» Dissent: Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools (Joanne Barkan)

This week should be a bit rough on the blogging schedule, so I’m more in a link-recommending mode of operation. This one in particular, is a worthwhile read if you want the alternate view of education reform. Barkan definitely hits all the notes you’d expect if you were to pick away at the Gates Foundation and the other two biggies that dominate education philanthropy. There are some aspects of the criticism that I can appreciate, but at the end of the day, I’m left wondering how different the education philanthropy field is from others that rely on philanthropy (and haven’t been overtaken by Gates).

Of particular interest, Barkan spells out how the reform movement has taken root in the Obama administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan in particular. Now, I’m generally supportive of the reform agenda that Duncan has spelled out. And I realize full well that there are some areas that run up against areas where I may disagree – I like the idea of better longitudinal data tracking students and teachers together, but I don’t know that I fully support that as the end-all of teacher job performance. Likewise, I don’t have much against third-party and state-mandated testing, but I do disagree with it as a high-stakes component to graduation and school performance measurement.

At some point, a more holistic pattern of metrics should be utilized and I can’t help but scratch my head over why we aren’t starting off with larger, meta-metrics that highlight a school system’s ability to send elementary students to middle school, middle schools to high schools, and high schools to college. As a sidenote, I should point out that as I start to finalize the datasets needed to wrap up my “How Houston Commutes” work, the data that’s next involves education in Harris County. And the first glance of what may or may not evolve to a fuller pattern is that the ability to matriculate students and ultimately get them into college is a big differentiator among the various parts of the county. None of that is new or earth-shattering. But for some reason, it never seems like enough of a metric to use when we talk about education.

Lastly, I think one very worthwhile critique of the Gates Foundation is that they rarely, if ever, seem to acknowledge failure. Their initial push was for small schools. It’s an approach that I’ve supported and still feel very favorable toward. But the results of the initial approach did not seem to show causality of small schools toward student accomplishment. Indeed, Barkan highlights some of the negative side effects of the immediate shift to smaller schools. Why those can’t be acknowledged while emphasizing the point that a multitude of different reform attempts still need to be attempted is beyond me.

There’s an obvious parallel to this in what we see in the charter school movement in Texas (and probably beyond). What we were sold on with charter schools is that they would operate more to the market demands. If they failed, they would close. If they succeeded, they would expand. The latter has happened in spurts – funding for infrastructure and availability of qualified teachers has been an issue with regard to the ability for schools not named KIPP or YES to expand. But when the results merit closing an obviously failed – and likely dangerous – charter school, we rarely see the market in action as much as we see the usual political demands being vocalized in efforts to keep the schools opened. As one who supports the growth of charter schools, even I can’t say that’s the way the system should operate.

Either way you choose to see the current Ed Reform movement, I think it’s worth spending some quality time reading Barkan’s write-up. Feel free to apply as many or as few grains of salt as you choose to.

TANGENTIALLY RELATED: I leave it to you to determine whether you agree that Barack Obama is killing the science fair.

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