Sep 1 2010

‘Race to the Top’ and the Bill Gates Connection

Who gets to speak about what schools need?

Race to the Top (RTTT), announced by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on July 24, 2009, is a $4.4 billion grant program generating more conversation than its relatively small money amount might suggest. What has people talking is its competitive structure that forces cash-strapped states to make radical changes in education in order to stay in the running—changes a National Research Council report (10/7/09) warned were not backed by research. Instead of dispersing grant money on the basis of greatest need, RTTT chooses a few winners based on the degree to which the states deliver what the feds want: more charter schools, so-called merit pay for teachers and new curriculum standards known as the Common Core.

Another key requirement is “using data to improve instruction.” This means basing classroom lessons on data collected from highly criticized standardized tests. So if you’re a third grade teacher and lots of kids in your class missed questions on apostrophes, that’s what you have to teach, whether it’s appropriate to children’s individual needs or not. Teachers with a high immigrant population, for example, might well feel the children need to learn English before they are drilled on apostrophes.

Graphic of children climbing reading Charter schools, Merit Pay and Standardized Testing

The director of this RTTT competition was Joanne Weiss. Now Duncan’s new chief of staff, Weiss is the former COO of NewSchools Venture Fund—which received millions of dollars from the Eli and Edythe Broad and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundations to assist charter management organizations. The Gates Foundation, which has given $650 million to projects that advance educational priorities like charter schools, testing and “teacher effectiveness” in the last two-and-a-half years (Washington Post, 7/12/10), awarded grants to some states to hire specialists to aid in the application process for RTTT round one, which Weiss estimated would take state personnel 681 hours.

“The Gates program and the Arne Duncan program are pretty much the same program,” Nancy C. Detert, chair of the Education Committee in the Florida Senate, told the New York Times (10/28/09). Mike Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, agrees, telling the Puget Sound Business Journal (5/15/09), “It is not unfair to say that the Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education.” The Business Journal noted that as of that date, the Fordham Institute itself had received nearly $3 million in Gates Foundation grants.

Delaware and Tennessee came out on top in round one of RTTT: Delaware got $100 million (about $800 per student), and Tennessee $500 million (about $500 per student). Since these states radically changed their education strategies to receive what amounts to 7 percent of their total expenditures on elementary and secondary education, the feds are getting a lot of bang for the buck. And other states are making radical changes in hopes of looking good for Round 2.

Across the country, progressive educators complained that despite all the conversation about RTTT, there was little serious questioning of this radical federal deformation of what should be local school policy; the “other guys” got all the press. I decided to take a look, which meant reading some 700 articles on the subject of RTTT and the Common Core standards published between mid-May 2009 and mid-July 2010. Wanting to see which “independent experts” reporters called upon to explain these programs, I eliminated cites from state ed officials, union officials and politicos. This left me with 152 outside experts in 414 articles. Of the 23 experts quoted five times or more, 15 have connections with institutions receiving Gates funding and 13 with strong charter advocacy institutions.

One oft-cited “expert” is Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the nonprofit Council of Chief State School Officers. Wilhoit’s group and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, its partner in spearheading the drive for the Common Core standards, received more than $35 million from the Gates Foundation (, 7/30/10). In Bloomberg Businessweek (7/15/10), Daniel Golden revealed the man behind the curtain, pointing out that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “bankrolled the development of the common curriculum standards.” In the Lowell Sun (7/18/10), Matt Murphy provided dollar amounts, provoking Sam Smith of the Progressive Review to offer this headline (7/23/10): “Is the Gates Foundation Involved in Bribery?”

Golden writes, “Today, the Gates Foundation and Education Secretary Duncan move in apparent lockstep” on an agenda Golden calls “an intellectual cousin of the Bush administration’s 2002 No Child Left Behind law.” Gates Foundation personnel are rarely quoted in the press. They don’t need to be: Their money talks for them. Both Golden and Murphy pointed to the tidy sum that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute received from Gates to provide analysis of the Common Core standards.

