Must read: Dialogue with the Gates Foundation

The other day I was talking with my brother about education. At some point he said, “Maybe we need a philanthropist to just fund everything we need to improve public education.” (My brother has experience as a grant writer for nonprofits, so he knows a bit about philanthropy.)

“Yeah, um, we do have a philanthropist funding just about everything in education—Bill Gates. But the jury’s out on what his overall impact is and will be.”

See, Gates funds some great organizations, like the National Writing Project and some of Center For Teaching Quality’s work; his organization also funds a lot of other reform initiatives that focus on teacher quality, but rely on test scores as a measure of this.

Isn’t it okay to “play the field” so to speak? Can’t Gates fund everyone and see who makes the most “progress?”

Enter teacher leader Anthony Cody and his blog, Living In Dialogue. Anthony was one of the original members of the Teacher Leaders Network, whose voice in our conversations helped shape my ideas about what teacher leadership is and could be.

Through his blog, Anthony has engaged the Gates Foundation in a remarkable dialogue about the key issues in education and their disagreements therein, revealing the complexity of the siuation.

He begins with the topic and question, How do we build the teaching profession? in which he disagrees with Bill Gates’ assertion that there are no models for improving teaching quality out there. He describes one such model that he personally experienced. The Gates Foundation responds.

Then the Gates Foundation asks the second question: How do we consider evidence of student learning in teacher evaluation? Cody responds in one of the most well-evidenced arguments against the use of test scores to determine student learning and teacher quality I have ever seen. A MUST READ!

Next, Cody introduces the third topic with the question, “Can schools defeat poverty by ignoring it?” This is often what the “no excuses” brand of reform education seems to suggest we do, when they fund tests and data systems instead of actual opportunities for low-income students and better teacher preparation and support for their teachers. The Gates Foundation responds with the point that “poverty is not destiny,” suggesting that advocates for education reforms that address poverty are making excuses for poor achievement of low income students. Read both posts and decide for yourself. This issue is certainly the heart of the debate over public education right now, recently heated up by the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike.

Next, they wrestle with the purpose of K-12 education. Gates Foundations offers, “An opportunity catalyst” and Cody responds.

In the final post, Cody addresses the question, “What is the role of the marketplace in pushing forward education improvement and innovation?” He opens the post with some words about where he hopes this dialogue is headed:

The tension uncovered by this dialogue reveals a disconnect between the work of the Gates Foundation and many of us who have spent our lives working in schools. Nonetheless, this represents an opportunity to move beyond the impasse… bridging our differences requires us to share and discuss those realities, even though our perspectives are very different. I hope that in the months to come this dialogue will deepen, and that the tensions we have revealed will not lead us throw up our hands and abandon the effort, but rather will strengthen our commitment to continue to wrestle with these issues in the interest of our students.

I personally find Cody’s rhetoric and tone throughout to be extremely impressive. He clearly disagrees with much of what the representatives of the Foundation say, but he maintains a productive, even tone that makes it clear his goal is to actually have a dialogue about issues of great importance. He questions and carefully evidences his claims. He finds common ground with most of what the Gates Foundation intends to do, but takes a strong stand against those methods that he believes do not match the needs of students and their communities. He gives us all much to think about.

If you care about education policy, this conversation is a must read right now. You can also follow it at the Gates Foundation’s site, Impatient Optimists.


[image credits: Living in Dialogue]