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Gates and the Teacher Wars: It Matters Where You Stand

Does staying out of the ed reform debate make you out of touch, a peacekeeper, or a self-serving a-hole?

Goody2Shoes

 

There was a time, not long ago, when I was a Bill Gates defender.

His foundation has done incredible things to slow the spread of HIV in the third world. They are improving infrastructure and healthcare and schooling in so many impoverished countries. With all his money, he could be doing nothing more than sitting on a golden throne drinking from a diamond-encrusted goblet while Wolfgang Puck scrambles caviar eggs in his kitchen and Kanye West performs in his living room. Instead, he’s putting his fortune toward all kinds of projects that will save lives and heal the world.

In that light, I could still defend him. Because those things are still true.

But in the last year or so, I’ve been hearing more people – teachers, especially – say some harsh things about Gates. And it took me a long time to get interested in digging around and learning what was behind that criticism.

Overcoming the Good Kid Syndrome

Here’s why I resisted learning more about the problems with reform: For a long time, I was pretty happy being one of the “good ones.” When I heard talk about the bad teachers out there and how we needed to find them, get rid of them, and reward those who are better, I thought Bring it on. My students will kick ass on tests. I don’t need tenure to keep my job. More money for me? Yes please.

I’d had my share of ineffective teachers. I had taught in the same building with them. My own children had been in their classrooms. I had developed this sense that there was an “us” and a “them,” a team of good teachers and a team of bad teachers, and we wanted different things. The good ones cared about the kids. The bad ones cared about themselves. When I read stories about teacher protests — like the one about Seattle teachers boycotting standardized tests, I didn’t really get it. As much as I hate to admit it, I assumed they were probably not very good at their jobs, they didn’t want to be held accountable, and were more interested in complaining than in doing the hard work of real, quality teaching.

What a difference a year makes.

I know a lot more now, and even though I mostly kept my “us” versus “them” thoughts to myself all those years, I’d like to go on record now with this:

Sorry. That was a dick move.

I could blame it on the fact that I’ve been out of the classroom for a while: Maybe I don’t really get what it’s like now. But that’s only partially true. Because this goody-two-shoes attitude goes back to when I was in the classroom full-time. I was in the group my principal chose to pilot new strategies. Other teachers resisted it. Not me! I was on the A-team, the first string, and happy to be there. And now I understand: That attitude was unhealthy. It only helped me. It didn’t validate the concerns of my co-workers. It didn’t move all of us toward improvement. Just me.

Yes, there are ineffective teachers in every building, but like our students, we all bring different talents and skills to the table. Most average teachers have the potential to be great; they just need a little more support, more time to collaborate, and more opportunity for growth. And I could have done so much to lift up my colleagues. If I had been more sympathetic toward – no, even simply more interested in – their position, I could have used my good relationship with my principal to give voice to my colleagues’ concerns. I could have advocated for them. We could have grown together.

Instead, I mentally lumped them all into one broad category: crap teachers. And that’s exactly what education reformers are doing. Because quantifying the work of teaching is so complex, because doing so takes time and patience and attention, it’s just easier to assume that any teacher with a complaint is crap. And any teacher whose students aren’t performing on test scores is crap. And if you’re both of these – with low test scores and complaints – you’re crap times two.

Since then, I have started to pay attention. Though it made me uncomfortable at first, I have read Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody and Mercedes Schneider. I have only scratched the surface of the information these people and others like them are working feverishly to gather and disseminate, but I’ve gone deep enough to know that they are on the side of teachers, and they are on the side of students.

And Gates and other reformers, while their intentions may be good, are steering the ship in the wrong direction.

Feet to the Fire? Not So Much

So when I waited to hear Gates speak last Friday, surrounded by my fellow NBCTs at the National Board’s first ever Teaching & Learning Conference in Washington, D.C., I was anxious. The National Board had asked attendees to submit questions ahead of time – George Stephanopoulos was going to interview him using our questions. So I thought things might get ugly.

Well that was just dumb: Gates was one of the sponsors of the conference. Of course it wasn’t going to get ugly. For the first twenty minutes, he just talked to us from the podium. It was basically one long commercial for the Common Core. Then Stephanopoulos came out and the interview began. And there I was, about thirty rows back, mentally rubbing my hands together in anticipation. Now it was going to get meatier. Come on, George, I thought.

Stephanopoulos interviews Gates at T&L 2014. Yes, it’s a bad shot; I was pretty far back.

But no. The questions were benign and non-confrontational, with too much time devoted to topics like “Is technology making it harder for our kids to concentrate on books?” and “What’s your opinion of the flipped classroom concept?” I had submitted questions. Surely others had, too. So where were those? Where was the ugly?

