Knocking schools: Do critics, big foundations have tunnel vision?

Schools do a very good job with many kids who come prepared to learn. Does the big money behind education reform focus on schools' problems to the point of ignoring the societal issues of poverty that lie behind many of the challenges for schools?

A teacher with her students

A teacher with her students Courtesy of Washington Education Association

This may not be the week, at least in Seattle, to put in a good word for public schools, or at least to suggest that judgment of schools is often overly harsh.

But I was struck by an article from education writer Joanne Barkan in the current issue of the magazine Dissent, and by the following:

Education reformers repeat, mantra-like, that U.S. students are trailing far behind their peers in other nations, that U.S. public schools are failing. The claims are specious. Two of the three major international tests — the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and Trends in International Math and Science Study — break down student scores according to the poverty rate in each school. 

These studies suggest that the problem is not public schools but poverty. Here’s Barkan:

Students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10% ranked first in reading, first in science and third in math. When the poverty rate was 10 to 25%, U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate rose higher still, students ranked lower and lower. Twenty percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75% . . . And as dozens of studies have shown, the gap in cognitive, physical and social development between children in poverty and middle-class children is set by age three.

One thing a good education teaches is to be skeptical of simple answers. Laying all blame for student failure (or credit for achievement) on schools, without looking at social context, strikes me as too simple an answer. Moreover, it may be easy to target schools and teachers, pushing choice and competitiveness and deregulation, while turning a blind eye to increased levels of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment.

In the world of education policy and reform this is hardly a new debate. Does responsibility for student achievement rest with schools or social conditions, on teachers or parents and families? The reasonable answer would be “both.” What goes on in the school is critical, but so too are the social conditions that impact the lives of students and their families.

But the constant hue and cry about public schools is so relentless that you wouldn’t imagine, though it is often the case, that many public schools are doing a good job, and that where they aren’t there are multiple factors to consider.

Barkan’s comments are part of a longish article, "Got dough? How billionaires run our schools," on the role of private foundations in education and school reform movements. She focuses on three in particular, The Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations. These are, in education circles, “the Big Three.”

Barkan argues two points. First, that the translation of “big dough” into major power and influence in public education by these foundations ought to concern us. They are, after all, neither elected nor accountable. Second, that claims for the efficacy of educational reforms advocated by the “big three” are dubious.

Educational reform movements, driven by the Big Three and advocated by Department of Education Secretary, Arne Duncan among others, focus almost entirely on schools and not on social conditions or poverty. In some ways, that makes sense. Focus on what is in your control, focus where you can have the most impact. Changing a school is certainly easier, and aguably more within the purview of education leaders, than changing a national economy.

Moreover, there are certainly aspects of the education reform movement, sponsored by Gates and Duncan et. al. that are sound and overdue. They are consistent with what some of our best educators have long been saying. One theme is the importance of shared goals and broad standards to ensure quality education for all students. Another is that teachers' unions in their efforts to protect their members have sometimes lost sight of, even obstructed, the core mission of educating children.

But here’s the question: Do wealthy philanthropists and these private charitable foundations, which do have enormous influence on public education today, have a vested interest in overlooking larger social and economic questions and conditions? Do they have a vested interest in “reforms” that only look at one part of the equation? Are they likely to overlook evidence that, as Barkan concludes, “The problem is not public schools; it is poverty."

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Posted Sat, Mar 5, 8:29 a.m. Inappropriate

It is surprising that the Gates Foundation and others do not test many ideas, then double down on what appears to be working. I am particularly surprised that the Gates Foundation does not appear to be interested attempting to replicate here in Seattle the success of projects like the Harlem Children's Zone.

The essence of what Harlem Children's Zone is doing is much longer school hours (8am - 6pm + weekend activities + no summer vacation) and free food and clinics at the schools. That can be replicated without charter schools here in Seattle, though it does require more funding.

For example, given the will and grant money, the poor performing public schools in SE of Seattle could be set up with much longer hours (8am - 6pm + weekend activities + no summer vacation) and free food and clinics for all students. The extras probably should be opt-out, so parents can pull their kids out of the extra time and activities if they choose to, but by default are in.

Longer hours (including all working hours, weekends, and a much shorter summer vacation, since loss during summer vacation is a major factor in the achievement gap) and a few social services (esp. free food and health care) appears to be the essence of the Harlem Children's Zone and what seems to be responsible for its success.

I do find it surprising that people who clearly want to make a name for themselves in education reform, such as the Gates Foundation, are not pushing on replicating things that have worked. In particular, I am surprised they are not trying replicating the key parts of the Harlem Children's Zone in some of Seattle's public schools. It would seem like a worthwhile experiment that could be done quickly if the Gates Foundation wanted to make it happen.


Posted Sat, Mar 5, 10:05 a.m. Inappropriate

A most thoughtful piece.


Posted Sat, Mar 5, 11:09 a.m. Inappropriate

There seem to be parallels between "ed reform" and some of Microsoft's current management practices. In recent years Microsoft has been continually selecting the top 20% and bottom 10% of employees, and formalizing this status in the employee review. Life is made difficult for the bottom 10%.

Over this same period, it appears that Microsoft employees have increasingly been forced to dedicate themselves to office politics, supporting their friends, pushing down the internal competition, and dumping bad results on the hapless 10-percenters. Meanwhile, investors have recognized that Microsoft's ability to execute on business goals has declined shockingly.

(As of this weekend, MSFT stock underperforms the S&P; index on the following time scales: 1d, 5d, 1m, 3m, 6m, YTD, 1y, 5y, 10y. Quite an accomplishment.)

Metrics are not a substitute for good management.


Posted Sat, Mar 5, 12:03 p.m. Inappropriate

While poverty may have an impact, we as a nation never want to look in a mirror to see the problem. We as parents are the problem. Parents do not value education. When we see posters in Wisconsin referring to teachers as “high paid baby sitters” that is the root problem. We expect the teachers to do our work as parents.

I grew up in South Seattle / Renton. There was plenty of poverty although well hidden where I grew up. Parents expected more from their children, if dad was had a minimal job, his children were expected to learn enough to get a better job. Forget the gadgets and the gizmos; expect the most from your children. The uproar over “Tiger Mom” missed the point; she knew if her children were working their hardest, if not, she got angry.

I went to school with a brother and sister who for 12 years of school got a slice of bread for lunch and water to drink from the water fountain. I was never invited over to supper with my buddy, as there was not enough to feed the family let alone a guest. Later, he admitted that there were terrible shouting matches over homework. Mom and Dad knew that their children needed to work harder than others to break out of their economies situation. Both did and both acknowledge their parents nagging them to do better is what got them to where they are today. My buddy has a nice home and a comfortable existence, as does his sister. They both were able to take care of their parent before the parents died.

My son skated through school, he was bright enough, but lazy. He now has a decent career and he wishes that his mother and I had demanded more of him. When you listen to the children of the Depression, you learn that school was not a time for fun, it was a job. A job where if you worked hard, you were rewarded. If you did not, you went hungry. Our children need more from us as parents, quit blaming the teachers and externals, blame yourself.

Posted Sat, Mar 5, 12:06 p.m. Inappropriate

"Pursue accountability, use data intelligently, set high expectations for schools, and acknowledge that economic and family factors are also important. Pursue educational reform, but don’t turn it into an ideological movement that has The Truth, admits of no questions, and treats (as Barken claims) “philanthropists as royalty.”

Thanks for daring to look behind the PC.

Your formula is a little too long to engrave on a parapet, nevertheless it's one we all need to constantly recall in dealing with this new age of The Truth.


Posted Sat, Mar 5, 4:42 p.m. Inappropriate

this was a comment from another article that i think relates:
But that's the fault of the corporate media, that slavishly repeats every idiot idea that the Grand Hypocricy Party puts out.
Now they're repeating the line that only cuts for public services- roads, teachers, firefighters, cops, can solve our budget problems. Oh, and tax CUTS for the rich- which always balloon the deficits.
And that was the point all along.
The GOP tactic is simple, Tax cuts for the wealthy, and corporations. Then cut programs that help the middle class and poor to make up the difference. Repeat. Repeat again. Keep repeating.
This works exactly as well as their other ideas.Like this one- Wall St. and the banksters , unlike everybody else, should not have any rules and regulations. They can gamble with our money, even. But teachers who make $50k /year and benefits- now those folks are Greedy!
America, how's that working out for you?
And governors who want to destroy the middle class and unions- they get on all the tv shows. But grown ups who care about the future of this country- they get no press at all. This is not an accident. It's fulfilling the corporate agenda . They want to make money off our society, and not pay for any of it. They are parasites.
And they want more and more and more for them, and less and less for you.
It's gotten about as obvious as it can get.


Posted Sat, Mar 5, 4:45 p.m. Inappropriate

Your last few words, and treats (as Barken claims) “philanthropists as royalty”, are also quite important. There does seem to be a sense that when individuals use their money philanthropically, they are entitled to a certain deference that leads to a lighter level of scrutiny.

