The Gates Foundation says it is learning from past mistakes. Its history shows that it has learned to repeat them.
Bill Gates is at it again, undaunted by his past failures at attempting to mold the future of education in his own image. Why shouldn’t he? After all, Windows effectively standardized the way everyone in the professional world creates and manages documents, data, communication and projects. No one can question the fact that Microsoft has effectively transformed corporate culture, leading to a positive “network effect” of shared expectations and reflexes. We all speak and understand the language of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, to say nothing of the logic of folders, subfolders and files.
Why not use the profits gleaned from Windows and Microsoft Office to achieve something similar for education? An article in Education Week informs us of the latest effort: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation plans to invest in professional development providers who will train teachers on ‘high quality’ curricula.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The collection of officially endorsed subjects of knowledge offered by educational institutions for reasons the teachers need not be aware of because they are simply employed to teach them
After playing a major role in promoting the Common Core State Standards for the US and treating the entire population of teachers as if they were a CEO’s docile industrial workforce, Gates has admitted that his most recent effort was a colossal $400 million failure. But, ever the optimist, he hasn’t lost the faith.
With the imposition of Common Core, Gates and the Obama administration sought to put in place something vaguely inspired by the KPIs (key performance indicators) used in modern management practice. At the same time, they theorized learning itself as roughly equivalent to the formatting of a hard disk and the installation of an operating system in children’s brains.
This meant that teachers, in some sense, were expected to play the role of programmers, though with the added talent of entertainers. When children failed to learn what they were subsequently tested on, the teachers’ coding (i.e., their teaching) was deemed to be buggy. The next step would be to reward those whose coding had a minimum of bugs and to weed out those who couldn’t get it right.
Common Core isn’t quite a curriculum, but the concept implies the existence of a curriculum whose aim is to instill the knowledge evaluated in standardized tests taken by all children of a certain age. The content of the tests would thus define the curricula, which to many teachers seemed like putting the cart before the horse. When teachers revolted, a dozen state legislatures rejected the Common Core and the Gates Foundation admitted its mistake. Sue Desmond-Hellmann, the foundation’s CEO, wrote: “We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators — particularly teachers.” She humbly explained: “[O]ur foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards.”
We might expect that a manager at Microsoft who made a similar admission after reporting massively disappointing results would have been found wanting in KPIs and either demoted or fired. In contrast, the Gates Foundation, never ready to give up, has simply revised its hypotheses. It is now focusing on its “theory that teaching educators how best to use and modify existing high-quality curricula can have a bigger impact on student achievement than the curricula alone.” The idea behind it seems to be similar to Common Core: doing the utmost to homogenize both what young people learn (content) and how they learn (method). Some continue to see it as a frontal attack on intellectual and methodological freedom.
More worrying, the Gates Foundation seems to have no handle on what “existing” or not existing curricula may be, what they’re good for or what distinguishes “high quality” curricula from the rest. And what does the foundation mean by “teaching educators” in the “best” methods? Who decides what is best? Presumably test results! Its “theory” simply states a truism, that a resource “alone” is never as productive as a resource one knows how to exploit. Did the foundation need a “theory” for that?
Because of its wealth, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has no need to apologize for its past mistakes or to feel concerned about its next round of mistakes. The article in The Washington Post sums up the foundation’s historical failures. After so many disappointing results, accompanied by the foundation’s roundly expressed indifference to the negative effects on teachers and learners or on the coherence of public educational policy, we may legitimately ask: Why does it persist in its folly?
The Gates Foundation promotes the belief that the health of the economy depends on the ability of education to create a competent work force. Who doesn’t? But, with its stress on competence, this modern version of Taylorism, dear to the corporate world, rewards skills that ensure productivity and profit while considering everything else as a useless distraction. It neglects human values unrelated to economic performance. Applying this logic to education amounts to eviscerating its traditional value focused on forming responsible citizens and independent thinkers. In that light, it should be seen as a form of extreme philistinism that seeks to replace creativity and even ethics by productivity and profitable performance.
It further illustrates the fact that we live in a world where money can make decisions that people are not allowed to make.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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