Why Arne Duncan needs to listen to Bill and Melinda

I do not hate the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  I know it might seem strange to have to make that statement, but such are the times we live in.  I’ve just had too many arguments with too many friends who, when I ask specifically why they are upset with some aspect of educational “reform”, respond, “Well, you know this was funded by the Gates Foundation,¨ as if this was evidence of the Mark of the Devil.

So let me say again… I do not hate the Gates Foundation.  I also feel compelled to state for the sake of balance that I do not love the Gates Foundation.  The Foundation, for me, is not a thing to love or hate.  It is what it is, and it is many things.  It is impossible to put them in some ideological box.

The Gates Foundation funds ideas.  Lots.  And lots.  And lots of ideas.  Some extremely good ideas (meaning I like them) like how to prevent malaria and HIV infection and college success programs in Denver public schools and Michigan and California and Florida and Wisconsin and just about every other State University system and Oxfam and county libraries, and thousands of others.

I had to really search for extremely bad ideas (meaning I didn’t like them) and eventually found the American Enterprise Institute and their teacher evaluation project (which, let’s just be honest, Rick Hess   is going to need some adult supervision.)

But I digress.  Back to Bill and Melinda.  They fund ideas, not ideologies.

For instance, early on, someone convinced them to fund an idea about doing something about mega-gigantic high schools.   The idea was to reduce – not class size, but – school size.  Hypothesis:  Small schools would give kids a more personal education; families would be more involved; better learning; fewer dropouts.  Interesting idea.  But after some years of funding, the Gates folks were not impressed with the evidence and pulled the plug.

That’s why I am so convinced that the Gates Foundation is sincere.  An ideologue is unimpressed with reality.  When things don’t end up like they thought they should, they are more likely to double down on a bad idea (But we’ll get to the Secretary of Education later.)  The Gates Foundation actually looks at the evidence and weighs whether or not what they funded was a good idea or a bad idea.  Like any good scientist, there is no shame in having a bad hypothesis.  The shame is looking at the results of an experiment to test the hypothesis and ignoring the evidence.

So, déjà-vu, recently, a colleague told me that she was opposed to The Common Core because… it was funded by Bill and Melinda Gates.  As the conversation proceeded, it was clear that the problem wasn’t actually the standards themselves, but the way they were being linked to high-pressure, high-stakes tests.

Now, the Common Core isn’t a test or even a curriculum or a lesson plan It’s a long document with short descriptions of what kids at each grade level should know and be able to do in math and language arts.

Educators know about standards.  Virtually all states have had standards for years articulating what kids at each grade level should know and be able to do.  Most are adopted by a state school board or even the legislature.

What’s different with the Common Core is that it’s the first national project, a joint enterprise between the National Governor’s Association and the state superintendents, and each state decided whether or not to exchange their current standards with the Common Core.  I was as suspicious of the new standards as any educator who’s lived through the nightmare of No Child Left Untested and Racing to the Top of a Test, and all the local and state disasters of high-stakes testing.  But then I read them.  And then, I liked them.  Especially the ones that defy a multiple-choice standardized bubble test.

For instance:  Give an opinion and support your opinion with reason and evidence.  Yes!

For instance:  Use multiple forms of digital media to make a presentation more interesting.  ¡Sí se puede!

For instance: Summarize, create, explain… I’m there.

The Common Core is not federal law, but Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan has made state adoption of the standards an unwritten essential stepping stone to federal education grants and waivers that are necessary to avoid the Super Silly No Child Left Prairie Home Companion Mandate that (quite literally) all American children will be above average as measured on a mass-produced standardized bubble test.

Without the waiver, by the end of this year, if even one child misses the arbitrary cut score on the state math or reading test by one point, the entire school is, by federal law, labeled Failure.  So, critical, creative standards, yes.  But I never did think it was a very good idea to force it on states by holding education grants hostage or requiring teacher evaluations by test scores or no waiver.    Standards should be able to stand on their own merit.

But it wasn’t so much forcing adoption of standards that got to me.  It was that the Secretary went farther.  There must be standardized testing linked to the standards and the results of those tests must be used in high-stakes decision-making.

