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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Bill Gates, Please Stay Away from Higher Education

He may be well-meaning, but Bill Gates is bad for education.

June 28, 2019
 
 

Fresh off his successful efforts to transform K-12 education through a combination of investment and support of policy initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards, Bill Gates has turned his eye toward higher education.

His move is the establishment of the Postsecondary Value Commission, which promises to develop methods to measure the "value" of a post-secondary degree or certificate, essentially answering the question "What is college worth?"

They want to know definitively about the "return on investment"[1]of college.

To ease the path towards achieving this goal, Bill and Melinda Gates have started the Gates Policy Initiative, a lobbying group tasked with further the preferred Gates solutions on issues of "global health, global development, U.S. education and outcomes for black, Latino and rural students specifically, and efforts to move people from poverty to employment."

I would like to take a moment to speak directly to Bill and Melinda Gates.

Please, please, please, please, pretty please don't do this. I am certain you mean well, but honestly, please just stay away from education. You've done enough already.

I'm back.

That opening paragraph several inches above is what in the writing business we call, irony, a.k.a., a joke. Bill Gates has not had success transforming K-12 education. His ideas backed by his wealth have had a tremendous, largely deleterious effect on our systems and schools.

Let us not forget the most recent news of the "bust" of Gates' efforts to improve teaching, in which his foundation invested $215 million, but put the public on the hook for an additional $300 million-plus. Getting wrapped up in a Bill Gates project can be a costly enterprise.

As to his move into higher ed, I highly recommend a recent article by Nicholas Tampio of Fordham University in which he discusses the Gates' work in education and lays out his analysis of what may be at work. Tampio is the author of Common Core: National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy in which he unpacks the ways these standards conflict with the goals the creators of the standards claim to support, and are in fundamental conflict with our democratic ideals. Tampio is well informed about the specifics of what happens when the rubber of Gates Foundation support hits the road of actual school and classroom use.

There are a lot of reasons to object to Bill Gates bigfooting his way through education, and they don't even start with the specifics of his approaches to education themselves.

Big picture, I am a believer in the position articulated by Anand Giridharadas in his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, in that these large, seemingly philanthropic efforts undertaken by billionaires like Gates are rooted in a desire to preserve the status quo where they sit atop the social order. Rather than putting his money into the hands of education experts or directly funding schools or students, he engineers programs, which replicate his values.

For example, notice that direct quote about the purpose of the Gates Policy Initiative, "efforts to move people from poverty to employment." This suggests a clear link between employment and ending poverty and yet, we know that employment by itself is not a guarantee against poverty. Employment is a good thing, but what about better paying jobs? What about other approaches to reducing poverty? What happens when a wealthy and powerful individual gets to throw so much weight behind a single approach rooted in an unexamined set of values, for example designing a system that's supposed to help teachers improve, that many experts could have told you was doomed before it even started?

It is this lack of understanding or care that different people may hold different values that is most concerning when it comes to Gates and his work in education.

In K-12, these programs are largely divorced from the lived experiences of students and teachers. Gates appears driven by values of efficiency and standardization.

Speaking in my personal area of interest and expertise, teaching writing, the imposition of the Common Core State Standards as a target to strive for exacerbates all of the problems associated with the broader push around efficiency and standardization. On their own, the standards seem commonsense and innocuous, but they ignore the most important part of learning to write: the process by which the writing is produced. Focusing on the standards that describe the outcome of the writing process is ass-backwards to what we should be doing.[2]

Efficiency is also poised to be a theme for Gates' higher ed work. One of the leading members of the Gates commission, Anthony P. Carnevale of Georgetown's University Center on Education and the Workforce has explicitly laid out a vision of the contemporary university as a paragon of efficiency. Writing at Inside Higher Ed he espouses the promise of program-level outcome data (outcomes as essentially defined by earnings) by saying:

"The most significant effect would probably be the streamlining of public university systems. A public system could decide to offer a specific degree (let's say English) at only one campus rather than at every campus, as most do now. That system could pool all of its resources and top talent in English at one campus and offer an outstanding degree instead of offering mediocre programs at its underresourced branch campuses."

To some, like Bill Gates, this sounds like a dream. To others, like me, a nightmare. To me, it's a nightmare because I do not situate my values in the same place as these gentlemen. The idea that our institutions should be segregated in this way in order to make efficient use of resources sounds dreadful. What about the engineering major who wants to take a creative writing class as an elective? What if there are students who want to major in communication, but the communication school is on the other side of the state and for whatever reason, they have to live at home?

We should be aware of a rhetorical trick that's often at play in these situations. Carnevale's piece frames these changes as a kind of inevitable consequence of the existing trends in education. If schools don't change to adapt to what's coming, they're failing their students. In a world without enough resources, we must adapt, right?

If this is the direction higher education institutions must head because we lack resources, I have an idea, let's go get some more money from people like Bill Gates who seem to not lack for resources. How many scholarships could Bill Gates pay for with the money he's going to invest into the Postsecondary Value Commission[3]and Gates Policy Initiative?

But as Giridharadas makes clear in his book, there is an alternative, we can choose to disrupt the status quo, and reset the rules under which we've been asked to work. Bill Gates does not speak for millions of us concerned with education, and he can't be allowed to be the only person with a megaphone.

This is the power of democracy, and my hope is that we reject the inherently undemocratic forays of people Bill Gates into education, no matter how well-meaning or nice he seems to be.

 

[1]Translation: $$$$$$$$$$$$$

[2]I've got a couple of books on this explaining how this works in great detail. I sent copies to the Gates Foundation. Haven't heard back.

[3]There are plenty of smart, and sensible people on Gates' commission, but this doesn't mean we should accept a single billionaire like Gates exerting this degree of influence. It's been bad in K-12 education. There's no reason to believe he'll do better in higher ed.

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