I looked around the room, at my fellow accomplished teachers, and I saw no outrage. I mean, no one was cheering, but there was no cynicism, either. Mostly I just saw phones and cameras pointed toward the stage. Blogger Mary Tedrow, who also attended, described the dynamic perfectly: “The audience was polite…Gates stayed on stage to take questions from George Stephanopoulos. Not much there that I can recall, except my worry that a star-struck audience might get distracted from substantive issues.”

But what did I expect? In my fantasy, I hoped to hear something along these lines: We have made mistakes. We understand now that we need lots and lots of teacher input to make this right, and that’s what we plan to do, starting by answering some of your most important questions today.

So yeah, that didn’t happen. Because no one pushed him to that. Instead, there was this tacit understanding that everyone in the room supported every initiative Gates had launched. In his opening speech, Gates urged us to defend the Common Core to a critical public. And when I hear some of the criticism – especially what’s coming from the far right about socialist propaganda and “ridiculous” approaches to math – I could defend it. I do still think the standards have merit. But honestly, that’s beside the point now. At this stage, defending the Common Core has become synonymous with defending the whole package – merit pay and high-stakes testing and charter schools and Race to the Top. And that package,once you open it up and start really looking at what’s inside, is causing a whole lot of trouble.

The top of this fence is getting uncomfortable.

This puts a Goody-Two-Shoes like me in a tough position. I’m used to following rules, to pleasing those above me. I also don’t like conflict. And my guess is that like me, other NBCTs love the recognition they’ve gotten, and are not comfortable with the prospect of letting that go, with stirring up trouble and losing those gold stars.

But we might be the only ones who can re-steer the ship. Because Gates has his money behind everything, and now it has made its way into the National Board coffers as well. That money can do incredible things – like make it possible for more people to pursue and complete National Board Certification – but if it turns us all into a bunch of grinning yes-men, then is it worth it? 

The tagline for this site is “Teacher nerds, unite.” And this past weekend, that phrase took on new meaning for me. If anyone is a teacher nerd, it’s a National Board Certified Teacher, and Gates wants us on his side. We can sit pretty and cooperate, or we can hop off the fence and get dirty. Step into the fray and learn more about why so many others are so pissed. Tell the National Board to disentangle itself from the Gates Foundation so we can all maintain the credibility we worked so hard to earn. Instead of allowing the reformers to divide us into two teams, we can stop being the star students, stop protecting our own self-interest, and stop being so damn polite.

We are all on the same side. Let’s start acting like it.♦

 

Jennifer Gonzalez

Editor-in-Chief at Cult of Pedagogy
Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.

Latest posts by Jennifer Gonzalez (see all)

Jennifer Gonzalez

Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.

10 Comments

  1. You’re brilliant and courageous! Glad to have you supporting most of your colleagues, even the bottom quartile of which I’m feeling more and more a part.

    I’m so fed up with teaching in the inner city, though. I’m getting slammed by a train wreck of different factors inside and outside the classroom, and it’s absolutely debilitating. Very sad. Never had it worse in all my years.

    On another note, it would be great to see you take on Nat Board Cert as four great teachers on our campus were denied certification. Coincidence? I think not. Very discouraging.

    • Hi B,

      I’m curious to hear more about what’s going on in your district. Although I can pretty easily imagine why it’s difficult, something about the way you phrased it makes it sound like some new things have happened recently to make it especially hard. I’m going to be posting a review tomorrow for a book that may be helpful, but I also hope you come back here and tell me more about what’s going on with you.

      As for the National Board, I’m thinking about what can be done by current NBCTs to influence the relationship between the National Board and Gates. My knowledge of the extent of the problem is still pretty limited, so I’m contacting a few others who might be able to help me put together some kind of proposal or petition. In terms of teachers not passing their certification, what I can tell you is that only 40 percent of first-time candidates get it. Most people have to have a second go at it. I have two good friends who didn’t certify in 2012, then went through the process again and are now proud NBCTs. It takes massive stores of strength to get back on that particular horse again, but I hope your colleagues do. (I did a piece on this a while back: http://www.cultofpedagogy.com/nbct.) Regardless of my criticisms of the National Board’s entanglements with Gates, I still think pursuing Board certification is so rewarding. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t care so much about who they associate with.

      Hope to hear back from you and that you have a good week. JG.

  2. Just want you to know that I was one if those NBCTs at the T&L conference that was listening to Gates & being very cynical. I kept asking lots if questions, out loud. Those around me heard them, but it would have been very out of line for me to stand up in the middle of it and start shouting questions out at him, don’t you think? I think it’s more than teachers being too polite by nature. It just wouldn’t have been socially acceptable. I totally agree with everything you’ve said, and I too, have been a smug teacher. Thank you for pointing it out. I’m on fire to be an advocate right now. How do we get the chance to ask him those questions? Would he listen anyway? Is there a better place to spend the energy? It’s all very frustrating. Maybe I should have yelled a question out at him. What do you think would have happened in that room?

