Monday, May 23, 2011

Education Reform: Basic Questions Go Unanswered

Billionaires donating their wealth to causes that are intended to improve the quality of life for humankind is not bad, evil, or conspiratorial. However, it is anti-democratic when those billionaires, in a highly organized effort, push out parents, the public, all critical views, and the taxpayer from any role whatsoever in shaping or reshaping the educational landscape. In an extraordinarily dramatic federal education reform policy, fueled by a multitude of non-profits funded by unending stream of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others, parent and local control has been lost.

News outlets have failed to provide basic descriptions, commentary, analysis, and critique. A few hundred articles have been published on the subject By and large, critical voices have been shut out completely. Questions that demand answers regarding elevated testing requirements, complex longitudinal data systems, and serious privacy concerns go unanswered, ignored, or trivialized. I do not recall electing non-profits to legislative and regulatory roles. Is the May 22 New York Times article a sign that current policies will finally get the media attention the public rightly deserves? Looks like the Times article got the attention of the Tampa Gradebook, so at least one Florida newspaper covered the story. Will the topic make it to Meet the Nation, Fox News, or talk radio in ways that ordinary people can understand? In the end, we are stuck with the goods.

In the the blogosphere, I found smart fact-based Conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, parents, community members, and education experts voicing legitimate and reasonable concerns. On the heels of the NY Times article, long-time blogger Susan Ohanian fills in significant details regarding the players and extent of the Gates Foundation influence. There are some surprises. Read the list of players and their funding sources here.

Ohanian also describes the apparent news blackout:
Wanting to see which "independent experts" reporters called upon to explain Race to the Top and the Common Core standards, I examined over 700 articles published between mid-May 2009 and mid-July 2010. I eliminated cites from state ed officials, union officials and politicos. This left me with 152 outside experts quoted in 414 articles. Of the 23 experts quoted five times or more, 15 have connections with institutions receiving Gates funding and 13 with strong charter advocacy institutions. Who doesn't gets cited, raised very troubling questions.

Frederick M. Hess, American Enterprise Institute Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies writes a blog for Education Week, is quoted in the NY Times article:

Mr. Hess, a frequent blogger on education whose institute received $500,000 from the Gates foundation in 2009 “to influence the national education debates,” acknowledged that he and others sometimes felt constrained. “As researchers, we have a reasonable self-preservation instinct,” he said. “There can be an exquisite carefulness about how we’re going to say anything that could reflect badly on a foundation.”

“Everybody’s implicated,” he added.

Something must change in this regard. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it was starting another foundation, called Teaching First and covered by Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss.

The plan includes campaigns to reach out to parents, teachers, students, business and civic and religious leaders, and to build “strong ties to local journalists, opinion elites, and local/state policymakers and their staffs.” The plan explains how the organization will ensure “frequent placement ... in local media coverage of issues related to teacher effectiveness and equitable distribution of effective teachers” in accordance with the Gates approach.

The proposal calls for supporting local groups that promote the value-added evaluation systems, and who even get involved in unions so they can demand this approach in collective bargaining for teachers contracts.

The motives of billionaire venture capitalists are really not the issue in my opinion. The issue is a lack of critical analysis and inclusion of the public on the massive education reform initiative underway right now. Hess wrote an interesting blog titled "What We've Got Here Is...Failure to Communicate" stepping over the Gates controversy into the policy itself.

Even mainstream conservatives are being radicalized. Last weekend, standards guru Sandra Stotsky, a longtime champion of standards-based reform and generally regarded as an NCLB supporter, blasted the very notion of federal involvement in schooling. In an e-mail exchange regarding the Common Core, she wrote, "I've tried to think of sound federal policies in education (with positive effects on student achievement), and the closest I've come are the Land Grant Acts of the 19th century...In my lifetime, I can't think of ONE federal policy that has improved student achievement."

It's kind of amusing, really. The self-proclaimed reformers just can't imagine that, confronted with data showing that many children are poorly served, any sensible adult could look askance at their favored policies. When confronted with skepticism that the measures will work as intended, the would-be reformers ask with wide-eyed shock, "Are you willing to just let those children fail?" If a conservative House staffer suggests that maybe the feds lack the ability or purview to solve the problem, would-be reformers seem to think they've stepped through the looking glass.

The problem is deeper than a failure to communicate.


  1. Sandra, is there a way I can get the word to the Oprah crowd?

  2. Hard to know where the Oprah crowd will head next since she is ending her show this week if I am not mistaken. I read that today and tomorrow are special farewell programming. I don't watch much tv so I don't have an idea. I'm sorry.