Many states “raced” to respond with enthusiasm, and it’s been a disaster wherever there has been a rush to testing.

In Oklahoma, nearly 8,000 third graders failed to hit an arbitrarily selected cut score on the state standardized reading test.   State law was written to forbid them from going on to 4th grade.  This punishment was mandated to be based on one number of one standardized test, with no regard to teachers’ recommendations and over parent objections.

In Florida its test-frenzied politicians wanted so much to judge teachers by their student test scores, that nothing would stop them.  Even the fact that there weren’t tests for all the subjects that teachers taught. No problem.  They just used student test scores from kids who never even met the teachers who are being judged on those test scores, using the general school average score to determine that the music teacher and science teacher and shop teacher are effective.  Or not.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Florida testing mania is harassing families who keep their kids home from the testEven though the kid is sick.  Even if the kid is dying in hospice care and passed away,  the district is still calling to ask the parents why he missed the test and how that would negatively impact the school average.

The Gates Foundation sees all this as evidence.  And they see what anyone with eyes could see.  If you believe in high standards (Common Core or otherwise) for all students; for critical thinking skills and creative problem solving and collaborative project organizing, then high-stakes test obsessions will work against you.  The Gates Foundation now says to districts and states and Secretary Duncan to hit the pause button on high-stakes decisions based on unproven standardized tests.

The people at Gates haven’t gone as far as I would.  I would hit the delete button on any high-stakes decisions based on mass-produced, commercial one-size-fits-all, standardized tests.  But still.  Policy makers should listen to the evidence that convinced Bill and Melinda that test abuse is getting in the way of true high standards for all our students.  The Gates Foundation had the integrity to look at solid evidence and sound the alarm.

This is more than a Race to the Ridiculous.  There is danger hereWe must end this absurd national obsession that is corrupting what it means to teach and what it means to learn.

18 Responses to “Why Arne Duncan needs to listen to Bill and Melinda”

  1. Hank Mollet

    I was concerned when I read the title of your post, because I have recently read about how Microsoft is poised to produce software to “teach our students” based on the common core standards, and I see this as a threat to our profession and the future of our society. I appreciate the comments you make defending your support of Bill and Melinda, and I hope that your faith is not misplaced. I think a lot of teachers are concerned about the reliance on testing, especially when used to measure teacher performance, because of the things we all know, like the effect of poverty on a student’s ability to perform well. Please continue to advocate for what you believe, and help those of us in the classroom to fight against the privatization agenda that would make profit off our students and replace us with a constant turnover of untrained temporary workers. Thanks for all you do.

  2. Mireille Ellsworth

    How can you claim that these Common Core standards truly encourage critical thinking? I have been using them at the high school level in ELA for 2 years now, and there is a definite emphasis on citing textual evidence, but that is not the basis for excellent argumentation skills in writing! Nowhere do the standards call for sound, logical reasoning, so my students can trick the artificial intelligence that scores their writing on the SBAC test by just including transition words and direct quotes even if their explanations and linking to the thesis statement is not done well! The emphasis on non-fiction at the high school level should be primarily in the content area classes, not at the expense of great literature which requires the multiple interpretations, analysis of metaphors and allusions, and the depth of thinking that the common core claims to purport. I’m sorry, Madame Vice President, but there is a disconnect between what the common core claims to promote and what it eliminates or reduces the emphasis of when actually put into practice… And although you and others say, “It’s not a curriculum,” since it is test-driven, teachers are looking at the recommended reading lists as a guide to selecting resources or districts are purchasing “canned curricula” from College Board, Pearson, and others who have invested monetarily into the Common Core reform movement. That is the reality… And by the way, did you even read Diane Ravitch’s book? If so, how can you deny that kind of TEXTUAL EVIDENCE!

  3. Heather Poland

    This post is very troubling to me. Common Core is linked to high stakes testing. It cannot be delinked. Gates funds it not because he thinks it is a good idea, but because he will make money off it, as well as charter schools he funds as education is privatized. You gave a great speech at the CA caucus, but because I understand what you truly feel, I cannot support you for president of NEA. Also, the CC$$ are developmentally innappropriate. They are NOT good standards. We can do much better.

