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THE AGE OF REFORM BILLIONAIRES! Bill Gates funds the education debate. Are liberals and scribes on the take? // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MARCH 21, 2011

What may not be the matter with Mississippi: We’ve rarely liked a book as much as we’ve liked the clumsily-titled Higher Education?, last year’s street-fighting, much-ignored effort by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus.

Hacker is a well-known professor at Queens College; Dreifus writes for the “Science Times” section of the New York Times and teaches as an adjunct at Columbia. In their book, they bat the professoriate all around, portraying their colleagues as another mammon-driven elite in our mammon-chasing culture. They batter their colleagues for their greed—and for their refusal to teach. They mock their colleagues’ “so-called research,” which is often conducted in Tuscany, while on sabbatical. The authors aren’t rude, but it’s been a long time since we read a book which made so little attempt to be polite. Indeed, this book addresses one question after another which we asked ourselves in the fall of 1965, sitting in a big lecture class while the professor droned on.

(Where’s all the money going, we wondered. And why must we scribble all these notes? Why don’t they just type up the lecture and pass the darn thing out?)

We don’t know if Hacker and Dreifus are right on every point they address—but we strongly recommend their book for its values, its tone and its attitude. Beyond that, we treasured every word they wrote about the University of Mississippi. A bit of background:

Hacker pretty much made his bones in 1992, with his very aggressive book about race, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal. Hacker is no squish on racism. For this reason, we were especially intrigued by what he and Dreifus thought they saw at Ole Miss.

The final chapter of Higher Education? is called, “Schools We Like—Our Top Ten List.” Hacker and Dreifus praise Western Oregon University, “a school without any frills or pretense that did its job with utter seriousness and dedication.” They praise Arizona State, which “may well be the most experimental institution in the country…where anyone with an interesting idea can get a hearing.” They praise Berea College, which “was founded in the nineteenth century by radical Christian abolitionists who wanted to create a center where talented young people of all races could learn together.”

And they praise the University of Mississippi. (“Indeed, of all the flagship universities we visited, we found the University of Mississippi the most appealing.”) We don’t know if Hacker and Dreifus are right about any of these schools. But we treasured their words about Ole Miss. We pray they’re right in what they thought they saw on that famous campus.

“We didn’t expect to like Ole Miss,” they write as they start a short discussion of the school’s social history. But after describing its painful integration in the 1960s, Hacker and Dreifus say this:

HACKER/DREIFUS (page 219): Today, on campus, there’s a statue of James Meredith and Ole Miss is a university where reconciliation and civility are at the very heart of the educational mission. Much of this transformation is the work of Robert Khayat, a remarkable leader, who retired from the chancellorship in 2009. Khayat, himself a former footballer, raised academic standards, tripled the African American enrollment, and banned confederate flags from athletic events—a truly courageous step…

Ole Miss now has a Center for the Study of Southern Culture that focuses on the art, literature, music and food of the region, black and white. Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home, is an on-campus museum. Rita Bender, the wife of Mickey Schwerner, one of the civil rights workers murdered during the summer of 1964, gives a course in “restorative justice.” And did we see correctly at the football game? Was that really a black athlete escorting an extremely white homecoming princess across the field?

Our college girl friend grew up in Mississippi when that was a tough assignment for white progressives. (And a much tougher assignment for blacks.) We pray the authors did see correctly. We pray they’re right about this:

HACKER/DREIFUS (continuing directly): When Melissa Cole, a pre-med student in the Barksdale Honors College, first though about attending Ole Miss, her friends back home in Jackson asked, “Why would you want to go there?” She’s African-American. Once at Oxford, she got involved with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, which she described as having started much “dialogue of racial reconciliation, racial issues on campus, and how to come together. It’s not only black and white, but also international students who are having different experiences.” She believes, “Ole Miss has a lot to offer for anybody of any race.”

Why was this “the most appealing” flagship school the authors visited? “Unlike many of the signature universities, you see lots of young people about the campus. This place is actually for them.” We don’t know if the authors are right about that. But we treasured their words about the role of race on this campus. And then, just yesterday, we got to read this report in the New York Times. Just gaze on that beautiful photo!

Can it be that people are finding their way to a future in Mississippi? In the past few months, we’ve often wondered if we modern white liberals are even willing to hope for that.

More on that thought in the next few days. But we do recommend that book, with its refusal to be polite about all that “so-called research!”

Well worth watching: To watch Hacker and Dreifus do an hour on C-Span, you know what to do—just click here. That said, their book is better.

