Foundations wield enormous power in defining problems and determining solutions. In Detroit, as in much of the country, this is especially clear in the education of our children. Gates, Walmart and Broad have been directing educational policies, with little or no public accountability.
While many foundations play important roles in funding educational initiatives, the Gates Foundation has backed large-scale systemic change. Their first effort was the small schools initiative, breaking large schools into smaller units to reduce the drop out rate. After ten years and $2 billion dollars, Gates acknowledged in June of 2009 that the results had been "disappointing."
In a speech announcing a change in direction, Gates said:
In the first four years of our work with new, small schools, most of the schools had achievement scores below district averages on reading and math assessments. In one set of schools we supported, graduation rates were no better than the statewide average, and reading and math scores were consistently below the average. The percentage of students attending college the year after graduating high school was up only 2.5 percentage points after five years. Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for.
"The defining feature of a great education is what happens in the classroom," Gates said. "Everything starts from that and must be built around it. So we're going to sharpen our focus on effective teaching -- in particular supporting new standards, curriculum, instructional tools, and data that help teachers -- because these changes trigger the biggest gains, they are hardest to scale, and that is what's holding us back."
This shift from small schools to classroom-based concerns has been at the root of turning our schools into abusive, test-driven factories where students, teachers, schools and districts are judged by their performance on standardized tests.
Under first No Child Left Behind NCLB and now Race to the Top, encouraged by foundations, schools are becoming less effective and more punitive in their efforts to control students.
In a recent article about the school to prison pipeline, Rethinking Schools links the foundation driven approach to punishment centered education:
The more that schools -- and now individual teachers -- are assessed, rewarded, and fired on the basis of student test scores, the more incentive there is to push out students who bring down those scores. And the more schools become test-prep academies as opposed to communities committed to everyone's success, the more hostile and regimented the atmosphere becomes -- the more like prison... The rigid focus on test prep and scripted curriculum means that teachers need students to be compliant, quiet, in their seats, and willing to learn by rote for long periods of time. Security guards, cops in the hall, and score-conscious administrations suspend and expel "problem learners." Schools without compassion or understanding occupy communities instead of serve them.
We know it is possible to create schools where children love to learn, where they follow their individual passions, creativity and unique interests. We know it is possible to create a sense of community where learning is valued because it is a means to solving common problems. Such learning happens all the time, but mostly in our wealthy suburban schools and rarely in our cities.
Increasingly, creative teachers, students and administrators are challenging this test driven madness. Rethinking Schools concluded that more and more people are "... creating alternative approaches to safe school communities that rely on restorative justice and community building instead of criminalization... A critical piece of that struggle is defying the regimen of scripted curriculum and standardized tests, and building in its place creative, empowering school cultures centered on the lives and needs of our students and their families."
This post was previously published by the Michigan Citizen.