Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/19/2010

How billionaire donors harm public education

By Valerie Strauss

Today the foundation set up by billionaires Eli and Edythe Broad is giving away $2 million to urban school districts that have pursued education reform that they like. On Friday a Florida teacher is running 50 miles to raise money so that he and his fellow teachers don’t have to spend their own money to buy paper and pencils, binders (1- and 2-inch), spiral notebooks, composition books and printer ink.

Together the two events show the perverted way schools are funded in 2010.

Very wealthy people are donating big private money to their own pet projects: charter schools, charter school management companies, teacher assessment systems. (The latest example is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to the Newark public schools, given with the provision that Zuckerberg, apparently an education reform expert, play a big role in determining success.)

What this means is that these philanthropists -- and not local communities -- are determining the course of the country's school reform efforts and which education research projects get funded. As Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent James A. Williams said in an interview: "They should come out and tell the truth. If they want to privatize public education, they should say so.”

That none of their projects is grounded in any research seems not to be a hindrance to these big donors. And they never try to explain why it is acceptable for them to donate to other causes -- the arts, medicine, etc. -- without telling doctors and artists what to do with the money. Only educators do they tell what to do.

Alongside this private money stream is the great inequity in the public funding of traditional schools. A new report that shows that only six states are positioned relatively well to provide equality of educational opportunity for all children.

Many traditional public schools are so starved for funds that teachers spend some of their own money for supplies; the National Education Association estimates that teachers spend $1,000 out-of-pocket annually on essential classroom supplies. To bring attention to this ugliness, Rafael Martin, a high school math and history teacher for students with disabilities, will run 50 miles on Friday from Lakeland to Orlando, Fla., to raise funds for school supplies for Tenoroc High School, where most of the children live in poverty.

He'll likely earn some thousands of dollars.

The $2 million being given to the 2010 Broad Prize winner is a mere drop in the bucket in the ocean of cash being given away by the super-rich to education.

Coincidentally, it is the same amount of money that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave away earlier this year to a company simply to market the education film “Waiting for Superman,” which portrays a distorted idea of the root causes of the problems facing urban school districts as well as the solutions. [Disclosure: Melinda French Gates is a member of the Board of Directors of The Washington Post Co.]

There are a lot of foundations out there handing out money for education initiatives -- some you’ve probably heard of, like the Walton Foundation, and some you haven’t -- but Gates is the big money man when it comes to funding education, with his tally into the billions.

A look at one of his education investments is revealing. About a decade ago, Gates decided that small schools were the answer to the high school dropout problem. From 2000-2009 he poured in about $2 billion to help reform high schools and improve graduation rates of minority students -- with most of the money going to create small schools out of large drop-out factories. But when standardized test scores didn’t go up, Gates pulled out his money.

He wrote last year in the foundation’s annual letter (excerpts of which were published in The Washington Post ): “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.”

He was wrong to believe that small schools were a silver bullet, and, actually, he was wrong to say that the initiative was a total failure, as Tom Toch notes in this piece ).

(It is worth noting, too, as Richard Rothstein did here, that the Carnegie Corporation had spent big bucks four decades earlier to try to get school districts to turn small high schools into big ones. Are you detecting a pattern?)

Now Gates is investing hundreds of millions in efforts to create teacher assessment systems that are based on student standardized test scores. He’s wasting money again; several research studies have been released recently show that the results of such schemes are unreliable and unfair, and the scheme, tried periodically over decades, has never been shown to be especially effective.

Surely these philanthropists think they are helping. But they don't understand education and have been somehow led to believe that "the answer" is specific and around the corner: a longer school day; a longer school year; charter schools; technology; standardized tests in every subject; assessing teachers by standardized test scores; for-profit education; training new college graduates for five or six weeks as teachers and then sending them into the toughest schools in America.

The fact is that there is no strong research to show that any of those elements will do much to help education by themselves, and even together, and some will hurt. Take charter schools, the pet project of many of Wall Street’s wealthy hedge fund founders, who have ignored the largest research study on charters that shows most of them are no better or worse than traditional public schools.

The strong link, born out by research over years, between educational attainment and poverty is ignored by these donors. These financial wizards believe that the public education, the nation’s proudest civic institution, should be run like a business.

As education historian Diane Ravitch wrote in her best-sellerThe Death and Life of the Great American School System,” going to school isn’t like going shopping.

Parents shouldn’t have to find a school acceptable for their children. Their neighborhood public school should be staffed with effective teachers and funded properly so that their kids can have an opportunity to get a fine education.

No one can begrudge five urban schools districts from sharing $2 million in prize money. So we'll congratulate the 2010 Broad Prize winner and runners-up. [P.S.: Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Schools won the $1 million award, and four other districts each received $250,000, it was announced today.]

But let’s not imagine for a minute that the millionaires and billionaires giving out all this money are doing anything other than making it harder to fix the public schools that America needs.


Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | October 19, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Equity, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  bill gates, broad prize, charter schools, eli broad, facebook, mark zuckerberg, newark schools, school reform  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Top 10 teen books chosen -- by teens
Next: Reduce standardized testing to improve accountability, school quality


So are you insinuating there is nothing to be learned from the Gates small school experiment? Or that we can't look at the charters that are doing something different (and well) and learn something about the educational process? These schools of thought may not provide us with a magic bullet, but they certainly can provide us with new ideas to solve old problems. And the more people we have thinking about the problem the better off we'll be... think wikipedia.

Posted by: mmccabe4724 | October 19, 2010 6:35 AM | Report abuse

Graduation rates will not improve by making teachers the enemy or by imposing more testing, faulty teacher evaluation systems, for-profit charter schools, on-line K-12, electronic worksheets, or scripted one-size-fits all curriculum kits with matching tests.

If the billionaire reformers want to improve the economy and increase graduation rates, then funnel funds toward solutions that will reduce poverty, homelessness, absenteeism, teen mental health, teen pregnancy, and teen substance abuse.

If the billionaire reformers want to privatize education based on flawed test scores, then they will continue on their current path and cause irreparable harm.

Posted by: nfsbrrpkk | October 19, 2010 7:17 AM | Report abuse

I disagree fundamentally with you, Ms. Strauss, and Ms. Ravitch about school choice. Just as there's no such thing as a perpetual motion machine, there will always be schools that aren't quality. We can never guarantee that all schools have great teachers and are 'properly funded.' Since parents only get 'one shot' to rear their children, they deserve a choice if they're in a neighborhood plagued by a poor school.
As for billionaire funding, schools and school districts approach this incorrectly. Instead of changing what we do to get the money, we should CONVINCE these donors of what's the best thing to do and accept money from those who agree with our approach. Instead of Gates saying "if you do this I'll give you money," WE should be telling HIM, "This is what works; will you support it?" Educators do not market their practices and approaches well, which has helped create this dilemma.

One inescapable fact from 'Superman' is the scarcity of quality public schools in our urban cores, at the secondary level specifically. Generations of evidence says the conventional way of doing things hasn't worked for our neediest children. If people oppose the current choice movements then create a competing solution. 'Evidence' and 'researched based' approaches don't seem reasonable since we've gone so long with such poor schools. There was no 'evidence' before the Apollo program (although strong science); Jobs & Wonziak had no 'research' to support them before founding Apple. Even Gates admits failure in his school philanthropy, but at least he's trying something. Geoffrey Canada is trying something, and there's no 'research' to support that what he's doing will work. KIPP is trying something, and building 10+ years of evidence as to what does or does not work.

Like my high school football coaches used to say, even if you forget the play go out and BLOCK SOMEBODY. If you have an education idea, DO SOMETHING.

Posted by: pdexiii | October 19, 2010 7:23 AM | Report abuse

Wikipedia is rife with problems that are caused by the very fact that so many people are contributing to the site and not all are scrupulous in their fact checking.

