By Pawan Dhingra
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has earned high marks from many in regards to his coronavirus response. But in the realm of public education, he has made a serious mistake in partnering with Bill Gates to “reimagine education.”
Gates’ past education reforms not only have added stress on to teachers, they also have fueled discontent from middle-class parents towards their schools even when their schools are functioning just fine. In turn, these parents have sought out supplemental education through tutoring companies, making them some of the fastest growing companies in the country. And this rise of for-profit after-school options is likely to increase educational inequality. We should learn from this history what is the right way and wrong way of advancing our schools.
Past Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation education efforts have been mostly the wrong way.
One of their first reforms was a $2 billion investment into the creation of smaller classrooms. Gates himself admitted that the plan did not work, writing in 2009, “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” The result was parent dissatisfaction in the size of their children’s classes, school upheaval and no real learning benefit.
The same trend was true in the Gates Foundation’s push to better assess teachers, another effort costing hundreds of millions of dollars but without measurable positive impact.
Worse yet, the rhetoric that teachers cannot be trusted also has led parents to question teachers’ abilities. In research I conducted in New England with more than 100 parents, they commonly voiced skepticism of their children’s teachers, despite often being better trained than private school teachers. As one dissatisfied mother told me, “It's always about the teacher, right. You don't know what you're getting year to year.”
Some did benefit from Gates’ efforts, however. Tutoring companies throughout Western New York like Kumon, Mathnasium and Sylvan, are responding to the critiques that the Gates Foundation raises. Rather than teaching to a classroom full of students, children are to receive “individualized lesson plans.” Rather than having poorly qualified teachers, private tutoring companies supposedly “know how to teach your child math.” Concerned middle-class families are actively targeted by the companies, and the result is a widening education gap.
There are better answers than repeating past mistakes. Support for social workers, arts programs, advanced courses, mental health counselors and the like all make a big difference. Politicians should listen to the teachers. The Gates Foundation has done tremendous work in the world, but it should not help “reimagine education.”
Pawan Dhingra is a professor at Amherst College and author of “Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough.”