Former New York Times Columnist Bob Herbert on How Millionaire and Billionaire School Reformers Are Ruining Public Education in the United States

BillGates5By Elaine Magliaro

Last week, I wrote a post about Bob Herbert and his new book titled Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America. Herbert, who was a columnist for the New York Times for eighteen years, is now “a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, a national think tank that works to promote economic opportunity and equity for all Americans, democracy, and a strong public sector.” Recently, Herbert talked with Bill Moyers on Moyers & Company about the inequality of income and wealth in our country—which he thinks should be a great cause for concern for Americans. Herbert said that the United States is becoming a place of limited expectations” instead of a “land of opportunity” for all.

On October 6th, Politico published an article that Herbert wrote about wealthy school reformers and how they are having a negative impact on public education in this country. In The Plot against Public Education, Herbert talks about how millionaires and billionaires are “ruining our schools.” He says the school reformers’ “let’s try this, let’s try that” approach to improving public schools “has been a hallmark” of their “efforts in recent years.’


Herbert provides an example of what he calls the reformers’ “hit-or-miss attitude” with regard to implementing new educational approaches—Bill Gates’ idea to break up large high schools. Herbert said that Gates “backed his small-schools initiative with enormous amounts of cash. So, without a great deal of thought, one school district after another signed on to the notion that large public high schools should be broken up and new, smaller schools should be created.” Herbert said that establishing these smaller schools—or academies as some called them—within larger schools “was an inherently messy process”—and that the details appear not to have been well hashed out. But Gates was “on a mission to transform American education” and wasn’t concerned about the nitty-gritty—such as what might happen when you had “two, three or more schools competing for space and resources in one building.” Herbert said, “That caused all sorts of headaches: Which schools would get to use the science labs, or the gyms? How would the cafeterias be utilized? And who was responsible for policing the brawls among students from rival schools?”


From 2000 to 2009, he spent $2 billion and disrupted 8 percent of the nation’s public high schools before acknowledging that his experiment was a flop. The size of a high school proved to have little or no effect on the achievement of its students. At the same time, fewer students made it more difficult to field athletic teams. Extracurricular activities withered. And the number of electives offered dwindled.

Gates said it himself in the fall of 2008, “Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for.”

Herbert said there “was very little media coverage of this experiment gone terribly wrong. A billionaire had had an idea. Many thousands had danced to his tune. It hadn’t worked out. C’est la vie.” Despite this failure, Gates was undeterred. Herbert said Gates and his foundation then “quickly turned to the task of trying to fix the nation’s teachers. They were determined, one way or another, to powerfully influence American public education.”

Herbert said that although Gates’ desire to improve the quality of education in this country may be sincere, the billionaire’s “outsized influence on school policy has, to say the least, not always been helpful.” After his first debacle at school reform, Gates and his foundation invested their efforts toward the idea of “putting a great teacher into every classroom.” Gates admitted that there was no “road map for doing that.” He said, “Unfortunately, it seems that the field doesn’t have a clear view on the characteristics of great teaching. Is it using one curriculum over another? Is it extra time after school? We don’t really know.”

But what the heck?! Gates is rich. People will listen to his school reform ideas even though he has no experience as an educator or as a public school administrator. Better to listen to him than to those who work as professional educators and understand the nitty-gritty of running a successful school or teaching a classroom of children/young adults.



The experiments trotted out by the big-money crowd have been all over the map. But if there is one broad approach (in addition to the importance of testing) that the corporate-style reformers and privatization advocates have united around, it’s the efficacy of charter schools. Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish, no matter how poor they were or how chaotic their home environments.

Corporate leaders, hedge fund managers and foundations with fabulous sums of money at their disposal lined up in support of charter schools, and politicians were quick to follow. They argued that charters would not only boost test scores and close achievement gaps but also make headway on the vexing problem of racial isolation in schools.

None of it was true. Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools. In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes. And the levels of racial segregation and isolation in charter schools were often scandalous. While originally conceived a way for teachers to seek new ways to reach the kids who were having the most difficult time, the charter school system instead ended up leaving behind the most disadvantaged youngsters.


