An Open Letter to Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan

Mark_Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg courtesy of eu.wikipedia.org

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan,

Thank you for your generosity!   With you as exemplars I hope others will follow: untold billions of dollars could be targeted to benefit mankind.

As an advocate of public education, I hope some of your generosity will help the millions of public school students here in America.  Your letter said one of your initial areas of funding would be personalized learning – I can only assume that you have K-12 education in mind.

As you formulate goals for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiatives you must decide early on if your actions will be designed to improve public education or to weaken it.  Or if they will be able to make any difference.  As you well know from your experience in Newark, putting large amounts of money into schools can be a waste of that money.  How many billions of dollars have been spent on the Common Core and the PARCC initiatives, both of which are rapidly losing support?

If you see your daughter Max. and America, as beneficiaries of public education and you don’t want to have your money wasted, please consider the following:

  • Find out what’s needed before providing a solution.  Your letter stated an interest in supporting personalized learning. Does this solution arise from your obvious expertise and interest in technology or have you reviewed the scholarly research in education, talked to the experts in the field and decided this is what is needed?
  • Don’t just listen to rich/powerful people telling you what should be done to public schools.  Use some of that money to listen – really listen – to teachers, parents, students, and education professionals.  Be different from your peers – learn from those most invested in education.
  • If you hear that some of the problems with schools, particularly in urban areas, are societal (i.e. poverty, poor nutrition, lack of pre-natal care, gang violence) don’t turn a deaf ear as others have.  By attacking societal issues you will help improve education.
  • If you do listen when the rich/powerful people talk about public education, are they talking about what’s best for children?  Or what’s best for themselves?
  • Don’t assume public schools can’t adopt new practices.  They have again and again.  But it can be a slow process, so identify what is needed, come up with a solution, improve it along the way, and be patient.  Don’t shove it down the throats of educators and expect change over night.
  • Hear what is good about public education.  Too many people have found it in their best interests to bad-mouth schools.  Look around – America is the greatest country in the world because of our public education system.

In closing, good for you but do some good.  Forty-five billion dollars is a lot of money – use it to find ways to improve, not reform, our public schools.  America will thank you for it.

Sincerely,

Mike Warner

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Gates Foundation. Good Charity or Bad Charity? Final Thoughts

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David Tyack and  Larry Cuban’s book Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform is one of my favorite books.  They chronicle how Americans have viewed public education as a means to building a better society.  From one-room schoolhouses in the 1800s to the influx of immigrants in the early 1900s to the response to Sputnik in the 1950s, Americans have shaped the purpose of public education.  Americans – not just one person. Not a foundation.

When did we, as a society, give up our responsibility to determine the purpose of public education?  I can remember back in 1985 when the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) went hat-in-hand to the Illinois legislature (again) for a bigger budget and the response was, “If you want more money, you’re going to have to show us that you’re worth it.”  State-wide student testing began shortly thereafter.  The purpose of education then became, “Earn your keep by showing me how good your schools and teachers are” which was not a societal need but an economic one.  Building a better society using public education doesn’t exist in the American consciousness today – and as we know, nature abhors a vacuum.

So if we are unwilling to fill the vacuum of societal purpose for public education, who will?  Bill and Melinda Gates along with Warren Buffett.  They said “College Ready” is American’s societal need and they have defined for public education how to meet that need:

  • Create a standardized “American” curriculum
  • Provide professional development to teachers to ensure they teach to that standard curriculum correctly
  • Evaluate teachers to see if they are teaching the standard curriculum correctly, and if they don’t, remove them from the classroom
  • Use technology to implement the standard curriculum

America didn’t set this agenda.  Recognizing this, the Gates Foundation hedged their bet that American public schools might not want to accomplish their agenda so they support charter schools and alternative schools to demonstrate how it should be done.  They pour money into national professional organizations and to the Council of Chief State Officers to get the Foundation’s agenda done.

“College Ready” is America’s need?  Those kids in Naperville and Winnetka were born “College Ready”.  What a frickin’ joke to the kids in Chicago who are just hoping to survive long enough to make it to the safety of their school tomorrow.