Special report: He was the son of a teacher, man!

PART 3—THE AGE OF REFORM BILLIONAIRES (permalink): Does Bill Gates know what he’s talking about when he talks about public schools?

We’ve never seen any real sign that he does, but Bill Gates talks about public schools a great deal of the time. And when he speaks, others are forced to listen: Gates speaks from very high platforms, and he’s spending enormous sums in support of his muddled ideas about education “reform.” He is joined by two other billionaires in his pursuit of these ideas—and a fourth billionaire is driving “reform” from his perch as mayor of New York.

Our mammon-loving modern society tends to defer to people like these—and even some “liberals” are taking Gates money! This may explain why it falls to comedians like Jon Stewart to conduct smart discussions about public schools—why it falls to tabloids like the New York Post to report on the billionaires’ bungles.

Does Bill Gates know what he’s talking about? We’ve seen no particular sign that he does. Late last month, for example, Gates held forth about public schools in a fiery op-ed piece in the Washington Post.

Just like that, the autodidact savant offered these pensees:

GATES (2/28/11): Over the past four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled, while our student achievement has remained virtually flat. Meanwhile, other countries have raced ahead. The same pattern holds for higher education. Spending has climbed, but our percentage of college graduates has dropped compared with other countries.

To build a dynamic 21st-century economy and offer every American a high-quality education, we need to flip the curve. For more than 30 years, spending has risen while performance stayed relatively flat. Now we need to raise performance without spending a lot more.

Did Gates know what he was talking about? Depending on how you want to keep score, those highlighted statements were either false or grossly misleading. In fairness, such gruesome misstatements are of course quite routine, from Obama on down, in our mega-bungled education debate.

Question: Has “our student achievement remained virtually flat” over the past forty years? In fact, achievement by black kids has massively improved over that period. The same is true for Hispanic students; performance by white kids has improved too. But very few people have heard these facts—and Gates’ column helped keep Post readers barefoot and clueless.

How about that other highlighted statement? (Over the past four decades, “our percentage of college graduates has dropped compared with other countries.”) Gates was barely speaking English in that pronouncement, perhaps reflecting a desire to keep his statement “technically accurate.” But just for the record, America’s “percentage of college graduates” has gone way up in the past forty years; among people 25-29 years of age, the percentage has basically doubled (click here, or see link below). But would any Post reader suppose such a thing after reading that second statement by Gates, which blended into the general claim that “spending has risen while performance stayed relatively flat?”

Does Bill Gates know what he’s talking about? We’d guess that he basically doesn’t, but he was speaking from a high platform when he made those bungled remarks. After Gates’ column appeared, Richard Rothstein hammered the great man for making the claims we have mentioned. But Gates’ claims had appeared on the Post’s op-ed page; Rothstein’s rebuttal appeared at the site of a progressive think tank and on a little-read Post education blog (click here).

Many Post readers read what Gates wrote; very few readers saw the rebuttal. But that’s the way “information” gets spread in the age of “reform billionaires.”

Aside from Gates, who are the “education reform billionaires?” For that, we’ll refer you to chapter 10 of Diane Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. This chapter is called “The Billionaire Boys’ Club.” In it, Ravitch describes the way three billionaire-driven foundations have taken a leading role in our education debate over the past dozen years.

Who’s who in the “Billionaire Boys Club?” Ravitch discusses three major foundations—the Walton Family Foundation; the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Of the three, the Gates Foundation is by far the largest and the most visible, but all three foundations have played leading roles in driving the education debate. (The Waltons are heirs to the Walmart fortune; Eli Broad became a billionaire in home building and the insurance industry.) “Each of the venture philanthropies began with different emphases,” Ravitch writes, “but over time they converged in support of reform strategies that mirrored their own experience in acquiring huge fortunes.” At several points, Ravitch says and implies that she thinks these players are probably well-intentioned. But she says the billionaires’ business careers have led them to favor “competition, choice, deregulation, incentives, and other corporate strategies”—the types of approaches which have come to define a particular type of “reform.”