While few people would accuse Bill Gates, a billionaire school reformer, of “acting out of greed,” Herbert says that isn’t true of many other school reformers for whom “a huge financial return has been the primary motivation.”


While schools and individual districts were being starved of resources, the system itself was viewed as a cash cow by so-called education entrepreneurs determined to make a killing. Even in the most trying economic times, hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, earmarked for the education of children from kindergarten through the twelfth grade, are appropriated each year. For corporate types, especially for private equity and venture capital firms, that kind of money can prove irresistible. And the steadily increasing influence of free-market ideology in recent years made public education fair game.


Herbert provides much more information about what has been going on in this country in the name of “school reform” in his excellent article The Plot Against Public Education: How Millionaires and Billionaires Are Ruining Our Schools. Click here to read the entire article.


FURTHER READING (Flowers for Socrates)

Why Are Campbell Brown, David Boies, Robert Gibbs, Hedge Fund Managers, and Other Wealthy Elites Going after Public School Teachers and Their Right to Due Process?, PART I

Why Are Campbell Brown, David Boies, Robert Gibbs, Hedge Fund Managers, and Other Wealthy Elites Going after Public School Teachers and Their Right to Due Process? Part II: David Boies, Star Lawyer and School Reformer

Who the F*ck is Dan Loeb and How Is He Connected to Teacher Pensions and School Reformers?

Is Campbell Brown the New Michelle Rhee of School Reform?

Charter Schools and The Profit Motive

Public Schools for Sale?: Diane Ravitch Talks with Bill Moyers about the Privatization of Public Education

A Look at Some of the Driving Forces behind the School Reform Movement and the Effort to Privatize Public Education

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18 Responses to Former New York Times Columnist Bob Herbert on How Millionaire and Billionaire School Reformers Are Ruining Public Education in the United States

  1. buckaroo says:

    Awhile back I wrote regaring a blue collar relative who would like to start his own business – I touch upon how difficult it is to start a business as a tradesman ? Most of the people in today’s society are seeking to be employed by a corporation because of the perks. Many if not most of these perquisites are not available to the self-employed because of the tax code. Perhaps one of these time it might be nice to address the plight of the small startup blue collar worker & his problems. Also lets stop acting like the party in power is not involved with others in this conspiracy by talking about income rather than wealth to tax. They are aware of the difference

  2. Elaine M. says:


    You are welcome to start your own blog in order to write about topics that interest you. I’ve done it before on Blogger. It’s quite easy.

    “Also lets stop acting like the party in power is not involved with others in this conspiracy by talking about income rather than wealth to tax. They are aware of the difference”

    I said nothing about political parties in my post. What conspiracy are you talking about? The school reform conspiracy?

  3. pete says:


    What I find most disgusting about this is the arrogance that some people have in meddling in the lives and learning of the children that are affected by their experimentation. What if they’re wrong, oops, my bad, sorry for screwing up your life? Do the people doing the experimenting suffer any consequences at all for their actions?
    These are peoples lives not pieces on a game board.

  4. buckaroo says:

    Seems to me that public school is about taxes – who pays & who doesn’t – maybe the readers of this blog disagree ? Perhaps we should ask them before I’m told that it isn’t salient to this consequential analysis

  5. Mike Spindell says:

    “Seems to me that public school is about taxes – who pays & who doesn’t – maybe the readers of this blog disagree?”

    I can’t speak for all the readers of this blog, but I personally disagree with the idea that “public school is about taxes”. Tom me public education is about the need for government to educate its citizenry and for almost all of the industrialized countries in this world that is a common belief.

    Secondly, while your entitled to making it, Elaine was correct in commenting that your point is irrelevant to the discussion. The topic of this piece is about whether or not one agrees or disagrees with the idea that wealthy people are negatively influencing our public school system for profit and politics.

    While someone who writes here may find the topic you suggest to be worth exploring, in this piece’s context it is something of a non sequitur. Perhaps you might want to post your thoughts in our suggestions section?