    • I KNOW, RIGHT? I think there would have been a smattering of uncertain applause, then it would have died down because everyone would have been too scared to back you up. For the first 20 minutes or so I was thinking, Seriously? Where is Stephanopoulos? I thought this was an interview!?! Once G.S. finally came out and started asking questions, I quickly realized that the whole thing was going to be carefully orchestrated and nothing controversial at all was going to come up. The more I reflect on the conference, the ickier I feel, because so many components were kind of tainted depending on who was funding them. I felt like I had to keep feeding names through Diane Ravitch’s site (which I’m starting to use as this kind of filter the same way I used to use Snopes!) to make sure they weren’t linked up with any kind of corrupt entity. I really think the majority of people there have very little information about what’s behind a lot of recent changes.

      Anyway, I am so glad to hear from you LisaJo! I have been wondering and waiting if anyone else in that huge crowd felt the same way, so it’s really gratifying to know I wasn’t the only one.

      As for what can be done, I think we need to put pressure on the National Board to alter its relationship with Gates, or exert influence on him, if that’s possible. NEA President Dennis Van Roekel issued a statement last month about Common Core (http://neatoday.org/2014/02/19/nea-president-we-need-a-course-correction-on-common-core/) and I think the National Board should sit down and draft something along those same lines. I am hoping to get some help from people who know all the issues better than I do to pull something together to maybe get signatures and send it to the board. If and when this happens — and I hope it is soon — I’ll post information about it here.

  3. I think most conferences are carefully constructed to quash and channel dissent (er…”concern”) strictly into opportunities for the promotion of the organizer’s narrow, original intent. Our schools are often organized the same way. Some principals hone the craft like a fine art.

    • I think you’re right, although it has taken me a long time to believe it. I tend to be kind of gullible, believing that everyone’s intentions are pure. Once I realize they’re not, it taints everything else they do — I swing all the way in the other direction, assuming everything that comes from them must have some sort of hidden agenda meant to keep us all docile. Which probably also isn’t true.

      So radav637, you’ve had this kind of experience too? Tell me about it. When did the lightbulb go on for you?

  4. RADDAV637 – I am a principal, and in our collective defense – I am an educator – I too could be perceived as having ‘honed’ skills to subdue the naysayers… not true. The truth is, I just don’t want teachers to feel anymore stress than they already do, I want them to feel hopeful that this stuff is possible and the right thing to do. I myself just wanted it to be true, I wanted this to be the road to what is right for kids, what will make public education the champion of the community again. I wanted it to be the road because I wasn’t driving OR navigating this bus! Yep, I drank the Kool-aid and didn’t even know it. Not to mention, I am a self serving a-hole who just built a house and have entirely too much invested in my own education to lose my job.
    Jennifer,
    I just stumbled upon your site and am feverishly taking in all of your awesomeness! This blog post resonated with me so deeply, so I signed up. As an elementary principal, I have been the girl in the cartoon more times than I can count. (insert sweet verifying tone of voice assuring parents it is just fine, assuring a friend that bridesmaid dress doesn’t make her look like a bottle of Pepto Bismol, assuring the cook the chicken is not too dry) “No problems here!” “Sure, I support the standards, they are well written, easy to understand, and really push us to teach kids the skills they need for the 21st century” “No, we are not going to put micro-chips in your child’s head to track data” “No, common core standards do not include lessons about adultery” “yes, we can reform our teaching practice, differentiate instruction, universally design, get kids to critically think, sure with less money, fewer supports, marginalized ancillary staff, AND get kids to pass the test so people think we really are professionals – no problem!” “Sure, education needs reforming. We believe everyone should strive for personal mastery and there is always room to grow for us and your children.”
    But the little voice hiding in the background, from the depths of my gut, is saying, “psst, you don’t really believe that things are good”. Reading your blog made the little voice scream, “SEE, I TOLD YOU WE WERE SCREWED!”.
    There are signs all over pointing to the accuracy of what you are saying. The brightest sign in my building is staff morale. My staff is highly trained, hard working, passionate.. you get the idea. I swear I don’t have one crap teacher! They want nothing more than to do the best they can for kids. And we know CCSS, high-stakes testing, accountability measures, data, data, data, and merit pay are just the things we’ve been needing to get us there, right? We are a small neighborhood school nestled comfortably in the bible belt of mid-America – with mid SES, low diversity, low class sizes, relatively involved parents. If anyone can accomplish school reform, it’s us! …. but it isn’t working, it doesn’t feel right. My teachers are so stressed out on a regular basis and express often they don’t want to do this anymore. When I was in the classroom, not too many moons ago, teachers, for the most part, loved their jobs… They were driven by passion and fed by pride. Something is sucking the lifeblood out of public education and I don’t think it is going to leave us with freak speed, overwhelming strength, or immortality!
    So I am ordering the Ravitch book and putting on my big girl pants! No more self-serving ass hole here! But most of all, thanking you for getting off the fence and inspiring me to do the same.

