Why Are Teachers Mad at Billionaires?

It’s not just because of the cars they drive. For as long as there have been school systems, there have been outsiders who have promised radical reform. Today’s crop of tech billionaires is no different and good teachers can only shake their heads and wait for the billionaires to figure it out. If only some of the billionaires had read one book—or maybe two—they’d see the problem with their approach.

In today’s New York Times, Natasha Singer wisely warns of the lack of democratic oversight in today’s tech-based school reforms. There is another lesson billionaires should learn, though, even if they don’t care about democratic input. The history is clear: Sweeping tech-based revolutions in schooling have (almost) always ended up stashed in the hallway closets of schools across the country. There is one obvious and important exception, as historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out over twenty years ago.

Of course, we need to be fair: It’s a good thing that billionaires devote some of their loot to improving public education. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has repeatedly put his money where his mouth is. He pledged $100 million to Newark. His foundation is now promising to invest heavily in schools. Good for him.

The problem, though, is that such outsider attempts miss a vital part of real school reform. As Tyack and Cuban argued in 1995, school reform plans work when they allow teachers to do their jobs better. They flounder when they try to force schools to adopt tech-based answers to questions no one is really asking. It doesn’t matter how expensive the plan is or how good it looks on paper.

tyack cuban tinkering

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

Consider, for example, the 1950s attempt to bring better schooling to rural American kids. The Carnegie Foundation teamed up with the US Congress to pour tens of millions of dollars into a radical reform program. Believe it or not, they put planes in constant motion over the Great Plains states, beaming closed-circuit educational television programs to rural schools.

It seemed like a foolproof idea, a perfect solution to rural educational oblivion, made possible by the new technology of television.

It didn’t work, though. It seems too obvious even to mention, but rural schools found that the educational TV programs didn’t fit their classroom goals. Kids didn’t learn anything. The hokey programs went unwatched, and the expensive TVs were put into hallway closets to collect dust.

As I’m finding in my current research, this pattern of well-intentioned, expensive, and unproductive technology-based radical school reform has an even longer history.

Over two hundred years ago, English reformer Joseph Lancaster insisted he had solved the problems of urban education. His new-fangled modern factory model could educate the hordes of urchins that were cramming into modern American and European cities.

No surprise: It didn’t work either. Or, to be nerdily specific, it worked…but not in the ways Lancaster had over-promised.

Lancaster’s reform plan worked—as will any reform plan in any century—when it inspired teachers, parents, students, mayors, and taxpayers to pay a lot of eager attention to their local public schools. It didn’t work when it promised a tech-based anonymous reform plan that could instantly fix any school anywhere.

lancaster schools

Radical school tech reform, c. 1807

So why are teachers mad at billionaires? Because good teachers know this central truth about what Tyack and Cuban called “the grammar of schooling.” Like any other social institution, schools are impervious to silver-bullet tech reforms. Public schools will not be magically fixed because billionaires are suddenly and temporarily interested in them.

The recipe for improving schools is not new, nor is it secret. Every good teacher already knows it. Schools are made better when an entire community is excited and involved in them. Sometimes, that excitement and involvement can be boosted by eye-catching new technology. More often, though, involvement comes from long hours and years spent in classrooms, cafeterias, meeting rooms, and athletic fields.

Call Me, Mark Zuckerberg!

B-ding! There it is again, the silver-bullet school-reform alert. As long as there have been rich people and schools, we have seen well-meaning but misplaced attempts at reform. The latest round comes from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, our Facebook Overlords. In order to help people succeed in school and life, their foundation has established a “Manhattan Project” to bring equity to the standardized-testing game.

It won’t work. Historians don’t know much, but we do know one thing: No matter how much money we pour into silver-bullet schemes, they always prove disappointing. It’s not due (only) to mismanagement or incompetence, but rather to the nature of schooling itself. There’s a better way to go about it, but it doesn’t offer the same sort of headline-grabbing oomph.

Here’s the latest: Zuckerberg and Chan are donating a bazillion dollars to get SAT-prep courses to low-income students. The goal is to increase students’ test scores, even if the students can’t afford test-prep courses. So far, the SAT game has been skewed heavily in favor of students who take such courses. They have higher scores, not due to talent or even “grit,” but rather because they come from families with money and time to spare. So they get into college more easily. They get scholarships more easily. In other words, because they had more advantages to start with, they are given more advantages. The Facebook plan wants to offer similar bonuses to students who can’t afford to buy them.