There are other connections left unspoken: In the 55 citations from Chester Finn, Mike Petrilli and Andy Smarick at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, only five mention that the three served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Of the 152 experts cited in the 414 articles under review, 24 were associated with universities, but you won’t find many professors elucidating pedagogy or teaching strategies here. Instead, we get mostly economists and statisticians. Who knows if it’s deviousness or just sloppiness when the Washington Post (1/2/10) and New York Times Magazine (3/7/10) refer to Eric Hanushek as a “Stanford economist”? Hanushek is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank on Stanford’s campus. Carlo Rotella at least gets the descriptor right in the New Yorker (2/1/10) when he pegs Hanushek as “one of the most outspoken senior academics in the market-forces camp.”

“Market forces” are the unacknowledged elephant in the room of the Obama/Duncan/Gates school reform policy. But it’s up to the reader to figure out what the agenda might be when the press quotes experts associated with groups like New America Foundation, NewSchools Venture Fund, New Leaders for New Schools, Mass Insight and on and on—without a hint about their pro-market agenda.

Reporters usually don’t even identify the Cato Institute as libertarian, never mind reveal the ties of the charter-advocate NewSchools Venture Fund to both the Broad and Gates Foundations and the administration. How many education reporters, citing Fred M. Hess (14 times in my study), director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, could even name a scholar who represents a view from the left, never mind phone one and ask for a soundbite?

If there were some sort of balance in press coverage of RTTT, they would ask Wisconsin professor Richard Brosio to explain the relationship of capital, democracy and schooling. Or call Richard Rothstein, research associate and respected author of numerous books, briefs, studies and reports at the Economic Policy Institute, including the EPI Briefing Paper he wrote with William Peterson, “Let’s Do the Numbers: Department of Education’s ‘Race to the Top’ Program Offers Only a Muddled Path to the Finish Line” (4/20/10). For years, Rothstein has been reminding people that no matter how many fourth graders pass the test, it won’t raise the minimum wage. The education press seem incapable of hearing this message—or sharing it with the public.

I keep thinking about who else is missing. Although I put blogs beyond the purview of this article, this bit from David Berliner’s commentary on Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet blog (Washington, 6/29/10) nicely shows the kind of analysis that seems to scare reporters off:

When poor children go to public schools that serve the poor, and wealthy children go to public schools that serve the wealthy, then the huge gaps in achievement that we see bring us closer to establishing an apartheid public school system. We create through our housing, school attendance and school districting policies a system designed to encourage castes—a system promoting a greater likelihood of a privileged class and an underclass. These are, of course, harbingers of demise for our fragile democracy.

Berliner wasn’t cited once in during the time period studied. So the question remains open: Why would the press shut out an expert, the co-author of the acclaimed Manufactured Crisis and Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools—while calling up Joe Williams and his cohort Charles Barone of the Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee (PAC) tied to hedge fund interests, for 40 citations?

Duncan created a firestorm among bloggers when he told Sam Dillon and Tamar Lewin of the New York Times (5/4/10) that his policies encounter no opposition: “Zero….There’s just an outpouring of support for the common-sense changes and the unprecedented investments we’re making.” This outrageous claim was left to stand unquestioned in the newspaper that still claims “All the news fit to print” on its masthead. No comments were accepted online.

Progressive Texas journalist Molly Ivins once warned (in her George W. Bush biography, Shrub), “People who have read only one book can be quite dangerous.” So it is with reporters who listen only to the same few people on an issue as complex as RTTT. As a longtime teacher, I grieve over the press’s unwillingness to touch on why the current destruction traveling in the name of reform is happening to our public schools, and I fear I might have found the answer in the movie Three Days of the Condor, where Joubert, the contract assassin, sums things up: “I don’t interest myself in ‘why.’ I think more often in terms of ‘when,’ sometimes ‘where’; always ‘how much.’… The fact is what I do is not a bad occupation. Someone is always willing to pay.”

Susan Ohanian, a longtime teacher, is a freelance writer. She is author of Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?.