staff come from the staff of philanthropies or from the staff of entities they fund. Ms. Barkan offers all of this up as a central example of how philanthropy makes policy. But when looked at closely, and, in fact, even in Ms. Barkan?s retelling, the narrative simply refuses to cohere.

As Ms. Barkan herself can?t help but acknowledge, the foundations and their money didn?t make this possible?what made it possible was that President Barack Obama picked Arne Duncan?and in fact seemingly chose him over the candidate preferred by the traditionalists and unions, Linda Darling-Hammond. Nor is Ms. Barkan able to show that President Obama picked Arne Duncan because the foundations ordered him to or paid him to do it. And yet everything that has happened since stems from whom the President picked to be the Secretary of Education.

And if you look at why the president picked Duncan, you don?t get back to the foundations either. Because no one is claiming that the president is in thrall to them?at least I don?t think so. In fact the answer seems to lie with a complicated combination of factors that led the president to believe these policies are right. Perhaps it was in part (and here I?m speculating) that the president spent time observing schooling in Chicago and did not like what he saw. But it also likely stems from the fact that the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association made a disastrous decision to back his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton. The president, who, as we know, plays ?Chicago Rules,? was unlikely to forget that important political fact. Nor is there any reason why he should have.

In the same vein, Ms. Barkan points out the interconnections between Los Angeles Unified personnel and the Broad and Gates foundation. And of course there are those connections?but they simply don?t give a rich account of the actors and why they are taking the positions they do. Let?s take John Deasy, who I have the pleasure of knowing, and who was appointed yesterday to replace Ray Cortines as superintendent. As Ms. Barkan correctly points out, John worked at Gates before joining LA Unified and is a Broad Academy alumnus. What she fails to tell the reader is that John started as a high school teacher, then became a principal, and has been a superintendent in three districts: Prince George?s, Maryland, Coventry in Rhode Island, and Santa Monica. Isn?t it just possible that during a lifetime career in public education, Mr. Deasy acquired some ideas of his own? The fact is that Ms. Barkan?s thesis necessarily reduces every actor in the play to merely a pawn and puppet of the foundations, depriving them of all agency.

And finally, let?s review Washington, D.C. Yes, the foundations provided the critical funding and advice to make the new contract a reality. But one has to ask how it was that this contract came into being. In that regard, one would at least want to account for the fact that the electorate voted Mr. Fenty into office and that Mr. Fenty made a decision to hire Michelle Rhee. One must also take into account the fact that 30 percent of students already had opted out of D.C.?s district-run schools, thus putting pressure on all parties to reform the district.

And though I do not have the time here tonight, I could make the same showing as to the other examples Ms. Barkan brings forward.

So, if the facts aren?t there, then we must ask ourselves: what is it that makes this story line so very compelling? First, it?s reductive, and we all like simplicity. Second, it fits a world view that the powerful control us (which the Left finds both oddly comforting and angering at the same time). And finally, and most importantly, it answers the seeming paradox for those opposed to education reform who must confront the fact that they sincerely believe the initiatives are so manifestly awful and harmful and yet, at the same time, millions of people support these initiatives. The answer that avoids unwelcome cognitive dissonance must be that people are buying it because they have been duped by powerful, moneyed interests. This is strikingly similar to analyses like Thomas Frank?s What?s the Matter with Kansas? After all, Kansans can?t like Republican Party policies; they just can?t ?so, if they do, they must have been fooled into supporting them. In other words, what we have here is the classic case of the false consciousness of the proletariat?not surprising, I suppose, given Dissent?s roots.

The problem with this narrative in this context, however, is that the Kansans who are dupes in the education reform context necessarily include an ever-growing and embarrassingly long list of people who are traditionally viewed as steady allies, but who must be dupes: Let me name just a few: President Barack Obama, his staff in the West Wing, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Lomax of the United Negro College Fund, Bill Cosby, John Merrow, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Representative George Miller, Senator Michael Bennet, our moderator (to some degree), innumerable former district teachers and leaders now leading and teaching in charter schools, the editorial boards of the Washington Post and New York Times, the Upper West Side loyal liberal parents I?ve talked to who are outraged that their schools can?t get rid of lousy teachers, and thousands and millions of others on both sides of the political aisle.

None of this is to say that there aren?t legitimate and real concerns about the echo chamber effect that could arise from having funding controlled by a few, generally like-minded entities. Concentration of power is always potentially dangerous, though I note that these concerns are not unique to this field but endemic in other circles. And I sincerely wish that Ms. Barkan had spent more time exploring this issue in more detail and without the portentous and conspiratorial tone that both marks and mars her piece.

But, in this regard, Ms. Barkan basically indicts the Gates Foundation for trying to counter the effect that they themselves recognize. Thus, if they stumble out of the gate with an insufficiently conceived and nuanced strategy around small schools, and then admit it, rather than noting their willingness to admit and report error, she instead lambastes the foundation as naïve and thoughtless. So, too, if they disclose the results of a poll of grantees on their performance (and are found wanting), they are excoriated as incompetent. That?s not fair play.

Finally, in closing, I?d like to address one more point in Ms. Barkan?s article?and it is a point that she makes almost in passing but that is so striking that it deserves notice, particularly as it is (ironically enough) being heard more and more from those on the Left. Ms. Barkan states as follows:

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.

There is in this quote, at the very least, the implication that if such a gap is the result of poverty, than it is somewhat futile to try to eradicate it through schools?and that if this so, then not just the Big Three triumvirate of Gates, Broad, and Walton are misguided in their emphasis on improving schools, but so are all philanthropists and policy makers as well (no matter the initiatives they pursue). Which then begs the question of why anyone would care in the first place what policies are being carried out in public education and who controls or funds it?

But what we know is that while surely the gap that is set by age three is incredibly hard to erase, some schools and some people are doing a much better job of it than others. This work is hard, complicated, and generally resistant to ideology. I hope that rather than spend time concocting elaborate, if faulty, theses on how large philanthropies control educational policy, we spend time changing schools to make them better, no matter whose ox is gored.


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels