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Big business of school reform
Critics blast foundations in setting standards
 
Published Thursday, August 4, 2011 10:34 am
by Sommer Brokaw

Critics of public school “reform” say that it looks too much like a business model with education foundations that have big wallets taking control away from local communities.


Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, along with his wife, Melinda Gates, founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which had an endowment of $33.5 billion as of 2009. The foundation is “driven by the passions and the interests of the Gates family,” with an education goal to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology.


Another notable figure is Los Angeles entrepreneur and philanthropist Eli Broad (rhymes with road). With his wife Edythe, Broad founded The Broad Foundations, which have assets of $2.1 billion with a mission to advance entrepreneurship for the public good in education, science and the arts.


“Priorities of some of these foundations nationally have taken precedence over parents and community members,” said Pam Grundy, co-founder of Mecklenburg Acts, the local affiliate of Parents Across America. “They’re trying to do a lot of things that have never been proven to work. We feel like our kids are like an experiment.”

Grundy added: “It’s not just a business approach, the way they’re trying to standardize things it’s more like an old-fashioned business approach where they want to get everybody to do it the same. They think everybody can answer these mechanized questions the same. It’s not even a 21st century business model.  They’re going back to a factory model and that doesn’t make any sense to me.”

She joined an estimated crowd of several thousands at the  “Save Our Schools” national march on July 30 in Washington, D.C., to demand that public policy decisions for public schools be placed back in the hands of the public.

Anthony Cody, an educator in Oakland, Calif., was one of the leaders of the march.

“Our overall goal is to give a different vision for education reform in our country,” he said.  “For the last 10 years, we have been laboring under the false idea that rewarding teachers in schools for test scores and punishing them is a way to improve student learning. However, resources and our own experience have shown this has not resulted in any real gain in student learning. In fact, it has greatly narrowed the curriculum in a lot of our schools, especially in our high-poverty schools. That’s what we are against. What we are for is a vision for education reform that puts teachers and students at the center of improving our schools rather than tests.”

Grundy said that an alternative way to hold school’s accountable for academic performance would be to just look at grades. “There’s a reason that high school grades are a better predictor of how you’ll do in college than SATs,” she said.

She added that one of the best speakers at the march was actor Matt Damon, who had a really thoughtful speech about how the school he went to affected him and how it’s the kind of school we don’t have nearly enough of anymore.

“My teachers were empowered to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep - this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning,” a transcript of Damon’s speech reads.

“No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.”

The SOS statement read: “As concerned citizens, we demand an end to the destructive policies and rhetoric that have eroded confidence in our public schools, demoralized teachers, and reduced the education of too many of our children to nothing more than test preparation.”

Local school officials didn’t comment by deadline. But media reports show that The Broad Foundation has given $3.3 million to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in recent years mostly to help the district crunch data and test kids. Similarly in 2008, CMS received a $1.4 million investment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to train teachers and administrators to use test scores and grades to develop effective approaches to ensure each child graduates on time prepared for college, work, and life.

School board member Richard McElrath said that he is not in favor of either of these foundations driving public school policy. 

“I’m not in favor of The Broad as a liaison. I’m not in favor of what I understand they do,” he said. “I disagree with what Mr. Gates does and his approach. It’s a businesslike approach to education, and I’m not sure when you’re dealing with children you need to use a business model.”

Representatives of the education foundations could not be reached for comment.

But CMS school board Chair Eric Davis said that he appreciates the money that these foundations have given to the school district especially in these tough economic times, and that a business approach isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“An emphasis on performance, an emphasis on academic achievement of students, structure and efficiency those are tenets I think are incredibly effective tools to improve public education,” he said.


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