Why did we allow them to control the conversation about the educational needs of America?  How did it come about that the Gates Foundation is telling us, the education professionals, how to do our business?  The sad part is, we let them do this to us because we wouldn’t do it ourselves.  We, as a profession, have been reluctant to get involved in politics, to write the newspapers about what schools need, to stand up and tell someone outside of the teacher’s lounge what our kids need.  Until we, as a profession, are willing to tell everybody what America’s kids need, the billionaires and their foundations will fill the void.

Next time: Vision 2020 tries to fill the void

Gates Foundation. Good Charity or Bad Charity? Part 3

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I began to write this series (see Part 1 and Part 2) because I wanted to learn more about the Gates Foundation and see for myself if the projects they were funding in the U.S. under the area of “College Ready” (i.e. K-12 education) were supporting public education. In Part 2 I shared my analysis of the 128 projects funded by the Foundation in 2014 and I identified 13 categories of funding – over $93 million spent.

The top recipients of Gates Foundation Funding for 2014:

Rank Grantee Total Granted # Grants
1 New Venture Fund $13,170,152 4
2 Council of Chief State School Officers $6,148,749 1
3 Educause $5,100,000 1
4 Tulsa Public Schools $4,421,847 1
5 Lake County Schools $4,390,766 2
6 Alliance for Excellent Education Inc. $4,287,530 2
7 National Assoc. Of Charter School Authorizers $4,000,000 3
8 Pacific Charter School Development Inc. $3,998,633 1
9 DonorsChoose.org $3,600,000 2
10 WestEd $3,457,786 1

As can be seen the New Venture Fund (NVF) was awarded 4 grants which totaled $13.2 million – over 14% of the total funding in 2014.  In 2013 the NVF received $5.2 million.  According to NVF’s website:

NVF was established in 2006 in response to demand from leading philanthropists for an efficient, cost-effective, and time-saving platform to launch and operate charitable projects. We execute a range of donor-driven public interest projects in conservation, global health, public policy, international development, education, disaster recovery, and the arts.

Note that NVF is used to “launch and operate” projects.  So my assumption is the Gates Foundation went to NVF and said, “Here’s a bunch of money and these are projects we want you to launch”.  As Anthony Cody astutely observed, “One grant that jumps out is one for just over $10 million to the New Venture Fund. The purpose? ‘to support the successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards and related assessments through comprehensive and targeted communications and advocacy in key states and the District of Columbia.’ (emphasis added [by Cody]). Communications and advocacy. Not research and development.

That communications and advocacy was in full play in 2013, too.  The NVF reported on their IRS Form 990 (page 2) that its Education Programs goals included “ADVOCACY FOR EFFECTIVE TEACHING PRACTICES”, “SUPPORT FOR THE COMMON CORE INITIATIVE”, and that their work “… PRIMARILY INCLUDES GRANTMAKING, CONVENING, AND STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS SUPPORT.”  One way they did this in 2013 was to provide $75,000 to 12 state department of education offices and $575,104 to the Council of Chief State School Officers (the organization that the head of each state department of education belongs to).   So when the Gates Foundation wants to get their agenda up and running the New Venture Fund is used to get the work done.

Speaking of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) notice that it was the second-highest funded organization, receiving over $6.1 million.  In some respects CCSSO acts like the NVF for the Gates Foundation – they were given a bunch of money to get the Foundation’s agenda up and running.  The CCSSO is the organization that is implementing the Common Core Standards.  Since we are well into implementing the Common Core Standards the CCSSO didn’t need as much money in 2014.  In 2013 the Gates foundation gave them $11 million.

The Gates Foundation awarded grants to six national professional organizations:  National Council for the Social Studies, The NEA Foundation for the Improvement of Education, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Learning Forward, American Association of School Administrators, and American Architectural Foundation.  If you want to influence millions of teachers, get the leaders of their professional organizations thinking the Gates’ way.