You miss the point of this article which is that poverty is the problem. Anyone who works in an inner city school, with low income families, can tell you how much poverty affects a child's education. Poverty is not "impersonal", as Michelle Rhee would have you believe. It is very personal and hard to ignore when you have a student in front of you whose only meals are the free breakfast and lunch given at school (I have had such students so I know whereof I speak). An awful lot of effort is being made to avoid the one thing that these millionaires could do something about - poverty. But very few, rich or otherwise, really want to work on that because they know that there is no quick fix. They accept it as a given in our society. The United States is 3rd on the list of industrialized countries with the highest income gap between the richest and the poorest - 16 to 1. Third behind Mexico (25 to 1) and Turkey (17 to 1). These facts are from Given our wealth a great deal more should be done for the poor but mention this and the rich start screaming about being taxed and the tea party pulls out their teabags and everyone goes back to quick fixes that do nothing for very real problems.

Posted by: adcteacher1 | October 19, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

Gates, Broad, Walton, Zuckerberg, etc., should not be portrayed as metaphors for Beelzebub. Their projects/grants should not be demonized but celebrated as legitimate efforts to improve a public, monopolized entity in great need of help.

Smaller schools are congruent with smaller class size, emphasized over and over, especially by teacher unions, as a guaranteed policy for improved school results. Come on Valerie. Your criticism of this Gates' theory is over the top partisanship. EVERYONE applauded and presumed Gates' efforts with smaller schools would improve the school performance of students, especially inner city kids.

Ravitch's label of the "Billionaires' Boys Club" is yet another anemic attempt by the ultra defensive educational establishment at protecting an indefensible bureaucracy that has been failing millions of poor/minority children for generations.

Yes, these folks have an out of proportion effect on what gets tried in the education reform world simply due to their obscene wealth. They also all have "boards of directors" that weigh their proposals for legitimacy and are simply not pell mell efforts haphazardly thrown out just to try any alternative to the status quo.

Posted by: phoss1 | October 19, 2010 7:40 AM | Report abuse

If the Newark School District does not like how the money is to be spent, then don't accept it and move on. If there are "strings" attached that are counter-productive to the districts education agenda, work with these philanthropists to overcome the terms and conditions.

In my local school district, classroom supplies is a line item in the budget. If you go over it, you are SOL. The average per pupil spending in my district is $14,000. Isn't that enough?

I'm sick and tired about hearing about poverty. If you don't have enough money, I say, end the War on Poverty. After 40+ years, it did not work. It's worse than ever. It's abused more than ever. Shift that money to education. Go open your dental and medical clinic in the schools. Provide before and after school care.

Common, Ms. Strauss. What is wrong with running a school district like a business?

Superintendents have a title of Doctor before their first name and initials after their last name.

We need better school boards. Isn't a school board the equivalent of a board of director for a corporation? Isn't the superintendent the equivalent to a CEO?

We need choice. Period. Allow parents to make decisions for what is in the best interest for their child. It never ceases to amaze me how we let this tragedy continue year after year after year.

My kids attend catholic schools. We, the parents, buy tissues and paper towels for the schools. We, the parents, supply the pens, pencils, glue sticks, erasers and notebooks for our students to use in the classroom. As you well know, they get an education.

Posted by: morewoodroad | October 19, 2010 8:16 AM | Report abuse

It might be a good idea to have reformers who are going to donate money to schools who are "waiting for Superman" to try and teach in those schools for a couple of months. Not as a punishment, but to see how complex it is and to get to know the students.

A lot of credit is given to people who have "observed many classrooms" and spoken to "many students and teachers". That is better than nothing, but if you actually do the work that you are suggesting others do, you should try it. 2-3 years would be better, but 2 months might be a good start.

I am not suggesting that this would be a permanent fix to educational problems, just that it would give the reformers an idea about how complex the situation is and an idea of why they are having trouble attracting people to the field and keeping them.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 19, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

It's not clear that Ms. Strauss actually read the press release from the Broad Foundation. It's not true that a school district will be getting a $2 million prize. There are five school districts that were named finalists. Each is guaranteed at least $250,000 from the foundation and one winner of $1 million will be announced today.

In addition, the prize money is coming in the form of college scholarships for graduating seniors. It's not being funneled to a shadowy interventionist program to start charter schools, or pay for test-tracking software, or fund a daily dose of gingko biloba for each child. It's all at the back end, to reward the products of these school systems.

And what are they rewarding? According to the press release, they are looking for school systems that outperform--and especially those that narrow the achievement gap.

The horror!

Posted by: gardyloo | October 19, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

I think recent economic events might tell us why we wouldn't want superintendents to be CEO's, unless taking taxpayer money and using it for personal gain is ethical all of sudden.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 19, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

pdexiii - we now have research on some of these "non-status-quo," let's-do-"SOMEHING" experiments and it shows that they don't work.

Charters schools, on the whole, are no better than regular public schools. Teach-for America teachers are no better than other beginning teachers, merit pay doesn't work (and teachers don't want it) paying kids for grades doesn't work, NCLB doesn't work.

Still, we know have a government policy, Race to the Top, that requires using these failed techniques in order to qualify for grant money.


There's also a movement afoot to discourage advanced education among teachers, because it isn't directly related to lifting student achievement.

Imagine teachers counseling their students to avoid a career in education if they value being highly educated.

Posted by: efavorite | October 19, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Sure, the donors make some mistakes, and they admit it, e.g., Gates re small schools.

Nonetheless, the donors' track record is a zillion times better than the fuzzy brained or earnest academics who by their intellectual laziness and knee-jerk stance against change condemn generations of kids to bad educations.

Rejecting the donors is all part of the victimhood mindset that many teachers and some parents find comfortable.

Posted by: axolotl | October 19, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

I don't think the donors should be rejected. It is kind of them to donate. But, they should test their ideas and not jump to conclusions. There are a couple of ideas in the Manifesto that are strange. and kind of stupid to put it bluntly. But, I don't think that is the same as the Broad Corporation, is it?

I am glad that people are beginning to look at absentiism and drop out rates again. That got lost in the last 10 years with NCLB and I am afraid many students were lost because of it.

The point about listening to teachers is in order to not waste time or money when there are urgent problems in some schools. We need to help students, not harm them with fads.

I think the donation thing would be excellent, but we shouldn't have wealthy corporations defining national educational policy, especially not without some sort of system of checks and balances.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 19, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Education has to be the only profession where people think that because they went to school, they know how to teach. Playing football doesn't make you a coach, seeing doctors doesn't make you a doctor, and living in a house doesn't make you an architect.

Input and suggestions are fine, but to actually try to control complex areas of society with money - like Education - just because you can, is the worst kind of hubris.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 19, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Its ironic how false statements and misleading bantering consume Ms. Strauss' articles considering she believes she has all the answers to education...

Posted by: juliannagler | October 19, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

@adcteacher- Wikipedia is just as reliable as any other encyclopedia. And open source documents will be the wave of the future. But nonetheless- by metaphor may not be the greatest parallel.

However, get as many people contributing to solve a problem and find that the best ideas will rise to the top. If small schools don't work- they will not be replicated. If we find that the Harlem shchool's holistic community based school approach is more successful- it will be replicated by others.

To suggest that people with money will make education worse is on odd idea to me. Communities do not have to apply for grants offered by these organizations. Communities do not have to accept money from the Gates foundation if they don't want to implement their ideas.

Further, the fact that poverty exists, and contributes to school performance, does not mean we should forgo finding solutions to the issues associated with what occurs inside of a school.

I'd like to steer interested readers to a school in Montgomery County- Broad Acres Elementary- that through cooperation between adminstrative and union officials- turned around a "failing" school. A school with a 90% Farms rate began passing (evil) state tests.

I don't know all the details about this school- but in the very least there is some anecdotal evidence that the school- by allowing teachers who have the motivation to work more hours and with greater autonomy- can have a large impact on their students.

Again- not a fix all- but innovative and perhaps suggestive of how education reform needs to proceed.

Posted by: mmccabe4724 | October 19, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Comments such as morewoodroad's, who sends his/her children to Catholic schools, and gladly provides the schools with a wide range of supplies, reveal just how disconnected some people are from grasping the daily experience of America's underclass. One of my first peeks into this world happened when I made a phone call to a student's home but the perfectly-nice person on the other end couldn't jot down a note because there wasn't a single writing implement around. Along these lines, a new teacher shared her epiphany of beginning to understand the extent of the deprivation when she learned that her students couldn't do a simple project, because it required scotch tape and their parents didn't have enough money to keep a roll stocked in their home.

