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Anthony Cody: Is There a New Humility at the Gates Foundation?

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Anthony Cody has been a persistent critic of the hubris of the Gates Foundation. Not long ago, he managed to get an agreement from the foundation to engage in a debate about the foundation’s agenda, what it is and what it should be. That debate became the basis for Cody’s recent book The Educator and the Oligarch. Cody wants the foundation to pay more attention to experienced educators, not so much to economists and theoreticians who don’t know much about the realities of classrooms today.

 

In this post, he holds out hope that the foundation might display a new humility because of the recently expressed views of its new CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellman, who taught for two years in Uganda. She was quoted saying,

 

On a very practical level, that time in Uganda was a lesson about what it takes to work successfully in a different culture. “I learned about what it really takes to work at scale in a poor country. As a western academician, as a Gates Foundation person, the first thing you should be doing is listening and learning. And have a huge sense of humility about what you don’t know,” she said.

 

I googled Dr. Desmond-Hellman, and I must say, she has an extraordinarily impressive resume. I think her appointment signals that the Gates Foundation will review and increase its investments in public health, especially in impoverished nations.

 

It is not clear where she might take the foundation’s top-down, heavy-handed education agenda, which has so far produced no results and tremendous hostility towards the foundation. Bill Gates said in 2013 that “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.” It seems that the many teachers and principals who have been fired, the wreckage caused by the foundation’s love of standardized testing and data, are simply collateral damage while Mr. Gates waits to figure out, a decade from now, whether “our education stuff” is working.

 

I am betting on Sue Desmond-Hellman. Something tells me that her life experience is broad enough and deep enough to warn her away from evidence-free experimentation with people’s lives. I may be wrong, but I will take a wait-and-see attitude and hope for the best. Sue, I’m counting on you.

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