It’s a good idea. And I’m glad Zuckerberg and Chan are looking for ways to give away their money, rather than just guzzling gold smoothies and target-shooting peasants.

But here’s the problem. Test wizard David Coleman of The College Board is over-promising. He is calling the Facebook plan a “Manhattan Project” that will radically improve educational equity. It won’t.

Just like Zuckerberg’s last ill-fated attempt to purchase social justice, this one needs to realize the scope of the problem it claims to address. Giving Cory Booker $100 million will not fix Newark. Making test-prep classes free will not give low-income students equal access to higher education.

The mantra is simple. It is not cynical. It is not depressing. But it does make it difficult for well-meaning reformers to fix things with a single stroke of their check-writing pen. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but here it is again: Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.

In this case, allowing free access to test-prep materials is a good thing. But it does not address the real problems of social equity involved. It is not an accident that college success is based on things like family income and parents’ educational levels.

I’ll say it again: It is a good thing to help students from low-income families do better on high-stakes standardized tests. If the King of Facebook really wants to increase social equality, though, he should not focus on helping some students do better on those tests. He should recognize that fixing schools can only be part of fixing society.

As I argued in my book about educational conservatism, Zuckerberg’s naïve approach to social reform is not just a Facebook quirk. It has been universally accepted by all sorts of school reformers throughout history. No matter what they think society should look like, activists have always blithely assumed that changing schools would automatically make social change happen.

It’s just not that simple.

If Zuckerberg and Chan want to make society more fair, to make things less skewed in favor of the rich, there are still plenty of things they can do. They can even do it by investing in schools. They just need to think differently about the ways schools really work.

What would I do if I had Facebook money? I would invest in schools that don’t rely on SATs in the first place. I’d find schools and programs with proven track records of helping students from low-income families succeed. I’d ignore programs that focus on improving test scores, and donate instead to schools that focus on improving lives.

Priscilla and Mark, please give me a call. We can talk about the details.

How Facebook Can Save America

It won’t be by buying new computers for schools. It won’t even be by dumping bajillions of dollars into schools. But Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that he plans to donate 99% of Facebook shares—some 45 BILLION dollars’ worth—might just make a difference if he can learn from his mistakes.


Take my money…Please!

You’ve seen the story by now. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged oodles of their nerd-gotten gains to help low-income families. Good for them. The danger is that they will continue to misunderstand the nature of the relationship between schooling and society.

Money helps. But in the past, philanthropists in general and Zuckerberg in particular have misunderstood the basic relationships involved. As a result, big money has not made a big impact.

You may have read about Zuckerberg’s ill-fated promises in Newark. Charmed by Mayor Cory Booker, Zuckerberg pledged up to $100 million in matching funds to improve Newark schools.

As journalist Dale Russakoff described in her book The Prize, big dreams petered out into only meh results. Russakoff blamed poor communication between philanthropists, city managers, teachers, and parents. The money, she argued, did not go to the right places at the right time, because Zuckerberg and Booker took a “knight in shining armor” approach to complicated educational problems. Instead of communicating with interested locals, they hired fancy $1000-a-day education consultants. Instead of building a consensus about problems and solutions, they dictated solutions and labeled people as problems.

There is a more basic difficulty, however, that Russakoff did not address. She argued that the roll-out of the Newark plan was flawed and ill-considered. At a more foundational level, however, even the best-considered plans to fix society by fixing schools are doomed.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.

In other words, if a society is racist, dominated by a wealthy elite, and strangled by cultural divisions, a new set of textbooks, computers, or state standards will not change that. Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my recent book, conservative activists repeated progressives’ attempts to reform society by reforming schools. Without the proper understanding of the ways schools function in society, such plans are doomed before they begin.

Consider the sobering example of Native American education. As a recent article in Politico described, government-run schools are a failure. And they fail despite the fact that they spend more money per student than do comparable schools.

The Facebook folks have made some worrying noises. In announcing their gift, they suggested that they were still trapped in their old, mistaken views. They seemed to be saying that society can be healed—poverty can be alleviated—if only we can make sure that all kids have good schools. It is just not that simple.

In their announcement, for instance, Zuckerberg and Chan declared that their money would help level the social playing field. As they put it,

You’ll have technology that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus. You’ll advance quickly in subjects that interest you most, and get as much help as you need in your most challenging areas. You’ll explore topics that aren’t even offered in schools today. Your teachers will also have better tools and data to help you achieve your goals.

