Over here at the COOP, we’re not getting paid to “influence” the reform discourse in education.
Are we ever missing the gravy train.
Returning from a weekend practicing mindfulness for educators (so wrong side of the tracks), I blithely take some deep breaths, settle onto my ergonomic knee chair, and catch up on my emails from the last two days. Only to discover, to the detriment of our personal bank accounts, that none of us here at the COOP have been receiving half a million dollars a year from the Gates Foundation to personally influence public opinion to promote favored educational reform initiatives.
In an straightforward, just-the-facts-ma’am expose in the Sunday New York Times, Sam Dillon takes the reader through the rise of “The Big Three” educational foundation’s increasing focus on not just funding projects strategically designed to affect the shape of educational reform, but to influence the formation of opinion about those projects themselves. “We’ve learned that school-level investments aren’t enough to drive systemic changes,” the Times article quotes the president of the Gates Foundation’s United States program saying. “The importance of advocacy has gotten clearer and clearer.”
Since 2005, Gates has quadrupled the amount spent on opinion and influence advocacy, for instance paying the always-passionate, and always-passionate-that-he-is right Rick Hess $500,000 in 2009 “to influence the national educational debates.” And we thought all those Ed Week blog posts, edited volumes, books, research papers and endless opinion pieces were coming straight from his heart and sense of moral purpose.
“Given the scale of the philanthropy,” the Times article notes drily, “some worry that the Foundation’s assertive philanthropy is squelching independent thought.” Hmmm.
Gates in fact gave 360 educational grants in 2009, many to EdWeek, research organizations that produce papers that support their initiatives, and “grassroots advocates” who are paid to organize in their local communities to support their priorities and initiatives. Ever wonder why the common core and the Gates Foundation are featured so prominently on the first page of EdWeek? Ever wonder why those lengthy pieces on new teacher evaluation efforts seem so in bed with the objectives of “value added” research, also funded by Gates? The Times article also notes that Fordham Foundation’s president, Checker Finn, long-time advocate of national standards and test-based accountability back from my graduate school days, received $959,000 from Gates to “review common core materials and develop supportive materials,” which I found amusing since I had JUST sent Chad a seemingly impartial blog post by Checker Finn from last week, in which Finn calls critiques of national testing and the common core “silliness” (okay, Dad) and a bit later, agrees with none other than–Rick Hess! (Small world, ain’t it?). Arne Duncan himself often quotes a study about teacher evaluation effectiveness produced by the New Teacher Project, which received funding from the Gates Foundation. While one funder says he feels “free to speak out” when he thinks the Foundation is wrongheaded, the influence of half to a million dollars may quell some folk’s appetite for dispassionate analysis. In the Times piece again, Rick Hess says, “everyone is implicated.”
To influence public opinion and push its reform agenda, the Gates Foundation, “establish[es] strong ties to local journalists” who are paid, for instance, to “go toe to toe” with union officials say, about the policies of teachers unions, presumably to discredit them. But to avoid appearing to be a “tool of the foundation,” grantees are urged to “maintain a low public profile,” about their funding sources.
So what do the BIG THREE (Gates, Broad, Wallace) generally like to fund, and how has their influence grow? In another great post by Dana Goldstein, the big three educational foundations have aggressively quadrupled their educational spending overall to since 2005 to support their priorities. And what are their priorities? Sound familiar? Common core standards, aggressive advocacy for school choice and charter schools, mayoral control of educational systems, and teacher evaluation tied to test scores, among others. Add this to the aggressive opinion intervention techniques and priorities, and you realize how dramatically the entire mainstream discourse is affected, and perhaps controlled by, big money. In fact, what is talked about, what kinds of knowledge is considered acceptable and valid, whose research gets play, and whose experiences and perceptions are honored, is all a part of this strategic funding and influence web.
Ever feel like you are a voice in the wilderness? It isn’t just your imagination. Others are being paid to make you feel that way.
Are we here at the COOP–we, the humble UNPAID–talking back to this effectively? Have our priorities: a consistent focus on the classroom experiences of teachers, parents, and administrators, as we reflect about learning; our profound interest in students’ experiences of learning; our acknowledgement of the complexity of teaching and the mysteries of learning; and the effect of policy on people who are deeply committed to teaching; being expressed as vociferously and effectively as we can possibly articulate?
Because our David, to their Goliath, is real. This funding web of influence and control is, ”Orwellian,” says Bruce Fuller, education professor at UC Berkley, also in the Times piece. “Through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” Fuller notes.
Perhaps instead of a COOP badge, our blog should feature a badge that says, “The COOP does not receive funds from major educational foundations to forward their opinions and objectives?”
Are we standing up?