A few stories caught a lot of eyes over the weekend. None of that is good news for education reformers who have banked on stealth and little reporting.
The first is a major article and interview regarding the role Bill Gates’ money has played in the development of, promotion of and adoption of the Common Core State Standards in the Washington Post. The story is not entirely complete. For starters, it fails to disclose that David Coleman already had funding from the Gates Foundation for his Student Achievement Partners, so a meeting with Gates in 2008 is not their first intersection. Also, it does not explore the heavy hand that Gates has also had in the push for more high stakes testing to evaluate teachers via his funding of the highly flawed Measures of Effective Teaching study, nor does it examine the role that Gates has played in enabling technology entrepreneurs to mine the data generated from those tests without parental consent.
Regardless, the article is both informative and important for several reasons. First, it is one of the first times anyone in a major news outlet has provided a portrait of the diverse opposition to current reform efforts in education that doesn’t make it sound like mostly the work of Alex Jones style cranks. The article even quotes academics who question whether the standards are based on sound research on how children learn or even if there is a connection between quality standards and learning. Second, this is an article in a major outlet that does not equivocate in the slightest about how much influence one very rich man has had in trying to control the entire course of American public education. While it does not editorialize on the question, it is hard to read how many federal, state, nonprofit, academic and corporate entities were lobbied by, influenced by or funded by Gates and not wonder what role democracy has anymore when it comes to our public schools.
Finally, Gates himself comes across as defensive and dismissive:
Gates is disdainful of the rhetoric from opponents. He sees himself as a technocrat trying to foster solutions to a profound social problem — gaping inequalities in U.S. public education — by investing in promising new ideas.
This would be more convincing if Gates displayed the slightest interest in testing new ideas before unveiling them in 45 states at once before parents and teachers have a chance to understand them, indeed, before anyone has a chance to understand if they are a net positive or not. From Gates’ point of view and experience, this must make sense. He has compared common standards to standardized electrical outlets and computer code as a means of allowing innovation, and certainly getting DOS on most desktop computers in the world led to a lot of software developers having a common platform. But education is not consumer electronics, and bypassing the entirety of stakeholders who value public education for a variety of reasons was going to lead to push back, and even today, Bill Gates does not demonstrate awareness of that.
The second article appeared in Politico and was dedicated to parent activists working to protect their children from data mining operations tied to public education. This represents another public airing of activities whose proponents would prefer to avoid being seen in the open. The report quotes New York’s Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters about how parents have reacted when informed about the plans of technology firms to use pretty much every bit of data they can get their hands on, and it quotes worried data entrepreneurs coming to grips with parental opposition:
Many said they had always assumed parents would support their vision: to mine vast quantities of data for insights into what’s working, and what’s not, for individual students and for the education system as a whole.
“People took for granted that parents would understand [the benefits], that it was self-evident,” said Michael Horn, a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, an education think tank.
Instead, legitimate questions about data security have mixed with alarmist rhetoric in a combustible brew that’s “spreading like wildfire” on social media, said Aimee Rogstad Guidera, executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group for data-driven education.
That fear, Guidera said, “leads to people saying, ‘Shut it down. No more.’”
Guidera hopes to counter the protests by circulating videos and graphics emphasizing the value of data. But she acknowledges the outrage will be hard to rein in.
Could the parent lobby scuttle a data revolution that’s been championed by the White House, pushed by billionaire philanthropists and embraced by reformers of both parties as the best hope to improve public education? “I do have that concern,” Guidera said. “Absolutely.”
The article doesn’t go into detail about just how much money is thought to be at stake and takes the data mining firms at their word that they only want to help, but I came away from reading it with one resounding message: this damage is entirely self inflicted, but the data miners see the parent activists as the problem. They did not want to do the hard marketing work of convincing people that they were doing something valuable, and they did not anticipate that parents might see the data generated by their children’s public educations as something they’d want to protect rather than just shovel over for free. It is hard to sympathize here, especially when they have avoided openness from the beginning.
Which leads to the third article from today: a call from the Gates Foundation for a two year “moratorium” on high stakes decisions based upon Common Core aligned testing. This is the first official wavering from the Gates camp since the standards and testing drive began in earnest, and it is highly significant as an indication of concern that the whole enterprise is in trouble. It may also be a miscalculation — yes, teacher opposition to using value added measures of their effectiveness based on standardized tests is strong, and yes, teachers have barely had time to adjust to the new standards. But two years will not fix the flaws in VAMs, and it will not assuage parental concerns about the role of testing and data mining. It will potentially take a chunk out of testing companies and data mining companies who were making business plans based upon all Common Core states embarking on wide scale testing next year, and I find it interesting that the Gates Foundation is willing to have them cool their heels while the standards’ supporters try to do something they have avoided all along: talk in public.