What’s good for Bill Gates is bad for public schools… and Microsoft, too

by David Morris

Editor’s note:  This news has been making the rounds in education activist circles, and we wanted to further amplify this important message. Turns out corporate style reform isn’t just bad for schools, it’s bad for corporations.

Schools have a lot to learn from business about how to improve performance, declared Bill Gates in an Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2011. He pointed to his own company as a worthy model for public schools.

BillGatesBill Gates foisted a big business model of employee evaluation onto public schools, which his own company has since abandoned. “At Microsoft, we believed in giving our employees the best chance to succeed, and then we insisted on success. We measured excellence, rewarded those who achieved it and were candid with those who did not.”

Adopting the Microsoft model means public schools grading teachers, rewarding the best and being “candid,” that is, firing those who are deemed ineffective. “If you do that,” Gates promised Oprah Winfrey, “then we go from being basically at the bottom of the rich countries [in education performance] to being back at the top.”

The Microsoft model, called “stack ranking” forced every work unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, certain groups as good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.

Using hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropic largesse Bill Gates persuaded state and federal policymakers that what was good for Microsoft would be good for public schools (to be sure, he was pushing against an open door). To be eligible for large grants from President Obama’s Race to the Top program, for example, states had to adopt Gates’ Darwinian approach to improving public education. Today more than 36 states have altered their teacher evaluations systems with the aim of weeding out the worst and rewarding the best.

Some states grade on a curve. Others do not. But all embrace the principle that continuing employment for teachers will depend on improvement in student test scores, and teachers who are graded “ineffective” two or three years in a row face termination.

Needless to say, the whole process of what has come to be called “high stakes testing” of both students and teachers has proven devastatingly dispiriting. According to the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, over half of public school teachers say they experience great stress several days a week and are so demoralized that their level of satisfaction has plummeted from 62 percent in 2008 to 39 percent last year.

And now, just as public school systems have widely adopted the Microsoft model in order to win the Race to the Top, it turns out that Microsoft now realizes that this model has pushed Microsoft itself into a Race to the Bottom.

In a widely circulated 2012 article in Vanity, award-winning reporter Fair Kurt Eichenwald concluded that stack ranking “effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stacked ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

This month Microsoft abandoned the hated system.

On November 12 all Microsoft employees received a memo from Lisa Brummel, Executive Vice President for Human Resources announcing the company will be adopting “a fundamentally new approach to performance and development designed to promote new levels of teamwork and agility for breakthrough business impact.”

Ms. Brummel listed four key elements in the company’s new policy.

  • More emphasis on teamwork and collaboration.
  • More emphasis on employee growth and development.
  • No more use of a Bell curve for evaluating employees.
  • No more ratings of employees.

Sue Altman at EduShyster vividly sums up the frustration of a nation of educators at this new development. “So let me get this straight. The big business method of evaluation that now rules our schools is no longer the big business method of evaluation? And collaboration and teamwork, which have been abandoned by our schools in favor of the big business method of evaluation, is in?”

Big business can turn on a dime when the CEO orders it to do so. But changing policies embraced and internalized by dozens of states and thousands of public school districts will take far, far longer. Which means the legacy of Bill Gates will continue to handicap millions of students and hundreds of thousands of teachers even as the company Gates founded along with many other businesses, have thrown his pernicious performance model in the dustbin of history.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Related Resources

Taking Teacher Quality Seriously: A Collaborative Approach to Teacher Evaluation, by Stan Karp

Neither Fair, Nor Accurate:  Research-based reasons why high-stakes tests should not be used to evaluate teachers, by Wayne Au

Professional Development: New terrain for big business? by Rachael Gabriel and Jessica N. Lester

Special collection from Rethinking Schools: Keeping Quality Teachers Teaching

CovrPencilsDown120229.3_42Pencils Down:  Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schoolsedited by Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel

The Trouble with Common Core

On Friday, Rethinking Schools editor Stan Karp delivered a speech “The Trouble with Common Core” to Portland area parents, educators, administrators, elected officials, among others.  (See our summer editorial with the same title.)

Watch and share.

Reclaim AERA: Protest Arne Duncan Speech

By Ann Berlak

For the first time since I can remember some members of the American Educational Research Association (AERA)—the largest association of educators and educational researchers in the world—are taking a public stand at AERA’s annual meeting in San Francisco against the corporatization, standardization and privatization of education.

reclaimaera-thumbnailSadly, the leadership of AERA has invited Arne Duncan, who represents and supports the technocratic, dehumanizing forces of privatization to speak on Tuesday, April 30, 3:45 p.m. at the Hilton Hotel. This and other actions by the AERA serve to support the dismantling of education as a public good, narrow the possibilities of what it means to research, know, learn and share our understandings, and marginalize and silence voices of dissent.

We are inviting teachers, administrators, students, parents and concerned community members to join those of us at AERA as we make visible our support for public education and democratic empowerment

Here’s how you can get involved:

In person. 

Contact your friends and colleagues in the Bay area and join our protest.  We especially are looking for Oakland and San Francisco parents and teachers to join us in the on-the-ground protest.

Virtually. 

Read the statement from AERA members:

As members of the American Educational Research Association we are committed to:

  • free and equal public education for all as a cornerstone of democracy.
  • research, scholarship and policy making that grows from and with communities  that are impacted by these.
  • knowledge production as varied, multiple and contextual.
  • research, scholarship and policy free from the interests of corporations and venture philanthropists.
  • public education-at every level-as a space for social imagination and the practice of freedom.

AERA has failed to take a public stance in support of these commitments and has not provided space for meaningful dialogue about how we can enact these commitments. Instead, AERA supports: 

  • narrowing of ‘acceptable’ research to demands of quantification and standardization.
  • affiliation with corporate sponsors like Pearson, Inc.
  • denial of the impact of corporate influences when it accepts for publication articles authored by writers from corporate sponsored think tanks.
  • complacency in the face of the ongoing assault on education and incursions of corporations into research and practice led by such actors as: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and Rupert Murdoch’s Wireless Generation

Case in point: invited “education researcher’ Secretary Duncan whose policies have led to:

  • school closings; increased testing; narrowing of curriculum; undermining of collective bargaining; increasing of for profit charter schools; increased corporate influence in education.
  • students, teachers, parents, and scholars threatened, silenced, and abandoned.

We invite our colleagues, students, and parents to refuse the corporatization of education, build alliances to resist its policies, and join the conversation as we imagine education as the practice of freedom.

Ann Berlak is a regular contributor to Rethinking Schools and most recently wrote  “Coming Soon to Your Favorite Credential Program: National Exit Exams” on the early California version of edTPA in our summer 2010 issue.

Related Resources:

V23-3Spring 2009:  The Duncan Myth

Their Fight Is Our Fight

by Kris Collett

On Monday, September 10, 29,000 of our Chicago colleagues went on strike after they failed to reach an agreement over education reforms sought by 1% Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Twenty-five years have passed since Chicago teachers last went on strike.

The reforms sought by Emanuel will be no surprise to those who have followed the corporate education “deform” movement: teacher evaluations and teacher pay tied to standardized test scores, longer school days to allow more time for testing, closing schools and turning them over to charter operators, and provisions that slash health benefits and seriously curtail job security.

Rethinking Schools, along with the National Network of Teacher Activist Groups, is standing in solidarity with Chicago teachers as they fight for the future of public education. Why? Because their fight is our fight.

Pauline Lipman, professor of education policy studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, perhaps said it best in her interview with Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!:

What is happening here in Chicago is also strategically significant nationally. [Chicago] was the birthplace of the neoliberal, corporate, top-down education reform agenda—privatizing public education, closing and sabotaging public neighborhood schools, high-stakes testing, paying teachers based on test scores—that whole agenda. And Chicago is now the epicenter of the fight back against it. What happens here in Chicago will really have an implication for whether we are able to turn back this national agenda.

We want to highlight and excerpt a few articles and interviews that we feel provide a glimpse of what Chicago teachers are fighting for:

Democracy Now! Interviews Teachers on the Ground

The host of Democracy Now! Amy Goodman invited Phil Cantor, a strike captain at  North-Grand High School, to talk more about why teachers are striking:

We’re striking for a lot of reasons. If you just see what’s in the mainstream media, all they talk about is that teachers want more money. But that’s really far from the truth. We’re fighting for reasonable class sizes. We’re fighting for wraparound services for our students. I teach in a school with a thousand students; we don’t even have one social worker in that building for most of those kids. So we’re fighting for the education our students deserve in Chicago. We’re fighting against reforms that we see, from the classroom level, are not going to work.

For more about the corporate “deform” agenda, see Stan Karp’s “Challenging Corporate School Reform and 10 Hopeful Signs of Resistance.”

Phil also explained on the show what it means for teachers when their pay is tied to high-stakes standardized test scores.

At my school, I looked at the calendar for the year, and there are about 15 days where students are being tested on standardized tests. These tests are not designed to help the students. Many of these tests are designed because of No Child Left Behind to measure the school. And now, because of Race to the Top and these new reforms, now these tests are being used to measure teacher performance. So what does that mean? It means that rather than planning rich-inquiry, interesting lessons for our students, we have to focus on very specific tested standards in a very narrow way. . .

To give an absurd example, this week I’m supposed to give a district-mandated test to my 9th-grade biology students, who I’ve known for one week, on DNA-to-RNA transcription and translation in protein synthesis. The reason they’re getting this test, on material they’ve never seen before, is so that I can be measured from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. . . . It’s an insane way to try to measure teachers. It’s clearly sort of the business model, the corporate model of people who don’t understand the classroom, saying, “Oh, we’ll test them at the beginning of the year and the end of the year and see growth.” But it’s an absurd sort of test that is not going to work even for that purpose, and it’s certainly not going to help our students.

Read “Neither Fair Nor Accurate” by Wayne Au for more reasons why it’s a terrible idea to link pay to standardized test scores. 

Chicago teachers have worked diligently over the past several years to develop deep ties to parents and the community, and it’s paying off now. Goodman invited local school councilmember and parent Matt Farmer on the show to comment.

I support the efforts of the Chicago Teachers Union in this labor negotiation, because I believe they are fighting to make schools in Chicago better for all kids. The reason I say that is because the mayor talks at length about providing a “world-class education” for Chicago’s kids, but what we know is that the mayor’s kids are getting one at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Why, we should ask, aren’t the reforms the mayor is trying to push through the same as those that are working at the lab school? More art, more music, libraries for kids—those are not the types of resources and classes that we are seeing.

Listen to or read the transcript of the Democracy Now! segment about the Chicago Teachers’ strike.

 Stand in Solidarity with Chicago Teachers

If you want to show your solidarity with the Chicago teachers, start with the National Network of Teacher Activist Groups. They have organized a campaign, Solidarity with Chicago Teachers, where you can find up-to-date information on what’s happening and pledge your solidarity by posting a testimonial; teaching a related lesson; organizing discussions and solidarity from your union, school, or education program; and/or contributing to the CTU solidarity fund.

 Stay Informed

Here are several other articles and resources that we recommend for understanding the struggle, lending your support, and keeping up with developments:

NCLB waivers give bad policy new lease on life

by Stan Karp

Stan KarpThe Obama Administration’s approval last week of 10 state applications for waivers from NCLB was another missed opportunity to learn from a decade of policy failure. Instead of changing the disastrous direction of federal education policy, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s waiver process allows states to reproduce some of the worst aspects of NCLB’s “test and punish” approach while continuing to ignore real issues, like reducing concentrated poverty or providing equitable funding and high quality pre-K for all schools.

Most media coverage framed the legally dubious waiver process as giving states “flexibility.” But the waivers gave states—and more importantly schools, students, educators, and parents—no flexibility at all in the area they need it most: relief from the plague of standardized testing. When NCLB was passed in 2002, 19 states gave annual tests in reading and math. Today, under federal mandate, all 50 do and the waivers will mean more testing. As with the Administration’s Race to The Top, states applying for waivers had to commit to implementing another generation of standardized tests based on the “common core” standards that states were also forced to adopt. New Jersey, one of the states getting a waiver, is promising to replace NCLB’s absurd adequate yearly progress (AYP) system with “annual measurable objectives.” It’s a shell game only testing companies will win.

There will be more tests in more subjects, and the tests will be used not only to abuse students, but to rate and impose sanctions on teachers and the schools of education they came from. This is another set of wrong answers to the wrong questions.

The waivers will also turn up the pressure on schools serving the highest need populations. States must identify the 5 percent of schools with the lowest test scores and turn them into charters or “turnarounds” or close them down. Another 10 percent with low graduation rates or wide achievement gaps must be targeted for similar intervention. This is not a school improvement strategy, it’s a blank check to experiment on poor kids and create chaos in our most vulnerable communities.

The absurdity of closing schools and imposing “disruptive reform” on the poorest communities was underscored the same day the waivers were announced when a study was released showing that “the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.” The continued punishing of schools for the inequality that exists all around them is not reform; it’s a cynical political exercise.

It’s also a continuation of the bipartisan corporate ed reform strategy that has reinforced the state-by-state attack on teacher unions and public sector workers across the country. Here’s what my own Governor, Chris “1 percent” Christie—who has made war against public education and teacher unions the centerpiece of his administration—had to say when New Jersey was named one of the 10 waiver states: “The Obama Administration’s approval of our education reform agenda contained in this application confirms that our bold, common sense, and bipartisan reforms are right for New Jersey and shared by the President and Secretary Duncan’s educational vision for the country.”

NCLB is such a bad law it’s not hard to see why 30 more states are considering filing waiver applications this month. But teachers and parents would do better if their states took a pass on the hollow promise of NCLB waivers and lobbied for a different piece of paper: a pink slip for Arne Duncan.

Related Resources:

Rethinking Schools special collection on NCLB