"Letter From Birmingham Jail" (1963), 21st Century Education, Anthony Cody, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Charter Schools, Education, Education Reform, Impatient Optimists, Irvin Scott, K-12 Education, K-16 Education, Marketplace, Stacey Childress
The below is my response to Irvin Scott and Stacey Childress’ (of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) “Response to Anthony Cody: The Role of the Marketplace in Education.” Given their corporatist, technocratic stance on education reform, I guess I should stop applying for jobs with Gates, since I don’t think they do much in the way of good work in education.
The use of MLK’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” is self-serving and sanctimonious here at best, along with the idea that charter schools are public schools, as if the two are interchangeable. King’s letter wasn’t just about the growing impatience of African Americans on the long road to equality. It’s also about how to walk the road, the tools necessary to walk the road, as well as the urgency with which we should walk the road. In my dealings with the Gates Foundation over the years as a nonprofit manager for various projects and initiatives, speed has often been more valuable than getting it right. From the first funding of community-based computer labs in libraries (like Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh) to small schools collaborations with nonprofits and NYC DOE, moving from thought to finish was typically at warp factor five or higher. Even program officers I’ve met or known at Gates have admitted over the years that not every multi-million dollar expenditure for small schools, teacher effectiveness, or teacher evaluations has come with plenty of setbacks and mistakes, as well as inconclusive or minimally positive results.
To argue that charter schools are public schools is technically correct, but in practice, hardly so. Charter schools have their own boards, often do not draw their teachers from the same pool as traditional public schools, and many have selection criteria for students. Charter schools — particularly ones with higher levels of success — often have board members with deep pockets or are able to raise funds through those kinds of connections. They may have by-laws that enable them to hire non-union teachers, non-traditional teachers, even college instructors, in ways that traditional public schools simply cannot. And though the selection criteria for students varies from one charter school to the next, traditional public schools don’t have that option.
Yes, we need a twenty-first century education system in the US. But we’re not going to get there with more high-stakes standardized testing, with curriculum and teacher evaluations that are tied to test scores, with the funding of every half-baked idea that has its roots in the twentieth century. Real reform requires more than smart people entrusted with a portfolio of $5 or $10 million. It comes with real cooperation with educators, a commitment to engage parents, a curriculum that is about education beyond a test, a full-fledged effort at human development, not just job training. One thing that would be a place to start would be to focus on K-16 education, instead of separating the K-12 and post-secondary spheres, you know, to break free of our twentieth-century thinking about American education.
Irvin Scott and Stacey Childress should know all of this already. If they do not, shame on them for not doing the research and outreach that is a necessary part of grantmaking. However, since they do, it seems to me they need to do less defending of the Gates Foundation’s record and more work and real collaboration to move forward. “We don’t need no education” reform, so long as it continues to come out of elite money and thinking that dictates to the rest of us what reform will look like.