Posted Sat, Mar 5, 4:46 p.m. Inappropriate


This is exactly what needs to be daylighted. We need to talk more about what is happening (or not happening) at home and how it affects the classroom, both in learning and teaching.

There is a drumbeat, a mantra out there that somehow Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Waltons have this education thing all figured out. No one with any experience or other ideas need apply. And yet, with the exception of Duncan, none of the other players were elected, hired or appointed. But they are hugely wealth and powerful and they are determined to make their mark and change the course of public education in the U.S.

The drumbeat also includes how lousy our school system is AND how teachers are mostly to blame. And yet, we send thousands of high school students every year to the best university system in the world. Also, blaming teachers is easy (ask the Governor of Wisconsin) but the truth lies with just looking in the mirror. What have we done as parents, community members and citizens to support public education?

It's a question worth asking. Thank you, Mr. Robinson.

Melissa Westbrook


Posted Sun, Mar 6, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Greg says it well: try longer hours, etc. To funciton, more needs to be looked into:
1. longer hours costs more. Are we willing to pay more to have staff working longer hours?
2. time needs to be structured. Maybe a recess or 1 hr of athletic training. Then homework time with teachers available for tutoring and questions.
3. Summer. Not sure here. Maybe if the other 9 months worked better, summer would be less of an issue.

With longer hours, besides providing help to students who lag, it also takes them out of a distracted environment and allows both parents to work full days without latch-key kids.

Editor: I would love to see more investigation of other schools that have tried ideas like these.


Posted Sun, Mar 6, 9:31 p.m. Inappropriate

"Another is that teachers' unions in their efforts to protect their members have sometimes lost sight of, even obstructed, the core mission of educating children."

You need to step back and look at where that idea comes from, because, that's the argument driven by a number of Ed Reform players and so graphically emphasized by propaganda films like Waiting for Superman.

The responsibility of any union that is party to a collective bargaining agreement is to make sure that due process is followed when there is an issue of performance or a grievance. "Protecting their members" and focusing on the core mission of educating children are not mutually exclusive.

ken berry


Posted Sun, Mar 6, 9:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for this thoughtful piece. In my view, the current ed. reform movement is looking for simplistic answers to complicated problems. The reform movement would have us believe that if only there was a way to get rid of the bad teachers and hire TFA recruits,provide more choice ala charter schools,and of course run public school districts like a private business all would be well. The results will be Lake Wobegonesque, where all children are above average. Ed reformers ignore pressing societal issues as if they did not exist. Public education is the great equalizer but poverty and social conditions cannot be swept aside.

I agree that the solutions lie in better social services, longer school days and school years. In addition our teachers deserve the respect that educators in places such as Finland, S.Korea, and Japan enjoy. Right now they are the scape goats of the power elite and that is sad very sad.


Posted Mon, Mar 7, 11 a.m. Inappropriate

Agree totally on the poverty issue, which is so obvious it splashed your eye. But there's another issue in the anti-schools, anti-teacher campaign that wasn't even mentioned in the 400 or so comments in the NYT when they ran an article like this. That is, hovering parents who never let their own children out of the house to socialize, don't help them with their homework, and sit them down in front of tv and computer games and wonder why they are not fitting in at school. These are the people that MOST blame schools and teachers, in my experience.


Posted Mon, Mar 7, 7:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for this piece. I am a retired teacher, and my daughter is an elementary school teacher. The amount of pressure on teachers these days is unbelievable. She feels under siege. She teaches in an elementary school where 85% are on free or reduced price lunches, half of the students do not speak English as their first language, and the turnover in her classroom is at least 25%/year. Yet she is expected to bring all students to grade level by the end of the school year regardless of where they started. It would be better to judge teachers on a child's percent improvement, rather than absolute scores.


Posted Mon, Mar 7, 10:44 p.m. Inappropriate

It's interesting that CEOs and other "responsible" corporate officers are given bonuses and golden parachutes even if their corporations tank, and yet teachers are blamed for kids' low performances on tests when the teachers are only one factor among many.

Considering I'm pretty much disgusted with the WEA, I can't believe I just said that, but MASKR's comment really got through.


Posted Thu, Mar 17, 5:36 p.m. Inappropriate

This is a much more thoughtful perspective than we had seen previously from Mr. Robinson. Thanks for that.

The solution to the academic achievement gap isn't difficult at all.

1. Identify the students who are working below grade level.

2. Give them the support they need to quickly catch up to grade level.

There is no reason to believe that the solution will be the same for any of them, let alone all of them. The key is in seeing students as individuals rather than a collective. When you look at the various flaws in the Education Reform movement (and there are many), one of the biggest is their focus on data at the school level rather than the student level.


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