Middle class assumptions are an ignorant and dangerous thing. However annoying and unpleasant it is to hear about poverty, this country has a great deal of it (especially for a wealthy country), and it affects children enormously. More people would realize that if we all weren't so socioeconomically segregated from each other. It's one of our cancers that grows within; that we tolerate so much reveals our internal levels of meanspiritedness and hatred for each other.

If our child poverty rate was that of Finland's (4.3% instead of 22.4%), the amount of student well-being would be entirely different -- and vice versa, if Finland's child poverty was that of ours.

FYI, the operation of the highly-admired Finnish educational system has nothing whatsoever to do with the business principals being promoted by the billionaire CEOs.

The billionaires are using their wealth to usher in privatization by manipulating education policy. If they had wanted to produce more widespread benefits for society, they would have spent their money on expanding the number of places that would give poor children and adults access to high quality books and information.

Posted by: pondoora | October 19, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Bill Gates likes to call the American high school obsolete. He’s half right. Our schools are obsolete because the system that has enriched him beyond all reason is doomed. His obscene wealth is a symptom of a deadly economic malady. His world is unsustainable. It is not viable. It has begun to breakdown and will, in relatively short order, collapse.

Posted by: natturner | October 19, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Although wealthy people have the right to support any cause they choose, they-- and the federal government and the media--should not be making comparisons between the privileged charter schools they support and the under-funded, over-regulated public schools.

I won't bother detailing why most charter schools are privileged, since so many others have already done that on this site and elsewhere. But I would like to recount what I see in the public elementary schools I visit as an educational researcher: no librarians; no physical education, art, or music classes; class sizes from 28-35, with English language learners, educationally disabled students, and misbehavers included for most of the school day.

But worse than those limitations are the mandates placed on teachers that prevent them from doing the best teaching they are capable of. Too many of the teachers I visit tell me confidentially that what I see is not their best teaching; it is what and how they have been told they must teach by school district administrators and/or their principals. If these well-educated and battle-scarred professionals had the freedom to innovate that most of the charter school novices do, they could, I believe, blow them out of the water on student test scores and everything else that matters.

Posted by: joney | October 19, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Rich people make billions, and less rich people like Ms. Strauss condemn them.

Rich people make billions AND give them away, less rich people like Ms. Strauss STILL condemn them.

We should be promoting philanthropy in America, not denigrating it.

Posted by: RL68 | October 19, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

YOu left out the worst influence on our schools -- they do it by federal mandate -- the UNITED NAIONS/UNESCO.

Those criminals should be outlawed.

(Yes I'm talking about IB)

Posted by: username | October 19, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Typo: That should of course have been United Nations.

They are far outside the sphere of local control which is the way education should be run.

Now they don't listen and when we complain, flick us off.

We teachers have no say in the matter, give marxist books to use in teaching... shameful. I refuse.

Posted by: username | October 19, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Just for fun, let's look at a recent post from "axolotl":"Nonetheless, the donors' track record is a zillion times better than the fuzzy brained or earnest academics who by their intellectual laziness and knee-jerk stance against change condemn generations of kids to bad educations."

The very "academics" who "axolotl" condemns here are the same ones who put forth the changes that we have seen in education in the last 20 years. In fact, "zillionaires" who support schools with their donations generally get their ideas from academics.

For instance, the testing and accountability craze came mostly from colleges and universities that were bemoaning the remedial courses that they had to create for their students. Yes, businesses complained as well, but many of them came later to the debate riding the coattails of the academics from colleges and universities.

Another example has to do with charter schools. Ray Budde, an educational professor at UM, developed the core ideas behind the charter school movement. Hmmm, he was an academic?

Still another idea has to do with teacher accountability. There are many different forms of it, but the modern version of using "value-added modeling" for teacher accountability came from--you guessed it--more academics.

What this post really means to say is that "I agree with some academics who follow my ideology. And I disagree with other academics who don't." Well, guess what, "axolotl"? When I word it this way, I can see through the hyperbole and name-calling. And I guess I have to agree you.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 19, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse

I so agree with an earlier posting:
If the billionaire reformers want to improve the economy and increase graduation rates, then funnel funds toward solutions that will reduce poverty, homelessness, absenteeism, teen mental health, teen pregnancy, and teen substance abuse.