Even better, students around the world will be able to use personalized learning tools over the Internet, even if they don’t live near good schools. Of course it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life, but personalized learning can be one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity.

Watch out! Despite their qualification that “it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life,” it sounds as if the rest of their plan depends on their assumption that the right technology can indeed do just that.

To be fair, they make smarter noises elsewhere. They have also argued, for example, that

“We need institutions that understand these issues are all connected.” . . . Only with schools, health centers, parent groups, and organizations working together, they said, “can we start to treat these inequities as connected.”

That is exactly right. Only if we understand that young people are more than just schoolchildren can we see the problem with earlier philanthropic efforts in education.

We need to be careful about the conclusions we draw. Some observers have concluded that since increased spending on schools does not lead to utopia, we don’t need to increase funding for schools. That’s not right.

Rather, we need a better analogy. Spending money on schooling is not like putting a Band-Aid on a gut wound. Rather, spending money on schooling for low-income students is like building a three-legged stool with one strong leg. Only one. Because the other two legs are harder to reach, they are usually ignored. But a three-legged stool needs three strong legs, not just one. The legs need to be improved at the same time, in the same degree, in order to make a real difference.

I’ll say it again and then I’ll be quiet: We DO need to pour money into schools.  But not ONLY into schools.  We need to address questions of poverty and structural racism.

Bill Gates Pushes a Rope

Must be tough. All that money and doodly-squat to show for it.

Bill Gates gave a speech yesterday about his plans to fix American education. He has found the secret, he explained. It took him seven years and ba-jillions of dollars, but he has found it. Seems like he could have just spent a few hours and thirty bucks to discover why his big plans are still doomed to failure.

Gates isn’t alone. Other new-rich tech types have also crashed on the reefs of education reform. Most recently, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg frittered away $100 million in a good-hearted but wrong-headed attempt to help Newark’s public schools.

To be fair, Bill Gates has spent more time and effort (and moolah) than Zuckerberg in his attempts to improve America’s public schools. His foundation has funded a host of reform efforts.

What has he learned? As he put it yesterday,

We set out on this path seven years ago. If I had to place our foundation somewhere on our own learning line today—where the starting point is absolute ignorance and the end point is knowing everything about great teaching and how to spread it—I would say we’re not even halfway to our goal.

But I believe we are on the right track. For today, and for the coming years, this is our vision: Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal. And all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests.

Gates’s current plan focuses on improving teachers. In his words:

Building effective teacher feedback and improvement systems everywhere is the most important movement in American education today.

Good teachers make a huge difference, he argues correctly. And good school districts do what it takes to make their teachers better.

So what is wrong with Gates’s strategy? It’s not a secret and it’s not a surprise. Mr. Gates could have spent a few hours with David Tyack’s and Larry Cuban’s book Tinkering Toward Utopia to figure out something that every veteran teacher knows already. And it would only have cost him thirty bucks.

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair...

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

To wit: Good teachers are hungry for help. They want reform that will help them do a better job at what they are already doing well. But ALL teachers are good at dodging fads and gimmicks. They have to be. Every experienced teacher has survived wave after wave of “the latest thing.” We have tall bookshelves stacked with chart-packed three-ring binders about how to implement each new reform.

Teachers know what to do. When someone offers them something that helps them do it, they jump on board. Smartboards, for example, or teaching teams, are one-time “reforms” that have now become standard operating practice in many public schools. Why? Because they work. They help teachers do a better job at their jobs.

As Tyack and Cuban document, however, history is littered with the Ozymandian dreams of earlier generations of Gateses and Zuckerbergs. At the advent of television in the 1950s, for example, the US government and the Ford Foundation plunked down tens of millions of dollars to have a plane always circling the Great Plains states, broadcasting the latest educational TV programming for schools. No kidding. The plan was to have the country’s smartest experts teaching kids directly. No more vagaries of teacher quality or school efficiency. This multi-million-dollar reform was going to use the latest technology to fix American public schools in one fell swoop.

Did it transform schools? No. Why not? Because good teachers struggled to find a way to incorporate that expensive “reform” into their teaching. For some reason too mysterious for the experts to divine, students in Kansas did not want to sit quietly while fuzzy black-and-white professors laboriously explained sentence structuring or osmosis.

Bill Gates is pushing a rope. Trying to fix America’s teachers from the outside is a losing proposition. The language itself generates its own defeat. Instead of fixing America’s teachers, Gates and other well-heeled know-it-alls should focus on HELPING America’s teachers.