Effective – but Unhelpful? – Philanthropy by Gates, Others

January 6, 2011 at 7:45 PM

In the winter issue of Dissent, Joanne Barkan presents a negative critique of the effects and influence of private philanthropy on school reform and federal education policy, focusing in particular on the effective but (she argues) wrongheaded and damaging work of the Gates Foundation (with assists from the Walton family and the Broad Foundation).

The author argues that the failures of public education have been overstated and that the reformers’ preferred solutions – “charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher” – have been ineffective at best, damaging at worst.

The article is recommended to any reader with an interest in education reform, but also to any reader interested in how foundations and philanthropists can effect real change on a very broad scale (even if, as is argued here, the change has been pernicious rather than palliative).

We are generally sympathetic to the public school reformers and largely unconvinced by the article’s arguments. We feel the mistaken approach taken by the author is illustrated in this passage:

In November 2008, Bill and Melinda gathered about one hundred prominent figures in education at their home outside Seattle to announce that the small schools project hadn’t produced strong results. They didn’t mention that, instead, it had produced many gut-wrenching sagas of school disruption, conflict, students and teachers jumping ship en masse, and plummeting attendance, test scores, and graduation rates. No matter, the power couple had a new plan: performance-based teacher pay, data collection, national standards and tests, and school ‘turnaround’ (the term of art for firing the staff of a low-performing school and hiring a new one, replacing the school with a charter, or shutting down the school and sending the kids elsewhere).

Without meaning to dismiss the negative impact of the Gates’s initial effort, the fact that the couple announced the failure of their first effort and were willing to try a new strategy should be commended, not condemned.

Private foundations in the United States operate with almost perfect autonomy, often unanswerable to all but founders (if they’re still alive) and board members. As a result, it has been rare for private foundations to admit failures and alter strategy as needed. The Gate’s doing so here is good, not bad, news.

More serious are the article’s claims that the Gates Foundation and others have gone off half-cocked, funding and pushing reforms without adequate evidence of their effectiveness. We don’t know enough to judge the author’s claims on this score, but if correct it would represent a failure on the funders’ part.

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