If the billionaire reformers want to privatize education based on flawed test scores, then they will continue on their current path and cause irreparable harm.
Posted by: nfsbrrpkk | October 19, 2010 7:17 AM |

Posted by: teachermd | October 19, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

Jobs and Wozniak knew what they were doing. Wozniak was a very good self taught enginer. And Jobs was a hard working businessman. They knew exactly what they doing, and where they planned to go. That kind of thing is possible with you are dealing with computers rather than people. People are much more complicated. I say this because I come from a computer background.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 19, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

When Jobs and Wozniak got together, they knew computers could be made by off the shelf parts. So that's they did, build computers off of off the shelf parts. They didn't need to do any research because they weren't building the parts themselves. Wozniak knew how to put the parts together to build the computers. And Jobs knew how to get out and sell them.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 19, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

"But I would like to recount what I see in the public elementary schools I visit as an educational researcher: no librarians; no physical education, art, or music classes; class sizes from 28-35, with English language learners, educationally disabled students, and misbehavers included for most of the school day."

Sounds exactly like CPS.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 19, 2010 9:55 PM | Report abuse

So I've read throught this article 3 times now.... and I don't see where alternate solutions are proposed... If the education community has the answers... why are we where we are?? The reality is, it's a complex issue and noone has demonstrated scalable success... so stop writing about what's wrong with other solutions and write more about what we should be doing.....

Posted by: ooopsnews | October 20, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

You are right on. I attended several Gates, Buffet and dagget presentations trying to scare teachers into accepting the silly ideas presented by these billionaires. They may know business, but they don't know squat about educating children who have no prospects and no hope for the future. Self-made men often forget that a school helped them, rather they feel they did it all on their own. At one of the meetings I attended, I spoke up about these programs promoting certain reforms that happened to bring future business to the promoters. I was removed from the meeting. Those being paid to spread the lies were unhappy with the truth. Hey, rich people, put your money into social reform by feeding the hungry. Leave the school system alone!

Posted by: Smithsonian1 | October 20, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

This is the lamest "we need to solve all the kids problems before they get to school" article I have seen in a long time. It sights the extremely flawed CREDO study that used "virtual public school students" compared to real charter school students.(This introduces significant negative bias towards the charter school student standardized test performance). The crazy thing about using the CREDO study is that while all these education establishment apologists malign standardized test scores as a measure of achievement, that is what the CREDO study bases its analysis on.
Notice she offers zero new ideas on how we can improve public schools. Just the same old "poor kids can't learn" argument. Schools like Success Charter Network, KIPP, Public Prep, Green Dot and many other smaller charter school organizations have already blown this assertion out of the water. Shame on the apologists for essentially arguing that poor kids just can't be educated.

Posted by: kstrong2 | October 20, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Not everyone will agree with all that Ms. Strauss says. I don't. But, two important facts stand out.

1. Simple poverty causes many education problems due to a variety of reasons, including school underfunding, unavailable parents for helping children, and unsafe neighborhoods.

2. The very rich are arrogant and believe that they can use the same logic that made them wealthy to solve education problems and, further, that their money provides the means.

Ms. Strauss listed a number of "failed" ideas for "fixing" education. These ideas come in cycles. One era is about relevancy, the next about "back to basics," and then it cycles. One era is about small schools, then about large ones, and it cycles.

Stop the merry-go-round. I want to get off.

Our federal government has been trying to fix science education, to select my specialty, for 30 years and has spent billions of dollars on it while our national standing in science education has continued to drop. There's something about big foundations and big government that likes to tweak rather than to fix, that doesn't know history and so must repeat it.

Everyone has said that Bill Gates is so smart. Well, we see that it just isn't so. Giving money to education may make him feel good just as medical grants do, but they aren't being used well.

Here are three things that Gates and Broad can do.

1. Focus on the politics of income distribution. Their rich friends may despise them for it, but changing our political system so that it does not serve the interests of the wealthy who don't care a fig for the gap between them and the poor will fix many of our ills without tinkering with the education system.

