Educators should be asked to help re-imagine NY Schools.
By Doug Roberts, Institute for Education Innovation Founder/CEO
IEI is based in New York and we have a strong delegation of member superintendents from here. Most New Yorkers I know of all political stripes think that Governor Cuomo has handled this crisis pretty well, all things considered. Then, yesterday, the Gov dropped the “GF” words on us. No, not “Gluten Free”, though I must admit that Gluten has been one of my primary coping mechanisms for the quarantine.
Specifically, the Governor said that he is working with Bill Gates to “reimagine” NY’s public schools. Understandably, this sent shudders throughout all of NY Public Education-dom. The Gates Foundation has brought us all kinds of “reforms” in public education. We had a push for breaking large schools into small ones; we have Common Core; we’ve had efforts to improve Teacher Effectiveness. What have all these had in common? No measurable impact on student outcomes. What else have they had in common? Billions of philanthropic $$ spent that could have been redirected to the school agencies that desperately need those funds. Here we are today, with districts across NY and the nation scrambling to get access to hotspots or LTE-enabled devices so kids who don’t have internet at home can try to keep pace with their wealthier classmates. The idea that there is time and space to spend billions on experiments is kind of crazy, but what’s heartbreaking is that it happens anyway. Why? Human nature. The boss’s jokes are always funny. You always want to be friends with the people who have the money. If the billionaire philanthropist wants to try something out in your district, it’s hard to say “no.”
But we have to start saying “no.” Or at least- “No, not in the way you want to help.”
The experts on reimagining public schools are teachers, teachers’ aides, student services staff, custodians, bus drivers, support staff, psychologists, social workers, nurses, guidance counselors, principals, administrators, board members, and perhaps most importantly, superintendents. At IEI, we are partial to supes, of course, because of what we do to support the professional development needs of our national network of superintendent members. But who else has the knowledge and experience from the classroom to the cat-bird’s seat? Who else has built and revised multi-million and billion-dollar budgets to run schools? Who else has had to face the voting public month in and month out with decisions and proposals, and then hear input and feedback from the communities they serve? Superintendents are so important to the thought process and decision-making that will come next as we figure out how to get kids back to school.
The thing is, if you read more of the Governor’s words from the presser where he dropped the GF bomb, you see words that sound an awful lot like words we’ve written or discussed on our podcast. This is an opportunity to rethink some things, to truly build student-centered solutions without some of the restrictions that used to block innovation. IEI is on board for that and always has been. We are currently engaged in an “UnWorkshop” to discuss this very idea- how can we think outside the box and put systems in place based on what kids need, not based on the norms or the restrictions that we had before COVID. In our first idea exchange on this topic, the top-rated thoughts from our group pushed for competency-based assessments and the potential for regional office hours where students can get support close to home, among other ideas.
For years in the K12 industry, The Gates Foundation has been able to play the role of kingmaker for nascent education companies. If Gates liked what you were doing, especially if they wrote you a check, your business had a shot to succeed, regardless of whether district leaders thought it was a viable or effective solution. Often, Gates would give districts money to try out solutions and products that would not otherwise have been procured. This meant that other solution providers who were working their way through the procurement process to be adopted in a district were shut out. For every company that was helped by Gates, there were several whose innovations were stunted, despite their own best efforts. This kind of philanthropy manipulates the open market forces in our business, bypassing the traditional grass roots decision-making processes around new solutions that we see in so many districts, especially within the IEI network (as discussed recently on the Talk Supes Podcast).
The Gates Foundation and its founders, Bill and Melinda Gates, surely should be commended for their willingness to put their money where their mouths are, and I don’t doubt that they have the most noble of intentions in offering to partner with Governor Cuomo on the plan for going back to school this fall. Surely, researchers at the Foundation have done work around these topics, and all of us should welcome their input in the process. But we need to say “No” to unfettered ‘assistance” from GF.
Governor, we fully support the conversation around reimagining NY schools. We just think we should be your thought partners on it, not the Gates Foundation. And by “we,” I don’t mean just IEI. “We” = superintendents, administrators, teachers, parents, board members, social workers, school nurses across NY. When’s the next task force meeting? How many delegates can we send? We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and help out! IEI has been talking about this for a few years, with a specific emphasis on structural changes to ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to learn regardless of socio-economic status, identity, or geographic isolation. Put us in, coach!
If the Gates Foundation really wants to help NY schools, why not ask them to commit funds and research resources, but have them stop short at developing policy?
As an industry and as a community, we do best when we focus on the needs of students and build our solutions and strategies around how to best engage the leaders of the school agencies who serve those students. Student needs should drive the why and how of our work. Bowing down at the altar of billionaires and philanthropists has not served us well in the last 20 years in terms of improving outcomes for kids. It’s time for us to stop looking for heroes to worship and realize that the heroes in public education are the ones who run our schools day-in and day-out. Educators are best positioned to re-imagine New York’s schools!
The author is the Founder and CEO of The Institute for Education Innovation, a national think tank of school superintendents who gather virtually and in-person throughout the year to discuss bold ideas, share best practices, and solve the challenges facing our students in public schools.