One of the more interesting categories funded by the Gates Foundation is “Supporting Philanthropy”.  Although not a large total ($1.3 million) funding in this category seems to be used to support organizations that promote philanthropy.  The Giving Back Fund ($50,000)  “provides philanthropic consulting, management, and administrative services to individuals and corporations.  The Foundation Center “is the leading source of information about philanthropy worldwide.”  Since the Gates Foundation categorized these grants under “College Ready” is it possible that their intent is to help more gazillionaires learn how to fund their own ideas on how public education should be run?

There were 11 grants in 2014 that fell into my “Other” category.  They just didn’t fit in anywhere else and seemed a bit wacky.  The Institute of Play was given $300,000 to “create learning experiences rooted in the principles of game design”.  The National Geographic Society received $10,000 for “students in low-income neighborhoods to [attend] the National Geographic Live! Speaker Series…”  Kind of off the wall from the usually focused funding the Foundation usually provides.

As you can see the Gates Foundation’s $93 million went to a lot of different organizations and multiple purposes in 2014.  Some were Good Charity.  Some were Bad Charity.  In my next post I’ll have some final thoughts about the Gates Foundation and its effects on public education.

Gates Foundation. Good Charity or Bad Charity? Part 2

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In my previous post I recounted how, after a discussion with my wife about Bill Gates, it occurred to me that I really didn’t know where all the Gates Foundation money goes to and if all those projects are “Good Charity” or “Bad Charity”.

I then went to the Gates Foundation website which maintains a list of all the projects they have funded.  I cut and pasted information about the 128 “College Ready” projects for 2014 into a spreadsheet (a MicroSoft product) and found that the Foundation had spent $93.3 million.   I categorized each of the projects according to the blurb provided on the Foundation’s website (or if that was too vague I went to the project recepient’s website to see what their mission is).

Here are the results:

Category Amount
Professional Development $24,624,816 26.4%
Charter Schools $17,218,099 18.4%
Common Core Implementation $10,413,185 11.2%
School Redesign $10,167,209 10.9%
Strategic Plan Implementation $7,049,649 7.6%
On-line and/or Personalized Learning $6,057,826 6.5%
Conference Support $4,296,208 4.6%
College Ready $3,826,647 4.1%
Provide Classroom Materials $3,600,000 3.9%
Other $3,086,742 3.3%
Supporting Philanthropy $1,287,629 1.4%
Teacher Leadership $946,228 1.0%
Influencing Policy $764,730 0.8%
$93,338,968 Total

The categorization process is somewhat subjective.  For example, Anthony Cody just completed the same process and came out with different totals based on his interpretation of each project.  Given his knowledge of the Gates Foundation (see his excellent book The Educator and the Oligarchy) I would encourage you to read his post as he has some fascinating interpretations about the intent of some of the grants as it relates to R&D and policymaking.

Surprised that Professional Development projects were the top category (26.4% of the funding)?  I was too until I realized that if you want to change instructional practices you need to provide professional development to teachers.  In 2014 the Gates Foundation issued an RFP (Requests for Proposal) for “The iPD Challenge” and then provided over $24 million in grants to organizations to design new methodologies that met the Foundation’s criteria of what PD should look like.  According to the RFP iPD should be, “more personalized and calls for higher levels of teacher engagement and collaboration.”  When you dig deeper iPD should include personalized learning technologies, data collection to demonstrate change, and a blend of individual learning with collaborative learning.  Before I retired I was in charge of professional development for several school districts and I always struggled on how to bring theory into practice.  Perhaps the Foundation will come up with some alternatives to the current way we provide professional development to teachers.  I would say this is “Good Charity” with reservations.

Support for charter schools ($17.2 million) continues to be a big priority for the Foundation.  Combine that with the $10.1 million funding for School Redesign projects, the Foundation spent over $27 million to find ways to make public schools obsolete.  “Bad Charity” with no reservations.

No surprise that third on the list was Common Core Implementation.  The Foundation funded the incubation and birth of the Common Core.  I believe that the original concept of providing a nation-wide set of curricular expectations was good (compared to 50 different sets of standards).  However it has mutated into an uncontrollable beast.  “Bad Charity”

Although Strategic Plan Implementation was #5 on the list, it only had 2 grantees, with the bulk of the funding ($6.1 million) going to the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).  This group is made up of the people who are in charge of each state’s department of education.  I can remember years ago hearing the Illinois State Superintendent Chis Koch enthusing over a new concept – Common Core Standards – after he returned from the annual meeting of the CCSSO.  A good place to put your money if you want to change education.  “Bad Charity” with reservations.

