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Does Bill Gates Owe Arne Duncan an Apology -- or Not?

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Bill Gates has not lost his taste for rapid change. In his address to the Education Commission of the States, Gates declares that the next five years could create "a new universe of learning." Gates must know that teachers roll our eyes when he claims that Common Core "could be the educational equivalent of the Big Bang." But, Gates is clearly taking a more chastened and realistic position on school reform.

Above all, we must celebrate Gates' proclamation:

The first and most important feature of a strong evaluation and development system is heavy teacher involvement throughout -- from the conceptual stage, to the roll out, to revising the program once it's underway. If someone wants to rush an evaluation system into place -- and they think they can speed it through by doing it without the teachers -- that is a grave mistake. The system will be low-quality, and will never get buy-in from the teachers.

While Gates seems to be gradually learning from the disappointing results from his effort, known as the Measuring Effective Teaching (MET) project, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the National Conference of State Governors that he would still like to accelerate the pace of "reforms." But, Duncan is notorious for his deadpan repetition of the same silly sound bites, so it is hard to believe that he believes such a thing. After all, school systems are already overwhelmed by his signature "reforms," the collective punishment of teachers at "turnaround" schools, incentivizing Republican governors (and even Democratic mayors) to undermine collective bargaining agreements, and coercing states to adopt value-added evaluations.

Similarly, states only have two years to prepare for the equally daunting challenge of implementing Common Core. In a time of economic recession, Duncan has pressured them to adopt policies that inevitably force teachers to rush through a skin-deep, basic skills curriculum. He must know the trap we are now in. During the next two years, principals and teachers risk termination if they do not impose rote instruction to primitive bubble-in tests, as they are supposed to be learning to teach the opposite -- a challenging college prep curriculum. Unless schools turn on a dime and allow educators to teach an engaging curriculum, stressing high order thinking, a fiasco will occur during his second term.

I recently argued that Duncan owes teachers an apology for inundating us with a grab bag of corporate "reforms." But, honestly, I have always had doubts about whether a Democrat would willingly offend so many loyal constituencies with so many contradictory mandates. So, I have often wondered whether Duncan painted himself into this corner, or whether he was doing the bidding of the "billionaires boys club."

After sincerely celebrating Bill Gates' new-found realism, a question arises: Does Gates, the titular head of edu-philanthropy, now owe Duncan an apology? After all, Duncan's hurried turnaround effort was inspired by the Gates-funded manifesto, The Turnaround Challenge, and the Gates' MET seems to have propelled Duncan's most dubious "teacher quality" reforms. Should the entire billionaires boys club apologize for coercing Duncan into coercing states to adopt market-driven policies that are likely to doom the Common Core effort to restore a well-rounded curriculum?

Lacking access to the inner sanctums of corporate power, I looked for clues in previous Gates-funded recommendations to see if Bill Gates' latest profession of respect for teachers was some sort of tactical shift to distance himself from this mess. The first thing I was surprised to recall was that Gates' scholars had long proposed policies that were far more realistic than Duncan's. For instance, Duncan has claimed the five-year-old The Turnaround Challenge as his "bible," but it advocated for the opposite of his turnaround policies. It condemned "NCLB's unfulfilled impact" as a "classic example of unintended consequences," saying that the law rushed efforts to turnaround at scale.

The Turnaround Challenge noted that additional "stressors" could be added through more testing. It proclaimed, "no buy-in [by teachers], no reform." Moreover, the Gates scholars, who compiled the report, concluded that the results of the mass replacement of staffs at turnaround schools had been "abysmal." They added that, "a broad all-at-once staff replacement appears less viable as a strategy -- or even one element in a larger one."

The Turnaround Challenge, like Common Core, repudiated the narrowing of the curriculum by cutting art, music, and physical education, as it recommended inquiry-driven methods of instruction and a endorsed a rounded engaging curriculum. So, if Duncan had remained true to the principles of the Gates-funded study, a foundation would have been laid for implementing the ideals of Common Core.

Similarly, in his recent speech, Gates advocated the only policy that I can see as capable of avoiding a disaster when value-added evaluations take effect at scale. Gates, along with both national teachers unions, supports peer review evaluations. And sure enough, he is no Johnny-come-lately on that issue. The Grand Bargain, which featured an all-star cast of education researchers, was funded by Gates. Three years ago, it articulated a system where data from value-added models would be interpreted not by management alone, but by peer review committees. In other words, had Duncan required states seeking NCLB waivers or Race to the Top (RttT) grants to institutionalize peer review, or something comparable, when expanding their test-driven accountability, some of their worst problems could have been avoided.

It seems unlikely, then, that Bill Gates owes an apology to Duncan. Surely, he did not force a Democratic secretary of education to ignore the Gates-inspired ideas that would have protected educators and students, and to only rush through the policies that most damaged constituencies who loyally supported President Obama. Perhaps Duncan, himself, should be held accountable for his mixed messages.

On the other hand, perhaps Duncan also owes apology to advocates of Common Core. The challenge of Common Core would have always been daunting. It now must be done on the cheap, however, after billions of dollars have been squandered on Duncan's bubble-in "reforms." Revolutionizing instruction over a few years would have been difficult enough, but now it must be done by educators who have been demoralized by the policies of the administration that they supported. Regardless, it is time to write off the teacher-bashing of the last four years as folly, and to heed Bill Gates' affirmation, "None of us who work outside the classroom can do anything for students unless we do it with teachers. That's why working with teachers is rule number one."