If you are reading this article, it's likely you have heard of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, maker of the Windows operating system for PCs. He's a multi-billionaire entrepreneur, turned philanthropist.
His charitable Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent millions of dollars on various causes including malaria and AIDS research, human rights, the environment, and also education. It's his efforts to apply corporate education reforms to US public education that we want to focus on in this series.
At a time when education budgets are being slashed, the Gates Foundation is wielding hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the education reform debate. In 2009 alone the Foundation spent $373 million on its education agenda, of which $78 million was devoted to corporate reform advocacy. This money was spread far and wide, to non-profits, PR firms, governments and education departments throughout the country.
Some might argue that this money could lead to improved schools, but many of the goals of the Foundation are based not on sound science, but ideology and gut instinct. Take for example an early initiative the Foundation pursued, to the tune of $2 billion - the Small Schools Initiative.
Based upon nothing more than a belief that breaking up low performing schools into much smaller student blocks would produce wildly improved student achievement, Gates set upon spending his money to convince schools to break up. But after billions of dollars and years of experimentation on students, Gates himself admits the endeavor has not produced the desired benefits
"In the first four years of our work with new, small schools, most of the schools had achievement scores below district averages on reading and math assessments. In one set of schools we supported, graduation rates were no better than the statewide average, and reading and math scores were consistently below the average. The percentage of students attending college the year after graduating high school was up only 2.5 percentage points after five years. Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for."
The evidence is clear that smaller impersonal schools are no more effective than larger impersonal schools.
One can easily see that one man, with strong convictions and deep pockets, can have major impacts on public policy. Even when exercising the best of intentions, a little caution and humility should be assumed; else serious damage could be wrought.
In part II of our series, we'll look at some of the reforms Gates and his Foundation are now pursuing, which could have far more damaging consequences to schools, students and their teachers.