Gates Want Taxpayers to Subsidize Ed Tech Research by Anthony Cody, Author of The Educator and the Oligarch
Bill Gates has posted a blog in which he argues for government investment in various sectors, including educational technology. He suggests that the government should:
Provide everyone on earth with affordable energy without contributing to climate change.
Develop a vaccine for HIV and a cure for neurodegenerative diseases.
Protect the world from future health epidemics, which might be more infectious than Ebola and more deadly than Zika.
Give every student and teacher new tools so all students get a world-class education.
I agree with him that the government should be supporting research in the first three arenas he suggests. However, his argument for educational technology is not very strong. He writes:
Technology can make teachers’ jobs easier and their work more effective by letting them upload videos of themselves in the classroom, connect with other teachers, watch the best educators at work, and get real-time feedback from their students. The private sector has started work on these ideas, but funding for government research budgets would boost the market and help identify the most effective approaches, giving teachers and students new tools that empower them to do their best work.
But while he suggests that these technologies are “in their infancy,” actually, everything he mentions has been around for a decade or more. Let’s look at his concrete ideas:
Teachers uploading and watching videos of one another teaching: There is no technological barrier to teachers uploading videos of themselves, or watching videos of others. And the Gates Foundation MET Project has already invested millions of dollars in this concept, creating a library of model lessons in a partnership with the National Board. I do not think there is any evidence to show this has been successful.
Real-time feedback from students: The Gates Foundation’s MET Project also suggested using student surveys to gather feedback on instruction, and suggests that combining this survey data with observations and student test scores yields useful information for purposes of teacher evaluation. I am rather agnostic on this one. I certainly agree that it is useful to know what students think about how they are learning. I just do not understand why technology is relevant here. As a teacher, I am getting constant “real-time” feedback on how I am teaching, and anyone in the classroom can observe it as well. It can be made formal and systematic through surveys, but I am having a hard time envisioning any great leap in technology that will give this practice more value.
The real wonder is that after making education the central focus for Bill Gates’ philanthropy in the US for the past decade, this is all he comes up with.
And what does he imagine government should invest in that he has not already tried? The Gates Foundation spent something like $45 million on the Measures of Effective Teaching project, and we have seen few useful insights as a result.
Bill Gates has already succeeded in getting federal and state governments spending billions on his previous project, the Common Core. But the Gates Foundation made a terrible strategic error at the outset, in assuming that standardized test scores could be used as “outcomes” that would indicate the quality of education. First, the Department of Education invested $300 million in developing the SBAC and PARCC tests, and then states have paid billions more to administer these tests, and purchase new curricula aligned with them. There were all sorts of lofty promises that this would lift student achievement, but thus far we have seen little evidence of a positive impact.
There is a role for government investment in education, and even in educational research. But Gates needs to make a much stronger case for investment in educational technology. After all the billions that has been invested in this arena, we have still yet to see any real evidence that technology helps students learn. Gates himself commented on the poor results a couple of years ago, saying that the problem is that technology only tends to benefit those that are motivated. He added “And the one thing we have a lot of in the US is unmotivated students.”
It is also worth noting that “government investment” means we are spending taxpayer dollars. And the Microsoft corporation, where Gates remains a major shareholder, is among the corporations now shifting profits overseas to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. This report in the Seattle Times explains:
Cash doesn’t flow directly from buyers’ pockets to Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash.
Instead, the company operates through three regional sales units, centered in Ireland, Singapore and Puerto Rico. These groups control the rights to profit from Microsoft products around the world.
By conducting sales from places with small populations and low tax rates, and routing some profit through virtually tax-free jurisdictions like Bermuda, Microsoft has cut billions of dollars from its tax bill over the last decade.
If Gates thinks our government should invest in these various research projects, he ought to make sure the company he founded pays its fair share of taxes.
Technology is a part of our lives, and I am not arguing that we strip our schools of technological tools. Skilled teachers can take the latest tech tools and find ways to use them in the classroom with their students – especially in middle and high school. This results in students who can use technology to reshape the world. But the argument for an innovative tech-driven revolution in education has yet to bear much fruit. Some of the most successful schools, even in Silicon Valley, leave the laptops and iPads turned off and are finding students are better off as a result.
Thus far the Gates Foundation has not seemed able to crack the code of how students learn, or what motivates them. Perhaps if they shifted away from their fixation on test scores, they might get somewhere. Meanwhile, scarce tax dollars should not be spent on these hollow ideas.
What do you think? Should the government be subsidizing research in educational technologies?
For more discussion of the Gates Foundation’s work in education reform, please see The Educator and the Oligarch, a Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation.
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Winner of the 2015 George Orwell Award, given by the NCTE Public Language Awards Committee of the National Council of Teachers of English. “Congratulations, and thank you for your efforts to promote honesty and clarity in public language”. – NCTE Awards Committee, NCTE
“A powerful and important book by one of the most courageous advocates for sanity and simple justice in our public schools.” – Jonathan Kozol
“This book is a record of Anthony Cody’s valiant struggle to force the nation’s most powerful foundation and richest person to listen to the voice of an experienced teacher.” – Diane Ravitch
“Anthony Cody’s new book is a requirement for teachers in an era defined by the Gates Foundation’s attempt to turn classrooms into a test prep centers.” – Jesse Hagopian
“Anthony Cody’s book is a timely and concise reminder of just how much of a spoiled man’s playground American public education has become to Gates and his profound net worth.” – Mercedes Schneider
“Anthony Cody’s new book The Educator and the Oligarch is a brilliant, point by point challenge to Bill Gates role in undermining public education in the United States.” – Mark Naison