In Partnership with 74

Commentary: L.A. Times breaks up with Gates Foundation; Here’s why it did Gates wrong

Romy Drucker | June 6, 2016

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Bill-Melinda Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates (Credit: Getty Images)

I’m still trying to make sense of the buckshot attack on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation published by the Los Angeles Times editorial board last week. The Times shoehorned a remarkably honest letter from the foundation about the challenges of education philanthropy into a smear of Gates’ work. But it’s clear the editorial board didn’t bother to talk to any educators, or read the paper’s own previous education coverage, in tearing down one of America’s most important champions of classroom innovation.

If the Times writers would like to talk to someone who’s confronted the challenges of building better schools, I invite them to call me at The 74. I worked at the New York City Department of Education from 2007-2012, and during that time I worked closely with the Gates Foundation and others in the effort to advance breakthrough work and improved resources for students in a school system that had been stagnant for decades. (More about this in a second.)

But as someone who’s been in the trenches alongside school leaders and educators, and as a regular reader of the Times’ education coverage, what struck me about last week’s myopic editorial was how the board omitted two key characters from its critique: The LA Times newsroom, and the editorial board itself. Times editors and editorialists were trailblazers in the push to measure teacher performance and support the Common Core — which the board now singles out as major failures, emblems of “a foundation that had often acted as though it did have all the answers.”

Not long ago, few media outlets advocated as zealously as the Times did for the initiatives they now decry. The paper built its own value-add assessment model for Los Angeles teachers and famously published the results using the teachers names — a practice Bill Gates criticized. The Times also advocated for the Common Core standards from their inception through this school year. When state resistance began to swell two years ago, it responded: “What gets lost amid the political and administrative squabbling is the issue that ought to matter most: whether the Common Core standards are a solid improvement …. And with a few caveats, they are.”

With respect to the upset around test scores in some parts of the country, the Times noted last September that while student results on California’s more difficult state tests would likely be lower, “the more important question, though, is whether the test results will show that students are mastering the standards…

“It’ll be years before it becomes clear whether the new tests and the new curriculum live up to their promise,” the Times stated.

Now the paper alleges that “public backlash” showed Gates’s support of Common Core to be an agenda-defining “stumble.”

To be sure, it allowed that further funding for the standards would be welcome provided they are “implemented well” this time.

That goes to a central weakness in the Times’ analysis. Foundations will support whomever seems best prepared to implement a program or conduct a study that they consider promising. No one can be sure whether the implementation will work as planned.

Part of the reason is that others are working in the same space. The Times fails to mention, in discussing any of the policies Gates is identified with, that the foundation’s grantees were working amid many complicating and sometimes opposing influences.

Faulting Gates for the supposed “failure” of the Common Core without a word about those who actually implemented it, the swiftly changing social and political climate, and the teachers unions’ evolving opposition, is the stuff of a tweet; it trivializes the masthead page of a major newspaper.

Even if it had provided more context around Gates’ funding, the Times would still be guilty of measuring success by what it decides Gates should have achieved and not by what Gates actually managed to do. Thankfully for science and the betterment of human beings, research is not evaluated or funded this way, as others have noted.

Here’s a glimpse of what the foundation has accomplished in the three areas where the Times says it failed:

New York’s small school success story: As the editorial notes, Gates’ support of small high schools did not work nationally. There was one major exception, however. Numerous studies show that the small school movement in New York City has proved to be the only successful at-scale high school improvement strategy in the country. (See the video below for more details on this research.)

A more sophisticated conversation about successful teachers: Funding of teacher evaluation didn’t lead to a single system used universally — the criteria the Times apparently had in mind. To the detriment of students and teachers, as well as to the prestige of teaching as a profession, teaching effectiveness has been one of the most mystified and confounded practice areas in American professional life.

Thanks to recent state and federal government policies and support from Gates and other philanthropies, the policy conversation around what makes teachers succeed has become vastly more sophisticated and pressing. Gate’s funding has also generated a ream of new research for future policy-makers and analysts to build on.

Accepting higher standards: The discussion of standards and testing has also emerged from 50 separate silos. The Every Student Succeeds Act, the nation’s primary education law, devolved accountability, but the states are not the same as they were before Common Core. The need for high standards is no longer a conversational pleasantry at superintendent conferences. However they are named, high standards are the country’s educational future.

The Gates foundation is too big not to have made mistakes. There is a conversation to be had about those and the foundation has started it. There are also important conversations about the role of philanthropy generally in education because we need foundations to take the risks that others can’t or won’t. To their credit, the philanthropies I have worked with are eager to talk about it.

But an honest conversation begins with fairness and facts. Particularly at a newspaper where such facts have been reported time and again, by colleagues just down the hall.

Romy Drucker is the co-founder and CEO of The 74. This article was published in partnership with The 74.

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