Civil Rights? How Gates-driven corporate reforms harm the neediest students

I originally wrote this post for Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates in August 2013.  

Given that proponents of the corporate education agenda continue to claim their reforms address civil rights concerns, and given that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, I thought now would be a good time to share this letter again.  I’m currently working on a new piece on this issue; look for it in the near future.


Dear Bill,

I’d like to believe that everyone who’s interested in education has a common goal: to ensure that each child in America, regardless of race, creed, or circumstance, has access to great public schools. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the education reform policies you promote—which you claim help civil rights causes—actually accomplish the exact opposite goal: they cripple the institution of public education and segregate, divide, and stratify our society—beginning with our children.

The biggest and most central problem with the education reform movement is one that anyone who advocates for civil rights will find uncomfortably familiar: its agenda is driven singularly by generalizations and stereotypes, starting with blanket claims that public schools are failing, teachers are failing, and, most upsetting, that our children are failing. While few people would doubt that there are schools, teachers, and children who could be performing better, it is inappropriate, demoralizing, and ignorant to impose far-reaching, top-down, one-size-fits-all reforms to address a fabricated “crisis.” Have we not learned the degree to which blind, universal statements that fail to consider individuals as such are damaging? Have we not learned that labeling nameless, faceless people (“bad” teachers? “failing” children?) to advance an agenda is unfair and unjust? And have we not learned that aggressively and blindly implementing policies that take resources away from the most disadvantaged communities in America further cripples those communities and the people who live in them?

It’s no secret that reformers and those who take issue with the movement disagree fundamentally on many issues—primarily, the role poverty plays in a child’s academic performance. You acknowledge that you’ve never experienced poverty and claim that you don’t want to “minimize” its effects, but you DO minimize and trivialize the issue when you suggest that people use poverty as an “excuse” for students’ academic struggles. The unfortunate reality is that poverty often becomes a part of a child’s identity, and I’m sure that educators who work with children living below the poverty line could enlighten you about just how difficult it is for so many of their students to even function in an academic setting. You’ve said that “we know it’s possible to have a good school in a poor neighborhood,” yet the schools in poor neighborhoods are the ones that suffer the most from your reforms.

Another current and dangerous reform trend involves placing inexperienced teachers in schools whose children struggle the most. Organizations like Teach for America promote the idea that young, energetic, yet inexperienced teachers are more effective than those who have devoted their careers to education. While there is certainly something to be said for youthful energy, the notion that novice teachers are better equipped to educate our children is exceedingly dangerous—and sends the flawed message that the most untrained teachers (Teach for America’s corps members train for a mere five weeks before they’re placed in a classroom.) are the best equipped to handle students who face the biggest challenges. Virtually all educators know that it takes years for a person to be considered a master teacher, and to put our children’s educations in the hands of people who have neither studied methodology nor been able to refine their craft over the courses of their careers is to do those children a great disservice. And because the inner-city districts that are already financially strapped are the ones recruiting novice teachers like the ones TFA produces, our neediest, most at-risk, and most volatile children are being taught by college graduates who typically intend to teach for a year or two and then move on to bigger and better endeavors. In essence, the academic and social divide reformers claim they seek to repair is actually widened when novice teachers who leave after a couple years of service populate schools filled with struggling students.

Perhaps the most laughable and divisive component of the reform movement is the flawed theory that constant, “rigorous” standardized testing—a money-making outgrowth of the Common Core—will somehow help students. In this punitive and high-stakes culture, children have come to understand that only material that appears on tests is important, and teachers have been forced to teach to a test because of the importance placed on scores. And because Race to the Top links funding to standardized test results, administrators have little choice but to design their programs of studies to center around the exams that reformers have determined are supremely important. Unfortunately, children who excel in arts, music, theater, and other untested subjects lose out on experiences that will benefit them in their future, simply because policymakers have dictated what’s important to learn (math and English) and what’s not—and students in districts plagued by financial turmoil (Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, Los Angeles, Detroit) feel such cuts the most and will soon find themselves even further behind children who come from a more privileged background. The recent release of NY Common Core-aligned test scores showed evidence of as much already, as minority students’ scores dropped at a disproportionate rate. If that’s not humiliating, discouraging, and demoralizing, I don’t know what is.

But the element of reform that I find to be the most disturbing is the one that leads most directly to social stratification and segregation: “school choice”–and the closures of traditional public schools it facilitates. Aside from the loathsome reality that individuals and corporations stand to profit from our children’s educations, the most troubling and fundamentally flawed message school choice sends is that public schools are institutions from which children and families should try to escape—and that charters and private schools are somehow inherently better. How can anyone claim to want to improve public schools—and at once advocate for children to abandon them? For whom, then, should we improve public schools? For the children who have no advocates and so must remain in them? For the children whose parents/guardians have no knowledge, ambition, or means to pursue school choice? For the children who enroll in charter schools but are sent back to public schools because of disciplinary issues? For the children who were denied admission to or pushed out of charter or private schools because of special needs? Unfortunately, such children will be left with in bare-bones, standardized, test-prep factories staffed with novice teachers and run by Broad (or otherwise superficially-trained) superintendents. Public schools will continue to close, a disproportionate percentage of minority students will be displaced, and already-volatile communities will be further disrupted in the name of education “reform.”

So my questions, Bill, are simple: how can you—and everyone who supports you—continue to justify the reforms you promote when it’s glaringly obvious that they hurt disadvantaged children (a disproportionate percentage of whom are minorities), their schools, and their communities? How many thousands of educators need to be laid off, how many programs need to be cut, and how many schools need to be closed for people to understand that the reform agenda involves making conditions in public schools so deplorable that charters and private schools are the only acceptable options for children? And most importantly, how can you, in good conscience, believe that you can deceive, propagandize, and fund civil rights groups into believing that what you’re doing is actually good for minority children—when all tangible and observable evidence points to the the opposite?

Ani McHugh


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