"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Kindergarten Teacher Stands Up to Bill Gates

An Open Letter to Bill Gates,
By Ruth Rodriguez-Fay

American education has a long history of infatuation with fads and ill-considered ideas. The current obsession with making schools work like a business may be the worst of them, for it threatens to destroy public education. Who will stand up to the tycoons and politicians and tell them so?   
  - Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School  System, How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.

Dear Mr. Gates,

Your Foundation contributions always seem to make for interesting prime time news. The real story about what is actually happening on the ground where your market-driven policies are now the “norm” is relegated to other venues such as academic research, progressive blogs and media outlets.

While it is honorable for anyone with your wealth to do whatever possible to give back to the community, the community that helped you make your wealth, your history of failed experiments with so-called market-driven, data-based education is well documented.

The test and punish, high stakes testing mandates and the calls for teacher accountability as a means towards improving education have clearly failed an entire generation. Despite this failed policy, however, we are facing the same failed policies on steroids with Race to the Top and the new Common Core Standards.

As communities that have witnessed the impact of these policies, we have shown enormous patience, allowing you to explore untested educational practices with our children, even practices that are disproved by respected education experts at our finest institutions of higher learning (CREDO study from Stanford University).

Expert educators, including teachers, as well as students and families, understand that these undemocratic, and unproven practices are extremely harmful to the students that you say you want to help.  Sadly, this seems to have little or no influence on you to stop and consider that perhaps it is time that you respect the educators and listen to the experts.

Perhaps your wealth and influence could be put to better use and have greater results in real solutions to our public schools, if your programs were designed to function like the schools you send your children to, in collaboration with teachers, parents and students.  This could help you understand that public schools are not factories, where children are viewed as commodities; that our children are not to be used as guinea pigs to satisfy the greed in the lottery style profit making schools.  We know that certainly these are not the kind of schools where you would ever consider sending your own children.

So here is a challenge for you, if indeed you are sincere that the reforms you are proposing for our children are the answer.  Why not try these reforms with the schools that educate the children of the rich and politically influential?  Why not take the children in the schools where you, the President and the rich send their children; trade places with the children in the schools of the poor, where your education experiments are being implemented.

Here is an example, in Massachusetts, take students and teachers from a school in Roxbury, move them to, let’s say, Milton Academy.  These students will attend classes with their own teachers, but will enjoy all the educational resources as well as the rich curriculum of a school like Milton Academy.  Then, tell the Milton Academy families that their children will attend a school in Roxbury, where they will be educated with the same tactics that are now used with urban school children.

The school in Roxbury will remain with the same inadequate or absence of resources, as well as little or no support for teachers.  This will be challenging for those teachers that have been accustomed of being treated with respect.  They will face the consequences of working in an atmosphere of distrust and blame, foster by you and other reformers who say that bad teachers and unions are the problem.  Of course these teachers need to understand that many of the schools in Roxbury will have limited resources, no libraries, no music department, no art, no sports, no drama classes, and no hot lunches.  The class curriculum will be limited, definitely no Early Civilization, no AP classes.  There will be no guidance counselors, and only half-time nurses.  What they will have plenty of is high-stakes standardized testing; and understand that their job security depends largely on the student’s test scores.

It is fair to say that these children will be subjected to some of the most extreme forms of abuse by the practices promoted by you and other self-proclaimed education reformers, policies which you claim, are intended as a way to reform our broken public schools.

Now, Milton Academy teachers will enjoy teaching their students in Roxbury, and Roxbury teachers will teach their students at Milton Academy.  So, Mr. Gates after one year, let’s come together and look at the results of this experiment.  Then let us have a serious conversation about the education reforms that you have designed for educating urban children.
 “With so much money and power aligned against the neighborhood public school and against education as a profession, public education itself is placed at risk. The strategies now favored by the most powerful forces in the private and public sectors are unlikely to improve American education. Deregulation contributed to the near collapse of our national economy in 2008 and there is no reason to anticipate that it will make education better for most children. Removing public oversight will leave the education of our children to the whim of entrepreneurs and financiers. Nor is it wise to entrust our schools to inexperienced teachers, principals and superintendents. Education is too important to relinquish to the vagaries of the market and the good intentions of amateurs.”

Diane Ravitch

Ruth Rodriguez Fay is a former Kindergarten teacher and 
School/Family & Community Coordinator in Massachusetts.
She is also a member of the National Steering Committee of 
Save Our Schools March and  past President of Citizens for Public Schools
in Boston.


  1. Anonymous8:55 AM

    Not only are his policies failing in education, they already failed his own company, Microsoft. Many business analysts accredit Gates' appraisal system of his employees as the impetus that led to MS’s low-morale, low-production, low-innovation problem, opening the door for Apple’s takeover in the technology world. If this system failed his own company, why would anyone think we should implement it in schools? See http://lisamyers.org/2013/02/16/following-bill-gates-down-the-microsoft-path-bad-business/ for additional info and sources.

  2. Valerie F. Leonard10:26 PM

    This is a great letter! The only thing I would add is the fact that the Gates Foundation typically requires school districts that receive their funding to close the so-called bottom 25% of schools and prioritize the turning over of the buildings to charter schools that may or may not perform any better than the schools they replace, or have the financial wherewithal to sustain themselves over the long haul. Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston are all part of the Gates district-charter compact, and all 3 cities are engaging in massive closures of public schools while rapidly expanding charter schools. Philadelphia plans to close 27 schools; Boston plans to close 20 schools and Chicago has 129 schools on its school closure list. In Chicago, 1/3 of charters are performing at the lowest levels (Chicago Public Schools) as compared to a national charter failure rate of 15% due to performance (Center for Education Reform). In Chicago, nearly 50% of charter schools have experienced serious cash flow problems, with a significant number being able to make teacher pension payments on time. Truly, this is not the way to bring about stability to a broken system. Massive school closings lead to increased violence; increased dropout and mobility rates; lower wages and loss of jobs. The school closures in Chicago are disproportionately impacting low income African American neighborhoods, the very people the Gates Foundation say they want to help. In Chicago, over 25% of our elementary schools are on a closure list. In my own community, 50% of the elementary schools are on the list of schools targeted for closure.

  3. Anonymous12:53 PM

    I think you should have called this posting ""A former kindergarten teacher stands up to Bill Gates".
    I thought I was going to read actual "front-line" reporting....