Monday, August 9, 2010

Diane Ravitch Versus Bill Gates

Diane Ravitch has a lot to say about Bill Gates and his foundation in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Essentially every reference to the foundation’s work in education is criticism. Some of her assessments seem justified, others are clearly arguable, but others appear to be based on misinformation. I felt it would be appropriate and useful to present Gates’ side of the story, through his own words where possible, with me as the devil’s advocate where appropriate.

Ravitch begins by declaring the Gates foundation to be frighteningly large and powerful.
"The foundation’s decision-making process…’was a closed internal process, and as far as can be seen, accountable to none other than itself.’ In a statement that had implications for the foundation’s educational initiatives, the scientist said that the powerful influence of the foundation ‘could have implicitly dangerous consequences on the policy-making process in world health.’ In other words, the Gates Foundation was setting the international agenda, because of its unrivaled wealth, and intentionally shutting out competing views."I do not see that the Gates Foundation is behaving any differently than other funding agency. Essentially all research in the US in the field of health goes through the NIH. They have a process of reviewing proposals that selects the most promising and eliminates the least promising. You can refer to that process as "intentionally shutting out competing views" if you wish, but it is hard to see that as anything but the inevitable nature of the world of research. It is valid to point out that financial power can, in the wrong hands, be dangerous, but to cast aspersion on billions of dollars worth of effort in many areas with the comment of one unhappy scientist in one area seems a bit unprofessional.

Most of the author’s discussion of the foundation’s work involves the small school initiative that was supported for several years. Data seemed to indicate that smaller-sized high schools were more successful in preparing students for college. A few billion dollars were invested in investigating this notion over a period of several years. The results were mixed and it was not clear that this was a viable approach to pursue further. Ravitch presented some valid reasons why scaling schools down in size would create difficulties that should have been foreseen. The Gates’ people admitted that there appeared to be better ways to spend the foundation’s money. In retrospect, this approach does appear to be a bit loopy, but it probably was no more poorly based than any of the other attempts to improve education that the author describes.

It is in the characterization of the Gates Foundation’s current and planned activities in education that the author is unfair and inaccurate. The fact that her discussion is in a chapter titled The Billionaire Boys’ Club is a clue that he is not going to get any respect. She begins with
"Bill and Melinda Gates invited the leading educators to their home in Seattle and told them that they planned to invest millions in performance-based teacher pay programs; creating data systems; supporting advocacy work; promoting national standards and tests; and finding ways for school districts to measure teacher effectiveness and to fire ineffective teachers."While I have no doubt that Bill gates believes that teachers who are deemed irreparably ineffective should be fired, I really doubt that he said he wanted to help find ways to fire ineffective teachers. The author sounds a bit like someone who was not invited to the Gates’ home with the big kids. In fact, Gates is funding initiatives to help teachers become more effective. He criticizes traditional educators, a group that includes Ravitch, for providing an environment in which teachers are given essentially no help in improving their skills. In his annual letter about his foundation’s activities he includes this comment.
"One job where the worker is provided almost no feedback is the teacher at the front of the class. In a teacher’s personnel file there is rarely anything specific about where the teacher is strong or weak. Often there is just a checklist of basic things like showing up on time and keeping the classroom clean. In places where there is a rating system at all, 99 percent of teachers are rated satisfactory. Although this personnel system has the benefit of low overhead and predictability, it doesn’t identify best practices and drive improvement."
"An alternative is a system where time and money are invested in evaluation with the goal of helping teachers improve. Making this work requires both resources and trust. A new system needs to be predictable and help teachers identify weaknesses and give them ways to improve, and it should not make capable teachers afraid of capricious results."
Ravitch then goes on to claim that
"It was clear that the richest foundation in the world planned to put its considerable resources into the proliferation of charter schools and into the issue of teacher effectiveness: how to improve it and how to terminate ineffective teachers."The author provides an ambivalent and inconsistent discussion of charter schools. This is a topic worthy of an extended discussion. For present purposes it is sufficient to point out that Bill Gates does not mention charter schools in his annual report. If you go to the Gates Foundation web site and do a search on charter schools you will find little evidence of recent funding activities. Once again, Ravitch has chosen to be snarky rather than precise.

It is clear from his writing and speeches that Gates has bought into the notion that the best way to improve educational results is by improving the quality of the teachers.
"In last year’s letter I wrote about the evidence that helping teachers teach more effectively is the best way to improve high schools. It is incredible how much the top quartile of teachers can improve the skills of even students who are quite far behind."Notice how Gates always refers to raising the quality of teachers by helping existing teachers learn how to improve their teaching while Ravitch refers to the same process as firing lowly-ranked teachers. It is appropriate to be suspicious of people who come in wishing to change things, but she may have a tendency to overreact. Gates is aware of this attitude.
"A key point of contention about an evaluation system is how much it will identify teachers who are not good and do not improve. A better system would certainly identify the small minority who do not belong in teaching, but its key benefit is that it will help most teachers improve."The author repeats over and over that ranking teachers on the basis of test scores is one of the greatest evils to ever befall our nation. She has this to say with regard to Gates’ initiatives.
"Given the foundation’s significant investment in advocacy, it was improbable that anyone would challenge bill Gates and tell him his new goals were likely to be as ill advised as the $2 billion he had poured into restructuring of our nation’s high schools….Who would caution him of the dangers of judging teacher effectiveness solely by the ups and downs of scores on standardized tests of basic skills? "The author invariably states that teachers will be ranked "solely" on the basis of test scores. She does appear to allow that test scores have a role to play in evaluation.
"A good accountability system must include professional judgment, not simply a test score, and other measures of students’ achievement, such as grades, teachers’ evaluations, student work, attendance, and graduation rates. It should also report what the school and district are providing in terms of resources, class sizes, space, well-educated teachers, and a well-rounded curriculum."Here is a quote from Gates on accountability systems.
"A new system requires more than just taking the test scores of the students and seeing how they improve after a year with a teacher. It involves things like feedback from students, parents and peer teachers and an investment of time in reviewing actual teaching. Tools like video can be used so that a teacher can send peers a video showing him trying to do something hard, like keeping a class focused, and ask for advice. Instead of people coming into the classroom, which is quite invasive, a webcam can be used to gather samples for evaluation."Does it really look like Ravitch and Gates are headed in different directions? My guess is that Gates would be in total agreement with Ravitch’s description of an ideal accountability system.

The author recognizes the fact that our educational system is not doing the job that is required. Many people have struggled with figuring out how to fix the problem. The author seems to believe, arguably, that all attempts have failed. Yet, she has no solution of her own. She seems to think that if only we would move to a situation where funding was plentiful, and excellent teachers were attracted by good salaries and great working conditions, and the necessary number of classes to cover the broad curriculum she favors were available to properly motivated students, all would be well again. She can sit around and wait for that to happen if she wishes, but I, for one, appreciate people like Bill Gates devoting not only his money, but his life to the service of humanity. And if he and the Obama administration want to seed some education experiments in hopes that better and more successful practices will emerge and propagate through the system, then I chose to applaud them—not mock them.

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