2. Spend money convincing people to pay doctor/lawyer wages to teachers. We should be able to select our teachers from the top 15% of our college graduates. Few of those apply because of low pay and prestige.

3. Support education entrepreneurship. The Broad Foundation has taken a run at it but is doing it all wrong.

I'm an example. I created a new technology for learning science that improved the NY state Regents science pass rate by 32% in one very poor school in NYC. I've never been able to raise a dime from the government, a foundation, or investors.

What's wrong with the picture?

Posted by: harry4 | October 20, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

I am not sure where to begin, to comment about the author's numerous factual errors about grants programs or the complete miss in terms of the role of philanthropy. Given the fact others have corrected the author regarding the grants referenced, I will touch on philanthropy's role.

K-12 has less than 2% of its budget to spend on innovation, NEW programs. Foundations mission is centered on supporting innovation otherwise known as informed, well-planned trial, error and adjustments. Yes, schools need to experiment and our kids are part of that process. All of which made necessary by the fact that the current system is not gambling, but a sure bet to lose.

In terms of a research base, we have 40 years of studies that tell us three important things about the existing structure of K-12 education: 1. The current structure does not offer quality to students attending urban schools (40% failure rates); 2. Teacher accountability is non-existent; and 3. Public systems do not innovate without competition.

Cue philanthropy where there are professional staffs, many of whom come from the field. They have completed research, and are hired to know talent and a good idea when they see it. In addition, they are willing to take the necessary calculated risks with venture funding designated for this very purpose. It is hardly reckless when foundations provide funding for projects guided by proposals coming from grantees themselves. I will end by saying that it is rare nowadays to find any school leader who would accept a grant for something they have not been working toward for much of their career. Comments in this article certainly suggest that these school leaders are sheep and just in it for the ride. Given reporting requirements, I can assure you that this not the case.

Posted by: gbalbier | October 20, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Dear Melinda Gates:

Since you are on the Board of Directors for this newspaper, perhaps you are reading these comments. First of all, thanks to you and Mr. Gates for your incredible generosity to our schools, especially in regard to our poorest students. As a retired teacher who taught 42 years in mainly low-performing schools, I'd like to share my ideas about what will help our children:

Infant and toddler education. Many children come to kindergarten already significantly behind in terms of cognitive development and language. Research tells us that many never catch up. It would be huge if we could reach the poorest children by providing services from birth.

Health care for all children, starting with prenatal care. A disproportionate number of children in low-income schools have severe learning disabilities due to conditions before and after birth. Also, many poor children miss a lot of school because of asthma and other conditions that affect learning and school attendance. Health clinics in schools, visiting nurses and care for all pregnant women would prevent many birth defects and early childhood illnesses.

Highly-qualified teachers for our poorest schools. When I was hired by an "inner city" district in 1964, I was not qualified, but that didn't matter as anyone "with a warm body" could teach in urban schools. Sadly this is still the case to this day. Please do what you can to stop this shameful practice.

An improved teacher corps. We all want the best teachers for our children. However, common sense should tell us that well-educated people are not going to accept positions where their lessons plans are checked on a weekly basis or where they are obliged to follow a script. Please help to strengthen the profession by helping teachers to run schools themselves and by establishing a career ladder for them. Once teachers are involved in deciding who enters and stays in the profession, we'll begin to see the quality and prestige that is presently enjoyed by college teachers. Teachers know who is "ineffective" and will not give "effective" ratings as administrators have done for so many years.

Resources. Most teachers in low-income schools have to buy basic materials for their classrooms. Each teacher should be provided with at least $1000 per year for books and other materials.

Choices for parents. I do believe all parents should have choices for their children. I favor public school vouchers, charters run by teachers (with strict oversight of the money) and scholarships to private schools paid for by individuals or corporations.

Small classes. The poorest children should be in classes of no more than 15 students. In addition to this, the teacher should be provided with a teacher assistant to help with children with learning or behavior problems.