  4. Ruth the Truth

    Contrary to what the author is suggesting, the Gates foundation doesn’t just fund ideas; they dictate public policy. Bill Gates uses “philanthropic leverage,” or “the idea that you can use a little money to access a lot of money,” in order to compel policy makers to implement his ideas, good and bad in a very undemocratic fashion. When those ideas fail, the people are left to deal with the consequences.
    This author asserts that “they fund ideas, not ideologies”, but Bill Gates believes in market-based reforms. His market-based goals for overhauling public education seem to be choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision-making. And to that end, The Gates Foundation has pushed 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 onto our public school systems. The fact that they are willing to “pull the plug” when their ideas fail miserably, is not evidence of a lack of ideological motives.
    It appears to me that The Gates Foundation already has an undue influence over public policy in education. Arnie Duncan needs to listen to real educators, not an ideologue with no experience or degree in education.

  5. TheFrustratedTeacher (@tfteacher)

    I am more convinced than ever that our national union leadership needs to change, as in New People Who Don’t Fudge, Obfuscate, and Can Speak Clearly.

  6. Stephen Stollmack

    Bravo. Loved every word. I would love it if you could read my comment to Dave Greene’s post on Badass Parents Association: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BadassParentsAssociation/permalink/271758779696518/
    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

  7. Miriam Aguilar Escobar

    I visited one of the underlined site mentioned in your article, “teacher’s evaluation project”, and it took me to the National Affairs newsletter/newspaper, I was delighted reading “during Summer, a judge unseated Paul Vallas, as Superintendent of Schools in Bridgeport, Connecticut, because he had not finish his degree….
    This is exactly what needs to be done ” Unseat Arne Duncan, as far as we know he does not hold a teaching credential or any Education degree”.
    Your article, invites to read extra information that help the public to understand several issues related to toxic testing, and Common Core, that is not a mandate, there is money involved, and its the main reason states are adopting Common Core.

  8. pamela nagler

    There are so many reasons why NOT to listen to Bill or Melinda Gates – let me count (some) of the ways.
    1. First and foremost, no matter what reforms they’ve suggested, they’ve suggested them by CULTIVATING A CULTURE OF DISRESPECT FOR TEACHERS. Early on, Gates attacked teachers’ pensions, he’s scapegoated unions as obstructionists, he’s promoted the concept of value-added even though his own research has proved that it’s junk science. The countries that post the kinds of scores we aspire to (always a case of comparing apples to oranges because different systems select out certain populations for testing) ALL operate under a culture of respect for teachers. I do not believe ANY reforms can be effective in the long run if we as a country have a disdain for teachers. There is a dark side to American politics, Gates has pandered to a leering, jeering mob who faces so much instability of their own – outsourced, pink slipped, unemployed, underemployed, priced out that they easily accept teachers as the scapegoat for what has gone wrong in America.
    2. Since the 80s and deregulation, people like Gates have moved enormous wealth upward into the .01%, while we’ve watched the middle class lose its footing and the lower class increase. One in 4 of our students are now living and learning in poverty, and poor kids do not, as a group do as well as their richer counterparts. When Gates begins to address the economic and political systems that got us to this state of affairs, then we should start listening to him.
    3. Though Gates has refashioned himself as a mega-philanthropist for education, is is more apt to call him a (vulture) venture philanthropist. He and his fellow billionaires look like do-gooders on steroids, when what they are actually doing is opening a previously closed market for their own profit. Instead of their billions going into hiring teachers and counselors, supporting nutritionally-sound food programs in schools, building up vocational and art programs, lowering class sizes, etc. they are creating charter schools for profit and developing need for products that they sell -computers, tests, test–taking materials and software, teacher trainings, etc.
    4. As head of the NEA, you are surrounded by people with good ideas and the direct experience to back up these ideas – your teachers. There is no dearth of them . We are the many, listen to us. We are speaking from direct experience. We are the ones who voted to support you. Support us. The billionaire entrepreneurs are skilled at creating ‘churn’ or spin – floating so many different ideas at one time as a strategy to weaken resistance so that they can control the market and create value for their products. You respect their innovation; I suggest that their innovation is a strategy to distract and deflect while they are creating a staging area for profit-making.
    5. Gates’ idea of education is too narrow for the diverse world we live in. Only a fraction of us will attend elite colleges, only a fraction of us will work in the corporate world, yet he designs his education for this narrow group of people who are just like himself. Let a true educator design education because we understand the diversity of the population. The entrepreneur values what can be bought and sold for profit, but the educator knows that there are educational values that cannot be bought and sold.