  6. po says:

    Enlightening post, Elaine. I thought Gates was the only one billionaire not to impose his money and ideology domestically. I thought he was busy doing good internationally, and even there, I gave him the benefit of the doubt for I could not see a reason not to.
    I listened to his wife on NPR’s Fresh air recently, and thought there were some red flags regarding their international aid endeavor, but there was not one single mention of the school issue, that I can recall.
    Money and fame must have this side effect that one become necessarily empowered to improve society politically or socially.

  7. Elaine M. says:


    You might find the following article about Bill gates and Common Core interesting:

    How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution

    What followed was one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history.

    The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn’t just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards. With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes.

  8. Elaine M. says:


    Bill Gates needs to drop his Common Core obsession
    The billionaire’s latest little fixation is catching hell on all sides. Here’s why he’s better off simply moving on

    It’s hard to envision Bill Gates not getting exactly what he wants, or backing down from anything. However, that was before he became the sugar daddy and primary backer of the Common Core State Standards, which have raised the ire of parents, students and educators in the past year. As Common Core critics began pushing back against adoption of the standards and influencing several state legislatures to cut ties with Common Core, Gates and his foundation found themselves in the unusual position of backpedaling last month.

    In a surprising act of damage control, the pro-Core Gates Foundation took to the pages of the New York Times with an open letter calling for a two-year delay in the use of Common Core-linked tests as measures for teacher and student accountability. Gates Foundation director Vickie Philips conceded frustrations with Common Core, writing, “No evaluation system will work unless teachers believe it is fair and reliable. The standards need time to work. Teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests and offer their feedback.”

    Of course, educators know those considerations should have been obvious from the beginning, long before states were coerced into adopting the standards, in some cases unseen. For a successful businessman, Gates has been rather negligent in testing, piloting and evaluating an unproven product like Common Core before selling it to an unsuspecting public. Experts in education like Dr. Diane Ravitch know there is a time-honored process to review policies and standards. Bill Gates, however, is far from being an education expert.

    He is, instead, a billionaire who believes his wealth and business success qualify him to set education policy.

  9. Elaine M. says:

    Bill Gates Imposes Microsoft Model on School Reform: Only to Have the Company Junk It After It Failed
    New school systems are stuck with a model designed to trash teachers, while Microsoft employees collaborate and work on teams.

    November 26, 2013 |

    Schools have a lot to learn from business about how to improve performance, Bill Gates declared in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2011. He pointed to his own company as a worthy model for public schools.

    “At Microsoft, we believed in giving our employees the best chance to succeed, and then we insisted on success. We measured excellence, rewarded those who achieved it and were candid with those who did not.”

    Adopting the Microsoft model means public schools grading teachers, rewarding the best and being “candid”—that is, firing those who are deemed ineffective. “If you do that,” Gates promised Oprah Winfrey, “then we go from being basically at the bottom of the rich countries to being back at the top.”

    The Microsoft model, called “stacked ranking,” forced every work unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.

    Using hundred of millions of dollars in philanthropic largesse, Bill Gates persuaded state and federal policymakers that what was good for Microsoft would be good for the public schools system (to be sure, he was pushing against an open door). To be eligible for large grants from President Obama’s Race to the Top program, for example, states had to adopt Gates’ Darwinian approach to improving public education. Today more than 36 states have altered their teacher evaluations systems with the aim of weeding out the worst and rewarding the best.

    Some states grade on a curve. Others do not. But all embrace the principle that teachers continuing employment will depend on improvement in student test scores, and teachers who are graded “ineffective” two or three years in a row face termination.

    Needless to say, the whole process of what has come to be called “high stakes testing” of both students and teachers has proven devastatingly dispiriting. According to the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, over half of public school teachers say they experience great stress several days a week and are so demoralized that their level of satisfaction has plummeted from 62 percent to 39 percent since 2008.