Visit the schools, Mrs. Gates and contrast them with the schools attended by the affluent in public or private schools. You will see for yourself what is needed.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | October 20, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

If I could suggest something as succinctly as possible, it would be this:

In your efforts to reform schools, please include the men and women who have devoted their lives to the education of the nation's children. The answers lie with them.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | October 20, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Well, this is all typical, anti-competitive public school-supporting rhetoric. Like the NEA, the solution offered here to all educational problems is to throw money at them. And don't let "anybody" dictate where it goes. Control the money, control the system-of education or anything else. This is your basic Washington technocrat saying "nobody but 'us' gets to decide where the money goes." Tell me this, has all the cash sunk into public ed. ANYWHERE made any real difference in its overall performance? Nope. So, a few philanthropists have some strange ideas-like "It's time for a change." Heard that one anywhwere? Stop crying these guys only hurt schools. When your schools score dead last against every other industrialized nation on earth, for decades running, on High School math and science, ANY effort to reform that system should be welcomed, instead of argued against as if those who offer to help are some kind of sinner for so-doing. The system itself is flawed, so we should embrace efforts to reform it that come from outside that system. As Hirsch put it years ago at a NJ professional development conference "Put a good person in a bad system and the system wins everytime." These philanthropists are just trying to get around a failed system!

Posted by: anthonyhusemann | October 20, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse

This articles reminds me of where we were as a society 100 or so years ago when the uber rich each had their favorite segregated 'black' school in the south as a pet project. This approach to education helped to legitimize the separate but equal doctrine and ensure that as a whole black students would not receive the type of education that their white counterparts received- not remotely not until integration and then not for long as we have seen recently by the re segregation of our schools . It also served to placate white social fears and a smug sense of supremacy as philanthropists would have for show 'a few who made it' due to their 'hard work' and the largess of the finances-but the rest well... Its really OK don't be concerned with the 'others" Philanthropists could pat themselves on the back and society could continue on as it always has with the rich getting richer and the poor.. well you know the rest of the story.

Posted by: rastajan | October 25, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

It's unfortunate that the Florida teacher, Mr. Martin, who selected to run 50 miles across the state to raise funds for school supplies has been lumped into this story about billionaires donating private money for their "pet projects."

Mr. Martin showcased an extreme of what a teacher is willing to do to ensure his/her students secure much-needed school supplies to succeed in the classroom. It highlights just how dire it is for everyone to get involved and support our teachers and their classrooms.

Education Week covered this story in a relevant manner at

Posted by: MsWink | October 26, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

We respect that not everyone holds the same viewpoints regarding education reform. However, we want to correct several inaccuracies in your Oct. 19 posting above.

While the $2 million Broad Prize is funded by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the finalists are selected by an independent review board of leading education practitioners (, and the winner is selected by a bipartisan jury of national leaders from government, education, business and public service, including three former U.S. secretaries of education ( Neither The Broad Foundation nor our data partners, MPR Associates or RMC Research Corporation, play any role in voting for the finalists or the winner.

The Broad Foundation exists for the sole purpose of dramatically improving public schools in America. We believe public schools must remain public and must regain the strength they’ve lost in recent decades if our students are to succeed in life and our democracy and our economy are to regain position in the world.

The Broad Prize process, like our grant-making, is deeply grounded in research and student outcome data. We are happy to walk you through our reserve of evaluation data on the nation’s largest school districts. In fact, we believe that for philanthropy to be effective in education, like reform itself, it must be research-based and constantly refined in order to better serve students as we learn more about what works. Gwinnett County Public Schools emerged as the most improved large school district in the country because of a rigorous process of data collection and research-based evaluation (summarized in and

Public charter schools have demonstrated some of the strongest academic outcomes with low-income urban students in the nation. However, Gwinnett County’s victory shows that when the same reform principles – challenging students to high standards, strategically directing all dollars toward raising student achievement for all students, holding staff accountable and empowering them with the tools they need to succeed – are applied school district-wide, students of all backgrounds can make tremendous academic gains, regardless of whether or not a school is called a “charter.”

Through unpacking the outstanding student results like this from Gwinnett County and the Broad Prize finalist districts, we believe the entire field can learn a great deal about the various district-wide reform principles that are yielding the best student gains. It is in this spirit that we award The Broad Prize.

Erica Lepping, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation

Posted by: elepping | October 26, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company