Sunday, November 16, 2008

Gates Education Foundation 1.0 Fails, What Next? You'll Be Sorry You Asked.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. writing in Forbes magazine updates us on the thinking of the Gates Foundation and gives us some insight into their failure to make a difference (aside from spending big bucks on a lot of dubious programs). Was the Gates Foundation interested in education or just indoctrinating more schools with Windows based systems? The question is worth asking because the outcomes are so weak that the only measurable effect is publicity for the Gates brand name.
There's much to like in the new plan, beginning with the foundation's confession that version 1.0, focused on creation of small high schools, didn't turn out very well, save for several networks of high-performance charters such as KIPP, Yes-Prep and Achievement First.

Version 2.0 continues the Gates emphasis on successful high-school completion and college-readiness for disadvantaged young people and adds a parallel thrust toward college completion. It features laudable--and measurable--targets for both.

It includes welcome attention to developing national standards and tests, markedly strengthening education data (stay tuned for the Fordham Institute's own contribution on that front next week), enhancing research into "what works," accelerating the development and use of education technology and strengthening teachers across multiple fronts. Incorporated therein is piloting of performance-related pay and tenure systems.

Two cheers are surely deserved. It's too early to know, however, whether a third is warranted. For what was emphasized in Seattle, and in the materials released so far, is mostly an educator's (and student's) version of education reform, not a parent's, taxpayer's or policymaker's version. Indeed, the word "parent" scarcely appears, nor "choice," "charter" or "governance," nor much by way of politics, policy or finance.

Though Version 2.0 includes a few controversial items--national standards and performance pay foremost among them--it's generally non-confrontational and educator-pleasing, even teacher-centric. (It seemed particularly odd, given the praise lavished on KIPP et al, to find no mention in the documents of building more high-quality charter networks or the policy surroundings and human-capital arrangements in which these can flourish.)
Yet again, schools are being corrupted by the infusion of high-rolling foundations financing national testing schemes that have yet to produce an iota of improved educational practice. And performance pay plans? Come on. If Gates can't release bug-free software with performance pay, waht are the chances...?

I'd call the new initiative Dumb Ideas 2.0.

While it is their money to burn, it is our schools and children used as sacrificial lambs. I'd rather suffer with creative under-funded schools than luxury, centralized memorization boot camps, but that's just the educator in me talking.

The Fordham Institute is a neo-con -cough- "think-tank" artifact of the bad-old Bush administration's policies that Gates helped finance. It will be interesting to see if Obama embraces the urban education myths of NCLB that institutions like this hood-winked the public with for the past twenty years or if Obama steers into programs that actually meet the needs of children.

I'm not holding my breath.

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