05.23.11

Bill Gates: Selling Bad Advice to the Public Schools

Everyone agrees that American schools need help. But as Diane Ravitch argues, the fixes proposed by billionaire savior Bill Gates will only makes things worse.

Over the weekend, The New York Times published a startling expose of Bill Gates' successful efforts to shape education policy in the United States.

As I showed in my recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Gates is one of a small group of billionaires that is promoting privatization, de-professionalization, and high-stakes testing as fixes for American public schools. I called this group "the billionaire boys club," which includes Gates, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

The Times article documents how Gates has put almost everyone concerned with education policy in his debt: advocacy groups and think tanks of left and right, education journals, public television programs, leaders in academia, local school districts, and state education groups. In addition to what is reported in the Times, Gates has significantly influenced the policies of the U.S. Department of Education, especially its signature program "Race to the Top," which encourages more privately managed charter schools and recommends that states judge teacher quality by student test scores.

Gates appears to mean well, but he has obviously—and repeatedly—gotten bad advice.

About a decade ago, he decided that the biggest problem in U.S. education was the size of high schools, and he proceeded to spend $2 billion to persuade school districts to downsize their high schools. He told the nation's governors that the American comprehensive high school was "obsolete." Districts lined up to get grants from his foundation to break up their high schools, and more than 2,000 of them converted to small schools, with mixed results. Some fell into squabbling turf wars, some succeeded, but Gates' own researchers concluded that the students in large schools got better test scores than those in his prized small schools. So in late 2008, he simply walked away from what was once his burning cause.

The main effect of Gates' policy has been to demoralize millions of teachers, who don't understand how they went from being respected members of the community to Public Enemy No. 1.

Now, he has thrown his support behind the idea that America has too many bad teachers, and he is pouring billions into the hunt for bad teachers. As the Times article shows, he has bought the support of a wide range of organizations, from conservative to liberal. He has even thrown a few million to the teachers' unions to gain their assent. Unmentioned is that Gates has gotten the federal government to join him in his current belief that what matters most is creating teacher evaluation systems tied to student test scores.

Gates seems not to know or care that the leading testing experts in the nation agree that this is a fruitless and wrongheaded way to identify either good teachers or bad teachers. Student test scores depend on what students do, what effort they expend, how often they attend school, what support they have at home, and most especially on their socioeconomic status and family income. Test scores may go up or go down, in response to the composition of the class, without regard to teacher quality. Students are not randomly assigned to teachers. A teacher of gifted children, whose scores are already sky-high, may see little or no gains. A teacher of children with disabilities may be thrilled to see students respond to instruction, even if their test scores don't go up. A teacher in a poor neighborhood may have high student turnover and poor attendance, and the scores will say nothing about his or her quality. But all will get low marks on state evaluation systems and may end up fired.

So far, the main effect of Gates' policy has been to demoralize millions of teachers, who don't understand how they went from being respected members of the community to Public Enemy No. 1.

As a nation we now have a toxic combination of a failed federal policy—No Child Left Behind—which made testing the be-all and end-all of schooling, and Bill Gates' misguided belief that teacher quality can be determined by student test scores. In the years ahead, American students will undergo more and more testing, the testing industry will fatten, and the quality of education will suffer. To save their necks, teachers will teach to bad tests, school districts will drop the arts, and shrink the time available for subjects like history, geography, civics, science, and foreign languages to make time for more testing. And there will be more cheating scandals as test scores determine the lives and careers of teachers and principals, and the survival of their schools.

What is most alarming about the Times article is that Bill Gates is using his vast resources to impose his will on the nation and to subvert the democratic process. Why have we decided to outsource public education to a well-meaning but ill-informed billionaire?

Diane Ravitch is the author, most recently, of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic).