Billionaires Everywhere Want to Fix Education

Money doesn’t buy everything, and it shouldn’t. I wish these billionaires would resist the urge to tinker in unproven educational reforms.

In an education course, I learned a wonderful term, metacognition: knowing what you know as well as what you don’t know. I wish that our friendly billionaires could grasp that concept, because there is a lot they don’t know.

My life mission has been to teach. I was lucky enough to discover that goal at age 13, and I haven’t wavered in thirty-two years. I know what I do well, and more importantly, I know what I am incapable of doing. I would never presume to tell a doctor, accountant, or lawyer how to do their job. I am not qualified to lecture real estate agents, engineers, public relations people, pharmacists, or software designers. So what exactly gives billionaires the right to attempt to revamp education? Their years of classroom experience? Their background in pedagogy? Their under-graduate or graduate courses in education? No. It is simply their money.

Money doesn’t buy everything, and it shouldn’t. I wish these billionaires would resist the urge to tinker in unproven educational reforms.

The worst example is Bill Gates, that thrifty philanthropist who has pumped over half a billion dollars either directly or indirectly in the reform du jour called Common Core. When the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers launched the effort called Common Core, they lacked the funds to design it, but Bill Gates footed the majority of the bill and has subsequently funneled funds to various groups to support it, e.g. Parent Teacher Associations, National Education Association, Stand for Children, and Educators for Excellence. He has also partnered with Harvard University to devise a new system of teacher evaluation, as yet still undeveloped.

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook donated $100 million to the Newark Public School System, and the first $50 million was earmarked as bonuses for teachers who were ranked highly effective in the teacher evaluation system. New Jersey didn’t have the funds to pay those bonuses, but Zuckerberg did, further reinforcing the flawed idea that teacher effectiveness can accurately be evaluated and only paid for by outsiders.

John Arnold is a Texas billionaire who has donated millions to Teach For America, whose teachers rarely last more than three years in education, Knowledge Is Power Program, a series of charter schools, and Students First, a professional lobby formed by former Washington D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Billionaire Paul Tudor Gates has also stepped in. Originally his organization Robin Hood was attempting to fight poverty, a noble effort indeed, but he altered his goals when he stated in a Forbes magazine article that “The breakdown of our public education system is the single largest threat—internal or external—that we have in this country.” His answer: starting a training school where teachers are simultaneously teaching a class while pursuing a master’s degree. Those teachers-in-training will only earn that degree if their students reach a certain level of academic success. He wants longer school days and years, better teacher and principal training, and, like a true business-model-disciple, true evaluation and accountability.

Please understand: these are not bad people. They are human beings, financially successful ones at that, filled with empathy and dignity, faults and shortcomings. They understand that any system can be improved, but any improvements must involve the primary movers in the system: the educators themselves. These top-down systems, supported and funded by billionaires, are doomed to fail when they ignore the very souls who have carry these burdensome reforms designed by people who spent so little time in the classroom.

Here’s a suggestion: educational facilities across America are aging and are in desperate need of repair and technological upgrades. How about offering to fix or rebuild the structures we already have in place, instead of trying to reform education from the outside in? If I had billions of dollars, that’s where I would direct the money. It is frightfully expensive to retrofit an older school or simply build a brand new one. And while merit pay is a noble idea, it’s also a naïve one. I can clearly measure who’s an effective salesperson by looking at sales numbers. It is infinitely harder to determine teacher effectiveness when there are no tests that can accurately measure that, and student scores are not an effective measure of that.

Metacognition: knowing what you know and what you don’t know. We should all be aware of what we don’t know.

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