An Open Letter to Big Brother Bill Gates

Dear Big Brother Bill:

You know that feeling you get when you think you’re doing something good—and then you realize you’re actually doing harm? Wait…you might not. Hold that thought.

WOW—I have so many things to say to you. In the interest of time, though, I’ll narrow my focus to address only your most recent (creepy) ideas.

Let me start by saying that I think it’s very admirable that you so generously share your money for the sake of education. Really. Given that poverty is one of the biggest impediments to academic achievement, people like you, who have the means and generosity to donate large amounts of money, have the power to make real changes in our schools—and in our communities.

It’s clear that you’re a wise investor, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that you’re making bad investments that won’t get you the return (better public schools and higher, higher-achieving kids, and better teaching) you’re looking for. Instead, they’ll have the direct opposite effect.

And honestly, at this point, I’m just freaked out. For real.

In November, you gave Clemson a grant that helps them slap Galvanic Skin Response bracelets on kids to measure their physiological engagement in the classroom. Aside from the fact that this sounds like a technique used to make sure convicted felons don’t escape from their houses or dogs don’t escape from their yards (are you gonna zap the kids or anything? Can they zap each other?), this is just creepy. And when staffers incorrectly (so you say) reported that these bracelets would help measure teacher effectiveness, your foundation released a statement assuring that wasn’t the case. Why would your staffers incorrectly report such a thing? Teachers aren’t ever judged on the degree to which their students are engaged in the classroom! Oh wait…yes they are.

Come on. Teachers are smarter than you give them credit for, and we can see past your veiled intentions.

And now you’re willing to round up $5 billion to install cameras in every classroom in the United States. Are you serious?! All the poverty…all the kids who come to school hungry…all the kids with special needs…all the districts laying off teachers, cutting art and music programs, and closing neighborhood schools…and you want to spend five billion dollars to videotape teachers?! I guess it’s not enough for you that we use computer-scored standardized tests to determine teachers’ livelihoods—now we need video cameras in classrooms to watch (this word doesn’t seem creepy enough…spy on? hawk? monitor?) teachers? Wait, here’s your justification—in case you’ve forgotten: “We still give [teachers] almost no feedback that actually helps them improve their practice. Our teachers deserve better.”

Teachers deserve better? They deserve feedback from a camcorder? Or will an actual human being provide feedback? (You know, like administrators are supposed to do—in person?) If a human being actually does provide feedback, will he do so only after spending his days holed up in a bunker with a wall of monitors in front of him, playing the role of a prison security guard who stares mindlessly at black-and-white screens while teachers stand on their heads in classrooms and teach to the ridiculously flawed tests you’re shoving down their throats? And who, exactly, will this human being be? (Will it be you?! If so, let me know so I can do my hair.) I’m so confused.

Cameras are another (creepy) step toward completely depersonalizing education. Students are statistics, and their teachers are too. If cameras are installed in every classroom, you’ll REALLY have public schools filled with kids and teachers mechanically repeating English and math drills to prepare for standardized tests that will determine which kids are smart and which teachers are best at test prep. (I also imagine them to be wearing helmets that look like mixing bowls with leads wired to their heads, but I realize that might not be part of your plan. Yet.)

Is that what you want?

Back to my original question: You know that feeling you get when you think you’re doing something good—and then you realize you’re actually doing harm? I’ve experienced it, and it’s not a good feeling—and the only way to get rid of that bad feeling is to change your course of action and make up for the damage you’ve done.

Again, I sincerely appreciate your philanthropy and what I hope are your good intentions. I think your money would be better spent, though, fixing the problems in society (poverty, absentee parents, substance abuse, to name a few) that set kids up to fail before they even walk through their classroom doors into kindergarten.



Filed under Letters

6 responses to “An Open Letter to Big Brother Bill Gates

  1. Monica Mayall

    I love this! I have sat down so many times and outlined a letter such as this. Cudos for actually doing it publicly. You represent my feelings, after working under Gate’s Grants Reform for the last five years, exactly.

  2. One clarification. I do not believe Bill Gates has himself offered to pay the $5 billion price tag for this video-based evaluation system. This would mainly be public ed money that would be diverted for this purpose. Here was my response:

    • Thank you, Anthony. I tweaked a couple of things, because as you point out, my original word choice was misleading. My primary concern remains the same: that amount of money, no matter where it comes from, needs to be spent to help the students and schools who need it the most. Thank you for everything you do for teachers, students, and public ed.!

  3. Lori

    Nice work. This is a much needed start to dialogue with Gates. Wealth does not impart automatic wisdom to the answers to the world’s ills. If Bill really does want to use his wealth to help education, a good place to start is dialogue with those of us in the class room. We’ll see if education improvement really is his endgame. Thank you for your efforts.

  4. RetiringTeacher

    What a timely post. Orwell is always relevant but especially now as we are in the midst of the Edward Snowden affair. So government agencies claim massive surveillance practices are necessary to “keep us safe,” and the corporate reform movement claims that cameras in classrooms are necessary to “help” teachers. Wow. How, in 1948, did Orwell know? Next thing to look into is corporate/administrative/departments of education doublespeak.

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