Do these billionaires know what they’re talking about? Not necessarily—but they do seem to know what they like. Especially in the case of Gates, they have gigantic sums to spend in support of their objectives. Let’s say it again—Ravitch seems to say that these “education philanthropists” are basically well-intentioned. But because so much money is involved, the billionaires are highly influential—and they are massively fawned to. They are fawned to by the national press (more below); they are fawned to by various policy experts. Oof! In the most gag-worthy part of her chapter, Ravitch describes the way the massive resources of the Gates Foundation were getting spread around as of 2005. In this passage, she cites the kinds of money being given to a range of advocacy groups:

RAVITCH (page 210): In the fall of 2006, Erik W. Robelen reported in Education Week that the Foundation had increased its giving to advocacy groups from $276,000 in 2002 to nearly $57 million in 2005. Writing about the foundation’s efforts to “broaden and deepen its reach,” Robelen noted that almost everyone he interviewed was getting Gates money, including the publication he works for. The advocacy groups funded by Gates include Achieve ($8.84 million); the Alliance for Excellent Education ($3 million); the Center on Education Policy ($963,000); the Council of Chief State School Officers ($25.48 million); Education Sector ($290,000); Education Trust ($5.8 million); the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ($800,000); the National Association of Secondary School Principals ($2.1 million); the National Association of State Boards of Education ($224,000); the National Conference of State Legislatures ($682,000); the National Governors Association ($21.23 million); the Progressive Policy Institute ($510,000); and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute ($848,000).

Again, those figures are from 2005—and those are just the sums dispersed to advocacy groups. (Much larger sums were going to groups which were running charter schools.) But please note the sweep of the giving. The Fordham Institute would generally be seen as a conservative group—but the Progressive Policy Institute is, well, progressive. Education Trust and Education Sector would perhaps be viewed as “good guy” groups of the mushy Washington center; they were raking large sums too. We’ve always said Education Trust should be called “Education Trust but Verify,” given its fondness for foolish statements. Can this explain part of the problem? (To read Robelen’s piece, just click this.)

Should it be a point of concern when a foundation with massive funds spreads its money around in such ways? After quoting a semi-defender of Gates, Ravitch states her view: “But never in the history of the United States was there a foundation as rich and powerful as the Gates Foundation. Never was there one that sought to steer state and national policy in education. And never before was there a foundation that gave grants to almost every major think tank and advocacy group in the field of education, leaving almost no one willing to criticize its vast power and unchecked influence.”

Does Bill Gates know what he’s talking about? Maybe not, but money does talk! At one point, Ravitch quotes Frederick Hess on the way these foundations’ mega-money has purchased silence from the press corps and from the wider policy world. Generally, Hess would be seen as a conservative. Can this really be true?

RAVITCH (page 201): Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute has written that the major foundations—especially Gates, Broad and Walton—are the beneficiaries of remarkably “gentle treatment” by the press, which suspends its skeptical faculties in covering their grants to school reform. “One has to search hard to find even the most obliquely critical accounts” in the national media of the major foundations’ activities related to education, Hess reports. Furthermore, he writes, education policy experts steer clear of criticizing the mega-rich foundations; to date, not a single book has been published that has questioned their education strategies. Academics carefully avoid expressing any thoughts that might alienate the big foundations, to avoid jeopardizing future contributions to their projects, their university, or the [school] district they hope to work with. Hess observes that “academics, activists and the policy community live in a world where philanthropists are royalty.” Everyone, it seems, is fearful of offending the big foundations, so there is an “amiable conspiracy of silence…”

First, can Frederick Hess say those things? Beyond that, can it really be true that our academics and our “education experts”—the ones who never seem to notice our burgeoning public school testing scandals—behave in such crass ways, stuffing Gates money into their pants while skillfully looking away?

Ravitch focuses on the three billionaires who run those big foundations. For the record, let’s mention a fourth billionaire—New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has gotten a very wide berth at the New York Times for his various boondoggles. And by the way—why does Gates himself get such good press? Why do his error-laden columns get published by the Washington Post? Over the years, we’ve often noted the ridiculous columns written by major columnists after they were wined, dined and jetted around by various Gates affiliates. (Examples: Bob Herbert, the late David Broder.) Beyond that, could it be that Gates gets favorable treatment at the Post because Melinda Gates sits on the newspaper’s board, extending the web of conflicts which makes such a travesty of the Post’s education performance?

At this point, we come to our most unfortunate question: Can it really be true that fiery liberals defer to these billionaires? Does that explain the groaning silence from the career liberal world as people like Gates spread their bull crap around—as they keep making bogus statements, as they lead the brain-dead attacks against public school teachers and their infernal unions?

We don’t know how to answer such questions. But like Jon Stewart, a leading liberal cable star is the son of a teacher, man!

We were surprised when we learned that fact, given his endless past silence. But then, he makes his big bucks from NBC—and they are just deep in the tank.

Tomorrow—part 4: NBC News adores Lady Rhee! And Big Ed’s mom, under the bus!