Monday Reading List: Philanthropy, System Change, and Racist Algorithms

Sarah Darville of Chalkbeat looks at a significant shift in strategy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

Its massive education funding efforts have helped spread small high schools, charter schools, and efforts to overhaul teacher evaluations. Now, the Gates Foundation is going in a new direction. In a speech Thursday, Bill Gates said the foundation is about to launch a new, locally driven effort to help existing public schools improve. The idea is to fund “networks” that help public schools improve by scrutinizing student achievement data and getting schools to share their best ideas, he said. Of the $1.7 billion the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will spend on U.S. education over the next five years, more than 60 percent will go to these networks — dwarfing the amount to be spent on charter schools, about 15 percent.

The United States spends more than $600 billion per year on schools, and all philanthropy in education adds - at most - another $60 billion, accounting for less than 10% of all spending.* Despite constituting a relatively small percentage of total spending, charitable giving has changed dramatically in the last generation. Whereas philanthropists of yore were likely to view donations as "charity," large institutional philanthropies like the Gates Foundation think of their gifts as "investments" that need to deliver either a demonstrable "return on investment" or "systemic change." The Gates Foundation and its peers think of their donations as leverage, through which they can use relatively small amounts of money to hasten their preferred changes to the broader education system. That's why this news important.


Speaking of systemic change, Carolyn Phenicie of The 74 interviewed Antwan Wilson, the chancellor of the DC Public Schools, a system that has transformed dramatically in the last decade:

A decade ago, former mayor Adrian Fenty and hard-charging chancellor Michelle Rhee instituted a number of sweeping reforms, including mayoral control, a teachers contract that rewards top-performing educators, and closure of underenrolled and poor-performing schools. Now test scores are going up — it was the fastest-improving big-city district, as judged by a 2015 national test — and its high school graduation rate rose 16 percentage points in five years. The man charged with continuing that progress, while getting at the continuing disparities across the city, is Antwan Wilson, who began his tenure as chancellor in February after leading the Oakland, California, schools.

DC is a fascinating story, and I need to admit my biases here: I worked in the system as a cabinet member until 2009 and also participated in a fellowship with Chancellor Wilson. Don't just take my word on the level of interest and complexity in DC, though; read the article!

In other news, the Blavity team examined a workshop that encourages more Black scientists to work in artificial intelligence:

Black researchers aren't standing by as future artificial intelligence recreate the racial bias people of color face in the present. They are taking it upon themselves to make the A.I. fair for everyone.  On Dec. 8, black computer scientists will converge on Long Beach, California for the first ever Black in AI event/workshop at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems that will serve as a meeting place for "sharing ideas, fostering collaborations and discussing initiatives to increase the presence of Black people in the field of Artificial Intelligence."  While the event sounds incredible on paper, critics from the tech industry came out of the woodwork as news about the event spread across social media. Many of these critics claimed that the Black in A.I. Workshop is segregationist and political correctness is running amok. 
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Of course they overreacted. What the haters don't realize is that there are real racial biases baked into artificial intelligence, system interfaces, and data algorithms. The article goes on to explain the various ways in which algorithmic decision-making can discriminate against people of color.

Finally today, Carolyn Jones of The Atlantic looks at the effects of wildfires on California schools:

Teachers, administrators and parents—many of whom either lost their own homes or are hosting families who did—are working to prepare for the gradual re-opening of schools in fire-ravaged areas of Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties. Some schools began welcoming back students on last Monday, but others closer to the fire zones will remain closed at least through this week. And some will never re-open, because they burned to the ground.

Different communities respond to disasters in different ways. It's important to remember, though, that the most economically insecure families have the most difficult time bouncing back from these events. Keep that in mind as you interact with the children in your lives and schools.

Have a wonderful week! 

Update: A philanthropist reader pointed out that the $60BB number accounts for all education-related philanthropy in the United States, which includes spending on private schools and higher education. While exact numbers for public education philanthropy are hard to assess, the number is likely much lower.