Paving The Road to Hell — And Other Gates Foundation Initiatives

Towards the end of last year, the Seattle Times provided coverage of the Gates Foundation’s report on the tenth anniversary of its global health initiative. After a decade of effort and a billion dollars invested, Bill Gates admitted that despite the investment he had been “pretty naive” about how long it would take to significantly improve public health outcomes in the developing world. Most notable was Gates’ admission that the problems in his approach were not merely ones about overcoming scientific hurdles, but rather they seriously underestimated the challenges of implementing highly technological “solutions” in countries where the majority of the population lack secure access to routine infrastructure which, in the words of Dr. David McCoy of Queen Mary University in London, are “the barriers to existing solutions.”

Both Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog and Anthony Cody of Living in Dialogue have written excellent pieces on this somewhat quiet but very important admission by Bill Gates.  Greene astutely notes that Gates’ realization of his limitations does not actually lead him to understand why his approach is flawed:

Gates wants to use systems to change society, but his understanding of how humans and culture and society and communities change is faulty. It’s not surprising that Gates is naive– it’s surprising that he is always naive in the same way. It always boils down to “I really thought people would behave differently.” And although I’ve rarely seen him acknowledge it print, it also boils down to, “There were plenty of people who could have told me better, but I didn’t listen to them.”

The non-success of Grand Challenges is just like the failure of the Gates Common Core initiative. Gates did not take the time to do his homework about the pre-existing structures and systems. He did not value the expertise of people already working in the field, and so he did not consult it or listen to it. He put an unwarranted faith in his created systems, and imagined that they would prevail because everyone on the ground would be easily assimilated into the new imposed-from-outside system. He became frustrated by peoples’ insistence on seeing things through their own point-of-view rather than his. And he spent a huge amount of money attempting to impose his vision on everybody else.

This is an important observation because it shows that there is a flawed perspective rooted at the heart of the Gates Foundation, and while the man and the institution may be able to recognize failures, they are not inclined to understand why they have failed.  Anthony Cody also recognizes this observation as he lines up quotes from the central figures at the Gates Foundation that demonstrate little regard for the knowledge about teaching held by teachers and wonders if the “humility” earned in Grand Challenges project will translate to humility about the foundation’s approach to education reform.  I believe that Greene and Cody are completely on point and insightful in their observations and questions on these points, and it is important for people outside the Gates Foundation to constantly remind it that education is a complex and interconnected set of systems with knowledgeable and invested stakeholders that cannot simply be plowed over and disregarded without consequences.

A specific quote from Melinda Gates cited by Mr. Cody struck me in particular, and I believe it highlights some of the difficulties we face in enticing the Gates’ and their namesake foundation to listen.  Cody quotes Mrs. Gates from 2011:

It may surprise you–it was certainly surprising to us–but the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching. We have all known terrific teachers. You watch them at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft. But nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them so outstanding.

This ignorance has serious ramifications. We can’t give teachers the right kind of support because there’s no way to distinguish the right kind from the wrong kind. We can’t evaluate teaching because we are not consistent in what we’re looking for. We can’t spread best practices because we can’t capture them in the first place.

Asserting that “the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching” is one of those statements most frequently made by people who do not want to have to bother with how much information there is that refutes the statement.  However, if Mrs. Gates wants to fill herself in on what the “field of education” knows about effective teaching, she could begin with the 4th edition of The Handbook of Research on Teaching.  It might even be worth her while to read the third edition, see if a full version of the second edition is available, and then finish up with the original publication from 1963.  A fifth edition was supposed to published in 2014, but it seems that the editors are taking some extra time to be careful with it.

Then, for kicks, she might want to talk to some of America’s working teachers and see if they know anything as well.

Of course, knowing this field as I do, I suspect that someone who has been working in the technocratic solutions domain for this many years will still object that the multiple 1000s of pages of research on teaching to which I have referred still won’t tell us what “effective teaching” is.  Researching education is, by necessity, working with a “soft field” where you are unlikely to find absolute answers to your questions.  What we know changes as related fields like psychology build their knowledge base, and ideas can circulate in and out of favor as what schools are expected to do evolves with societal priorities.  Most importantly, research on teaching has to consider how variable the 100,000 schools and millions of classrooms across the country are and how that variability influences the teaching that is both possible and that is needed.  We are not engineering within the parameters of Newtonian physics, and that is appropriate.

Mrs. Gates’ other assertion that “you watch them (great teachers) at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft” (but, gosh darn it, we just don’t know why they are so great!) is the kind of statement made by people who really don’t understand teaching.  Of course, there are great teachers, and, of course, you can be impressed by them fairly quickly, but to say that you KNOW someone has thoroughly “mastered the craft” in ten minutes is romantic in the style of teachers whose lives have been edited by Hollywood.  What does Mrs. Gates risk missing in her ten minute assessment?