Number 6 on the list was On-line and/or Personalized Learning ($6 million).  Interestingly enough, several of the grants in this category went to public school districts (the vast majority of the 128 grants went to anything but public schools).  This shows the Foundation’s believe that technology should take a more prominent role in the instruction of students.  If developed properly this area could be a benefit to teachers and students.  “Good Charity” with reservations.

Conference Support (#7) is an interesting category.  In most cases it appears the Foundation provided funds to organizations to send teachers (and sometimes students) to attend various conferences.  It didn’t appear that every conference was about a particular topic (i.e. Common Core).  “Good Charity”

I was a bit surprised to see that the category College Ready only had three recipients, of which one (Alliance for Excellent Education, Inc.) received the bulk of the funding.  College Ready is the Gates Foundation’s #1 priority for it U.S. Programs, so why not more funding in this area?  My only guess is that the Foundation already believes they know what it takes to make kids college ready and doesn’t need to invest more in that area.  I’m always suspicious of anyone who has all the answers.  “Bad Charity”

The last category I’ll touch on in this post (yes there is one more coming) is Provide Teacher Materials.  Most teachers know that DonorsChoose.org is a website they can look to for classroom materials.  The Foundation made two grants totaling $3.6 million to support DonorsChoose.org.  “Good Charity”

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So is the Gates Foundation a “Good Charity” or a “Bad Charity”?  The answer is “Yes”.  In some cases its philanthropy may actually help public education.  In others it definitely hurts public education.  What we do know is with over $42.3 billion in assets it will continue to impact education for a long time.

In my next post on this topic I’ll look at why the Foundation might spend funds to support other philanthropic organizations, what are some of the projects funded in the “Other” category, and a look at the organizations that received the most money from the Foundation in 2014.

Gates Foundation. Good Charity or Bad Charity? Part 1

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My wife and I had a great discussion after my last post about the Gates Foundation’s instance that U.S. poverty could be overcome by better schools and teachers instead of a broad-based approach (like the Foundation uses overseas).  She led off by saying, “Isn’t Gates a good guy?  He’s giving away his money trying to help people.”  My response was that putting money into bad ideas doesn’t necessarily help people.  With all the publicity about philanthropy lately this has been a topic of discussion (see the New York Times Op-Ed piece “Good Charity, Bad Charity“).  To be fair, I really couldn’t tell my wife if all the K-12 education projects the Gates Foundation funds are good or bad ideas.

To their credit, the Gates Foundation maintains a list of all the projects they have funded on their website.  I cut and pasted information about the 128 “College Ready” (K-12 education) projects they funded in 2014 into a spreadsheet (ironically a MicroSoft product).  Note: K-12 education projects are not limited to public schools, as will be discussed in Part 2.

So to start with, Wow!  $93.3 million was given out in support of K-12 education projects in one year.  That’s a lot of money but let’s look at it in context.  According to Wikipedia the Gates Foundation has a $42.3 billion endowment ($28 billion from Gates, billions more from Warren Buffett).  Assuming the endowment funds are properly invested, let’s say that portfolio grows at 10.3% per year (the average historical increase of the markets).  That means that the Foundation’s portfolio should increase by $4.4 billion per year.  That Wow! of $93.3 million is only 2.1% of the possible earnings of their portfolio and only .2% of the entire endowment.

Two brief thoughts about $93.3 million.  First, when you spend that kind of money every year it’s going to make a difference – good or bad.  Second, if they really wanted to change (good or bad) K-12 education they could be spending a heck of a lot more.

In order to get a better understanding of what the Foundation was supporting I categorized each of the 128 projects according to the blurb provided on the Foundation’s website (or if that was too vague I went to the project recipient’s website to see what their mission is).  I ended up with 12 major categories plus an “other” category.

Want to know what the top-funded category was?  You’ll be surprised – I think it falls in the “good” category.  Read all about it in my next post.