If Gates was this wrong about mining student data . . .


by David Safier

Since 2008 the Bill Gates Foundation has spent $2 billion funding education research and intiatives. That kind of money buys a whole lot of influence. Having people who used to work for the Gates Foundation working in the U.S. Department of Ed and education think tanks across the country multiplies his influence. Most of Gates' efforts fit into the conservative "education reform" agenda which is heavily funded by other members of the Billionaire Boys Club, a group of rich people who are sure they know more about education than educators.

Gates made billions rolling the dice on a few high tech ideas. Since a good number of his rolls came up sevens and elevens, he assumes he can come up with winning ideas in any field, including education. It's a ridiculous assumption. Education isn't a profit-loss business. The classroom isn't the board room. But Gates believes in himself, and he's got the billions to put his ideas into practice.

Which brings us to inBloom, an enterprise funded by $100 million in Gates Foundation money. The basic idea behind inBloom is, create a gigantic national database with as much information about students as you can gather from school districts: everything from names, addresses and social security numbers to illnesses, learning disabilities and disciplinary problems. If it's data and it's about students, it's fair game. Then let the database be watched over by the education division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and stored on Amazon's computers. Private education companies can tap into the data to tailor educational software to individual students.

Seven states decided to give inBloom a test run, until word got out about this unconscionable invasion of students' privacy, with no parental consent necessary and no legal repercussions for inBloom if the data is misused or hacked into. Now only two states are left: New York and Illinois. I doubt they'll buy into the Gates/Murdoch scheme much longer.

At one time, Gates funded a small schools project, which he was sure would be the salvation of U.S. education, then decided it wasn't such a good idea and abandoned it. Now he's funding the Great Teacher initiative, which begins with the obvious — some teachers are better than others — and makes a gigantic leap to the idea that we can use that obvious conclusion to create Super Teachers by the millions, thereby saving the nation's youth from mediocrity and the scourge of international competition. And he's also a prime funder of the Common Core, a set of standards created with little input from teachers and other educators, which will replace the No Child Left Behind testing regimen with the highest high stakes tests we've ever seen.

Gates can be wrong to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, shrug it off like a bad roll of the dice and put hundreds of millions of dollars more on the table to back his next big idea for "fixing" U.S. education. Money buys influence. It buys the loyalty of politicians and scholars and school districts. And if he's wrong again, well, here comes another hundred million, or two or three, to finance his next can't-miss educational gamble.