    • Meg Elder

      This response is the most articulate and spot on rebuttal of Llly’s assertion. Thank you for your cogent and insightful reply.

  9. Mary Porter (chemtchr)

    Lily, thank you for posting this opportunity for substantive engagement on the Gates question.

    I’m an activist NEA member in Massachusetts, in a low income district heavily engaged with the policies Bill and Melinda have imposed through their legislative interference and advocacy lobbying, with the compliance of the outgoing Massachusetts Teachers Association leadership.

    MTA and NEA compliance directly aided in the imposition of Gates-backed corporate domination in my Commonwealth’s public schools, in my school, in my actual classroom, and over the actual living students I teach.

    The (false) distinction you make between Gates’ imposed “standards” and the accountability measures he demands for them will allow the NEA to continue to take his money, and I’ll admit that almost chokes rank-and-file teachers who live and work under his heel. I am going to argue that you to can make a decision of your own, when you take office, to give that money back to him.

    First, I’d like to offer congratulations on your succession to the presidency of NEA. The Representative assembly that voted you in brought with it a new activism and determination, and voted in resolutions which break sharply with the previous administration, of which you were a part. We look to you with great hope, holding our breath against it for fear of disappointment.

    The Common Core standards can’t “stand on their own merit”. They were backwards-engineered to warp the teaching of language and literature into assessment readiness, with its own novel testing vocabulary. strung together with the bogus Moodle diagram you inserted in this page. The aligned WIDA tests that are now being imposed on ELL students, from the earliest grades, will steal the short and precious window of their childhood. People are tweeting me that those children can’t wait while you do your homework and find that out.

    We’re fighting right now for schools in New Bedford and Holyoke that are already being taken over. They were full of living children, just a few weeks ago when we left them. What will we find in August?

    We’re asking you to become the courageous and powerful leader of an engaged and mobilized union. I know you saw and felt the hall rise to its feet behind these initiatives. That felt different and deeper than the hearty applause for your victory, did it not? Bring us to our feet: give back the Gates money.

    The website I linked is an Education Week column describing the actual effects of the Gates Foundation’s profit-centered philanthropy model in the third world. It’s the responsibility of Americans to become aware of it, when we take money from American corporate philanthropies and allow them to pursue their profits internationally under the subsidy of our tax code.

  10. Cheryl Binkley

    Dear Lily,
    Congratulations on your election. Though I’m delighted in your opposition to high stakes testing, it is unfortunate that you continue to support Common Core and the Gates Foundation’s support of both CCSS and VAM. Gates has openly stated on PBS that he originally supported the CC for deep profits, but now he supports it just to irritate public school teachers. The CC is deeply flawed related to developmental levels in grades 1-3, narrows the curriculum away from social studies and science in 4-6 when students should be getting a basic grounding in both, and is deeply flawed away from critical thinking and deeper reading in the high school ELA program. As the 3rd leg of the VAM-Testing-CC stool of privatization, it serves as a lynch pin for closing schools in neighborhoods predominantly of color. Given all these flaws, it is hard to understand whey NEA would continue to support such a flawed and detrimental program, or accept Gates money to do so.