    • Ahhh, Royal P! I loved loved loved reading this! Thanks so much for this long, delicious comment. Something you mentioned rang a bell with me — it’s the idea that really good teachers are showing low morale. It made me remember a real turning point for me last year when I overheard one of my kids’ teachers — someone I think is absolutely fantastic — saying if she had to go back and do it again, knowing what she knows now, she might not do it. For half a second I thought, Wow, I didn’t realize she was one of the negative ones. But then another thought occurred to me: 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong.

      I think we’re all self-serving assholes to some extent. It’s human nature. It’s just important to recognize when that tendency is going to ultimately sink the whole ship.

      I’m so glad you’re here. I hope you stay for a long time and keep commenting!!!

  5. I’m a computer programmer who as worked as a software developer for forty years. I regard Microsoft as a force that has mired computing in mediocrity due to market dominance. I assume Gates is a competent programmer but he is hardly a luminary in the field. He is a businessman. So he is qualified to speak about technical matters but not especially worth listening to. He is famous for at least one astoundingly inaccurate prediction about computing. Research it.

    It disturbs me deeply to know that a large group of distinguished and specially qualified teaching professionals would even consider giving Gates an audience for pontificating on pedagogy. I call this the viddy-viddy-vum phenomenon, after the song performed by the character of Tevye in the play “Fiddler on the Roof.” Because “When you’re rich they think you really know.”

    Check the web. You might find more criticism of Gates’s philanthropy in other areas, including some breathtaking mea culpas.

    Please, continue to spread the gospel of teacher autonomy, unity and respect for colleagues. Yours is a badly needed awakening for the profession.

    One final thought: In a profession with millions of practitioners, there must be many that are considered mediocre or even ineffective by some measures. I suggest we allow that many of these people are more valuable than we recognize, and maybe we need to adjust our own metrics.

  6. This site is filling with great ideas and stimulating writing. Thanks for that.

    The Common Core battle is a familiar one me, and it’s important to realize the degree to which it was over before it started. People often say that they don’t have anything against the standards themselves, it’s just the baggage (high stakes testing, teacher evaluation based on scores) that bothers them. But once the logic of teaching to standards is accepted, that same logic drives the remainder of the conversation to precisely those results. The problem is precisely the standards-based curriculum, particularly the structure that says that all students must meet the same standards in the same year of schooling.

    It’s an absurd notion that immediately condemns a third of the students to excruciating boredom (the third that could have passed the standard a year ahead-of-time) and a third of the same cohort to hopelessness because they will not meet them no matter what. One can tinker with the proportions by including a standard that is so ludicrously simple that everyone can meet it and boring them all by making them ‘demonstrate their mastery’ (and now they all think that we are idiots for demanding so little of them).

    Every standard is relevant only to those students who have not yet met it but can, with guidance and hard work, meet it within a reasonable amount of time and with reasonable effort. That tiny percentage of the class has just had a great experience. EVERY other student is either bored or discouraged. And so now we see the trend for making RTI (which used to be really bad practice limited to special education) universal by applying it to entire school populations.

    That disastrous dynamic is at the center of far too much schooling right now. But that’s not the worst of it.

    The worst is this: education for the purpose of meeting predetermined results, especially results that are tied to a particular age or grade level, is antithetical to the educational experience that is required to bring up unique, confident, responsible citizens of tomorrow.

    This ‘skills factory model’ is contrary to the advice of every significant educational thinker alive today and would have been considered laughable to any intellectual of the past 200 years. It’s a perversion of education, pure and simple, and it has no advocates outside the modern ‘education reform’ movement. Unfortunately, those are the voices that educators, schools of education, and the professional development industry hear to the exclusion of any others.

    Gee, that went on longer than I had anticipated. Anyways…that’s my two cents. If you accept that grade level standards are a good idea, then the reformers (deformers, I prefer to call them) have already one. And it you fail to sort out for yourself precisely what is wrong with grade level standards, then you will never win an argument against a brilliant (but utterly wrong-headed when it comes to education) fellow like Gates.

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