  • The lesson that worked very well in the first period but worked far less well in the third period.
  • The day when the lesson plan was simply off base.
  • The work that teacher did outside of the classroom determining what students knew, selecting teaching and learning strategies that would help them build upon that, figuring out what would help the teacher know the students had learned.
  • ANY of the uncertainty in the previously described process and the necessity to pivot if that uncertainty disrupts the plan.
  • How the teacher self assesses and with what information.
  • The week when that teacher has sick children at home, cannot get enough sleep, and has little time to plan.
  • The week disrupted by excessive standardized testing or mandatory field tests of examinations.
  • ANYTHING, really, beyond being impressed by Razzle Dazzle without thinking about substance.

Mrs. Gates’ comment makes the most sense to me if she is unaware of the level of work that goes into lending that impressive ten minutes substance, and if she is not especially discerning about whether or not the substance exists.  In fact, in ten minutes, it is sadly easy to be taken in by weak teaching that is buoyed by personality.  I witnessed this early in my teacher education career when I supervised a student teacher who I eventually had to counsel out of the profession.  She was an intelligent young woman, but she was not up to the task of leading a classroom even on her best day and simply could not gain student attention.  What was interesting, however, was how her struggles demonstrated the weaknesses of her cooperating teacher, a 20 year veteran who, with only ten minutes to watch her, would have impressed an outside observer.  She was a dynamic personality who kept the energy level of her class high, but when her student teacher took over the lesson plans, the thinness of the teaching was painfully obvious over time.  Visit after visit, I witnessed the same teaching approach of presentation and then practice via seat work, and it was clear that the only reason the teaching I first saw SEEMED skilled was the personal energy of the cooperating teacher.  The situation became awkward as my shy and hesitant student teacher made obvious the thin planning that went into the classroom.

Mrs Gates’ ten minute observation would have, most likely, been taken in by the Razzle Dazzle:

…and missed whether or not there was substance.  For that matter, Mrs. Gates’ ten minutes would miss a lot of genuinely great teachers simply having an inevitable bad day.

The problem here is complicated and frustrating.  Melinda Gates’ comment demonstrates first, that the Gates Foundation does not really understand (or is dismissive of) the real complexities and uncertainties involved in being a “great teacher,” and second, that the foundation thinks it can ultimately identify precisely WHAT makes their teaching “great” and distribute that throughout the teaching corps.  Instead of appreciating that research on teaching is various because teaching itself is various, the foundation’s leadership seems wedded to an idea that we need singular answers scaled throughout the entire system.

It reminds me of some of the mixed-bag innovations from the Progressive era which, contrary to popular imagination, was not all trust busting, union victories, and establishment of national parks.  Consider “scientific management” that arose from the work of Frederick Taylor and which greatly influenced how factory work was conceived.  Taylor studied work flow to determine the “best” ways for laborers to perform their tasks, and much of what he determined was useful for productivity and workers themselves.  For example, he concluded that workers needed rest periods which was not an accepted practice at the time.  However, faith in “Taylorism” rapidly overstated its ability to scale up the “best” way to do certain tasks, leading to conflicts with workers themselves, such as the famous incident at the Watertown Arsenal when one molder sparked a mass walk out in response to being timed by a stop watch.  While scientific management survives in different incarnations today, Taylorism itself was more geared towards the automation of tasks since workers were not allowed to vary how they did their work once “innovations” were put into place.

I’ve come to think that the Gates Foundation suffers from a similar problem: armed with an interesting and worthwhile question – “How can we identify and support great teaching?” – they have approached it as a technocratic matter instead of as a sociological one.  In doing so, they have vastly overestimated the strength of their tools and vastly underestimated the knowledge and the agency of what they hoped to reform.  The result is rapidly devolving into a discordant mess of overlapping perverse incentives that mistake common standards with a platform for effective teaching, treat standardized test scores as strongly indicative of teacher impact, and encourage teaching narrowly to the tested curriculum. Teachers and parents are increasingly reacting much the same way that the early 20th century workers did when told their ideas mattered less than a supervisor with a stop watch.

We’ve paved roads like this before, and the destinations were not exactly what was hoped for.


Filed under Common Core, Gates Foundation, Stories, Testing

3 responses to “Paving The Road to Hell — And Other Gates Foundation Initiatives

  1. Daniel,
    One small correction. The quote you cite from Melinda Gates is actually from an op-ed signed by both Bill AND Melinda.

    Thanks — many great points made!

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