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 test. Even 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 here. We must end this absurd national obsession that is corrupting what it means to teach and what it means to learn.