  11. A Teacher’s Hopes for Lily | Diane Ravitch's blog

    […] Why Arne Duncan needs to listen to Bill and Melinda | Li… I do not hate the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I know it might seem strange to have to make that statement, but such are the times we live in. View on lilysblackboard.org Preview by Yahoo Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailGoogleLinkedInLike this:Like Loading… […]

  12. Sahila

    You are mistaken on so many fronts it’s hard to know where to begin…

    But most basically and importantly, perhaps it would pay for you to read about who has actually PAID for the Common Core….. Bill Gates…. and how much he’s paid to make sure it’s implemented… and if you – the leader of a very powerful PUBLIC sector union – dont have a problem with ONE, VERY RICH, VERY WHITE man having so much control over PUBLIC education and PUBLIC policy, then we all – parents, teachers, students – have a very big problem… but we had that with Dennis… and we have that with Randi… sigh – the more things change, the more they stay the same…

    Please – if you havent already, go read Mercedes Schneider’s blog…Mercedes Schneider’s Edublog – she has a wealth of posts full of hard data about who created the Core, what it does, where the money comes from and where it goes…

  13. Dr Cynthia Schaub


    Congratulations on the election. Your blog is awesome! I’ve shared it with my friends. I believe that true educators will read it and see the logic (backed with cited facts). They will understand that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is an organization that does many wonderful things. Some of them (or your readers) may not remember a time when Bill Gates was being criticized for having so much money and not being philanthropic. Well, now he is and he doesn’t deserve the criticism when he measures the choices he makes and readjusts — just like a good teacher would do after finding out something isn’t working. Thanks so much! You are truly “one in a million”!

  14. Back2basic

    May King from Canada:

    Dear Lily:

    Please emphasize on openness, honesty and integrity in American National Education.

    Through Dr. Diane Ravitch’s website, I have read and learned that Common Core has been secretly and hastily written without any consultation from early childhood expert, without a period trial, and especially without teachers’ and parents’ involvement or feedback.

    Please try to walk on children’ shoes to ask ourselves whether we would like to take a driving license test in 3 to 10 hours? So, why would you, department of education leader approve or allow the common core test to impose on elementary, junior high and senior high without feedback and explanation???

    If we cannot protect tenure and due process for educators from political incorrectness in order to perform the essential job in educating children, then what kind of democracy or freedom of expression we expect our younger citizens to learn and to exercise in order to be the world leader near in 21st century? Back2basic

  15. Linda

    Have you read this Lily and all the comments? You should. Are all comments here being posted and if not, why?


  16. Tom Johnson

    Firstly, congratulations on your election. Hopefully, in the near future, you will return to the larger electoral arena and turn your first-time 45% into a majority.

    As for the Gates Foundation and the statement that “They fund ideas, not ideologies,” I believe that you are fundamentally incorrect. Bill and Melinda Gates are billionaires in the top rung of the capitalist class and one of their chief functions is to promote the ideology of capitalism.

    Capitalism is built around the notion of a few collecting and controlling wealth (and power) into their hands in their interests. It is really that simple when you strip away all the BS.

    So the ideology of capitalism is, by definition, an anathema to the public sector, the common good and public education. You just can’t have it both ways: the concentration of wealth (and power) in the U.S. and around the globe is absolute proof of this statement.

    As you say, hating or loving capitalists and capitalism is not relevant. But calling it what it is, is an absolute minimum to achieve something better.

    Thank you for your work.

  17. Monty Neill

    On small schools: people in NYC affiliated with the NY Performance Standards Consortium warned Gates that simply making schools small without reorganizing many other aspects of schooling was not going to do much. That turned out to be true. But rather than learn from the Consortium, Gates decided high-stakes, test-based accountability was the route to go. By that time the evidence was already clear such an approach would not improve education but endanger it. (See FairTest’s material from 1990s and early 2000’s including our initial book-length critique of NCLB in 2004 at http://www.fairtest.org/node/1778, updated at http://fairtest.org/NCLB-lost-decade-report-home. I do think Gates was driven largely by ideology as anyone paying close attention could see looming harmful consequences. Similarly, test-based teacher eval schemes were clearly not going to improve teaching or learning, but Gates has persisted anyway. See http://fairtest.org/why-teacher-evaluation-shouldn%E2%80%99t-rest-student-test. Your conclusion that Gates – personally and foundationally – needs to learn from the evidence is correct. It just seems that for ideological reasons, they don’t want to.


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