Setting the Standard in Education

The Man, The Myth, The Legend

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2010 at 4:03 pm

It’s usually hard to settle on which bit of news to write about. If I were getting paid to do this, I’d spend all day and write about all of them. EdWeek had two really interesting articles this morning, one on work in developing science standards and the other is about a study showing teacher induction programs had positive results in student achievement gains, although not in keeping teachers in the field or making them feel more prepared. I was also intrigued by an article about why “bad” children can come from seemingly “good” parents. While it’s not directly school related, it makes me think of parent conferences I’ve and how many parents asked me, a 22-year-old straight out of college, how I can help them with their child that they can’t manage. How do we expect teachers so control all of the learning outcomes in their classes when we have so little hope with parents? (The answer is that most students aren’t like that and that we have to factor in this possibility when we look at student achievement).

However, the issue that sparked my thought the most today was Eduflack’s article about whether Bill Gates has the power to remake education. It’s the old question: if you had all of the money in the world, what would you do to___________. In this case, it’s what would you do to completely change the face of an education system that perpetuates class separation and causes inefficiency? Over the last few years, Gates has poured billions of dollars into education, funding everything from common standards to  charter schools to performance pay. Of course, even when one is being philanthropic, when dealing with lots of money, there are always critics. Leonnie Haimson calls him “the most dangerous man in America.” She claims his small schools have created less space for classes and have shut down entire programs, such as arts and science labs.

The same situation is now unfolding in NYC as the rapidly proliferating charter schools are wedged into public school buildings. As a result, the existing public school, with much higher concentrations of English language learners, special needs students, and homeless children, is now in many cases forced to provide instruction and mandated services in hallways and closets.

Perhaps Haimson should do her homework before lodging complaints. Charters generally have about the same number of ELL , homeless, and special needs students. In The Lottery, a scene shows Harlem Village Academy CEO, Eva Moskowitz,  being grilled by school board members while trying to get more space for HVA2. One of the questions asked is on that very issue. The board member asks what her special ed population is. Moskowitz points out that HVA’s special ed population was over 20%, much higher than the school she in the same location. Haimson also ignores major facts completely. She points out that Gates has concentrated his funding in cities where there are fewer people in power, saying that it helps him ignore the constituents. He has tended to places where there is mayoral control, rather than school boards with slow and bureaucratic methods. However, that is completely irrelevant to whether parents or students have any say. Large districts with complicated structures generally don’t have any constituent input, either.  What can you expect from the executive director of an organization called “Class Size Matters”, when studies show that for the most part, it doesn’t? (It’s only when classes are reduced to fewer than 20 that any effects are shown). Haimson spends the second half of the article angry about the fact that Gates hasn’t put much money into reducing class sizes. I suppose that shows why she has an axe to grind.

How could this face be the most dangerous in the world?

Regardless of ethical questions some may have about his methods, Eduflack’s question still remains: can Bill Gates change the face of K-12 education? He’s got a $35 billion foundation that says, “Yes.” While that may be a drop in the bucket compared to the close to $600 billion the US spends on education a year, it’s enough to create an entire model. Up until now, Gates has been spending money funding various projects. He’s given money to charter organizations, districts, and even teachers’ unions. Eduflack thinks he should go further. If Patrick Riccards (the writer of Eduflack) had that kind of money, he’d build his own districts. He’d take all of the existing research and create a complete district. Why spend $100 million dollars in Tampa trying to convince people to do things you like when you can spend money to run a whole operation? The Gates Foundation could control everything from the budget to hiring to curriculum and beyond. I wouldn’t stop there, though. I think Riccards is ignoring one key factor in school success – training. For Gates to truly create an entire system and see if it works, he’d have to found a school of education. Perhaps with New York’s new decision to allow alternative certifiers to have their own Master’s programs, there is an opening for such a plan to get off the ground.

Of course, the Gates Foundation would need to have a fundamental change in vision for something like this to happen. The Foundation sets its sights on funding a variety of projects, allowing for as much innovation as possible. Funding an entire district would not allow for the same scope of change, depending on the size of the district. Perhaps if the Gates Foundation were to create a medium-sized district with a budget of only tens of millions, rather than hundreds, it could keep its hand in more projects. Let’s say Gates opts to spend $15,000 per student plus the cost of the teacher training (more than almost every state currently spends). He could have a decent-sized district of 6,500 students (500 per grade, larger than average) for $97.5 million. That means if he were to create five of those (with varying methods for comparison), it would cost $492.5 million each year, not including the teacher training. He’s spending about that much currently, but that figure also doesn’t take into account that much of that funding would come from the state anyway. Let’s say the Foundation gets half of that from the state, so it’d be spending $250 million or about half of its budget on running five districts with over 30,000 students. Add in costs for running teacher training and you’ve still got a hefty but manageable sum. I’m sure they could do the math better and get it to work out in their favor even more than the math that I’m spewing (how else do you become the richest man in the world, afterall). The Gates Foundation could easily run a 10-year pilot for “only” a few billion and still have plenty to work in other areas. In the time that it’s taken Green Dot to become a noticeable presence, Gates Dot could completely change what education in the US looks like. Plausible? Probably not. Worthwhile? absolutely.

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  1. […] establish their own schools and districts. It’s also the reason that last week, I said that Bill Gates should invest in an entire charter district. The only way to help all of the students in a district is to alter the way schools operate […]

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