    Now, just as public school systems have widely adopted the Microsoft model in order to win the Race to the Top, it turns out that Microsoft realizes its model has led the once highly competitive company in a race to the bottom.

    In a widely circulated 2012 article in Vanity Fair, two-time George Polk Award winner Kurt Eichenwald concluded that stacked ranking “effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate.” He writes, “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

    This month Microsoft abandoned the hated system.

  10. po says:

    Thanks for the links, this is pretty fascinating. Even more so was the fact, as you say, that it seemed to have existed in a vacuum.
    Reveals a great deal about not only the man himself but also the misguided/interested collusion that impact every aspect of our lives. The power of money is so disruptive, even more so when the 1% use it to perform their social experiments on the rest of us.
    Education is one of those areas where any misstep ends up costing generations, and to just upend it on the basis of one conversation is mind-boggling.

  11. blouise says:

    I was woefully uneducated in this matter and, once again, thank you for focusing my attention on a subject about which there is much to learn.

    One thing I can opine is my belief that our public schools are always looking for ways to improve and, in some cases, falling for that age old American myth that people who have made a lot of money are somehow smarter than the rest of us.

  12. Mike Spindell says:

    The following from the Wikipedia entry on Bill Gates explains why he shouldn’t have anything to do with public education planning.

    “Gates was born in Seattle, Washington, in an upper-middle-class family, the son of William H. Gates, Sr. and Mary Maxwell Gates. His ancestral origin includes English, German, and Scots-Irish. His father was a prominent lawyer, and his mother served on the board of directors for First Interstate BancSystem and the United Way. Gates’s maternal grandfather was JW Maxwell, a national bank president. Gates has one elder sister, Kristi (Kristianne), and one younger sister, Libby. He was the fourth of his name in his family, but was known as William Gates III or “Trey” because his father had the “II” suffix. Early on in his life, Gates’s parents had a law career in mind for him. When Gates was young, his family regularly attended a Congregational church. The family encouraged competition; one visitor reported that “it didn’t matter whether it was hearts or pickleball or swimming to the dock … there was always a reward for winning and there was always a penalty for losing”.

    At 13, he enrolled in the Lakeside School, an exclusive preparatory school. When he was in the eighth grade, the Mothers Club at the school used proceeds from Lakeside School’s rummage sale to buy a Teletype Model 33 ASR terminal and a block of computer time on a General Electric (GE) computer for the school’s students. Gates took an interest in programming the GE system in BASIC, and was excused from math classes to pursue his interest. He wrote his first computer program on this machine: an implementation of tic-tac-toe that allowed users to play games against the computer. Gates was fascinated by the machine and how it would always execute software code perfectly. When he reflected back on that moment, he said, “There was just something neat about the machine.” After the Mothers Club donation was exhausted, he and other students sought time on systems including DEC PDP minicomputers. One of these systems was a PDP-10 belonging to Computer Center Corporation (CCC), which banned four Lakeside students—Gates, Paul Allen, Ric Weiland, and Kent Evans—for the summer after it caught them exploiting bugs in the operating system to obtain free computer time.

    At the end of the ban, the four students offered to find bugs in CCC’s software in exchange for computer time. Rather than use the system via Teletype, Gates went to CCC’s offices and studied source code for various programs that ran on the system, including programs in Fortran, Lisp, and machine language. The arrangement with CCC continued until 1970, when the company went out of business. The following year, Information Sciences, Inc. hired the four Lakeside students to write a payroll program in Cobol, providing them computer time and royalties. After his administrators became aware of his programming abilities, Gates wrote the school’s computer program to schedule students in classes. He modified the code so that he was placed in classes with “a disproportionate number of interesting girls.”[30] He later stated that “it was hard to tear myself away from a machine at which I could so unambiguously demonstrate success.” At age 17, Gates formed a venture with Allen, called Traf-O-Data, to make traffic counters based on the Intel 8008 processor. In early 1973, Bill Gates served as a congressional page in the U.S. House of Representatives.

    Gates graduated from Lakeside School in 1973. He scored 1590 out of 1600 on the SAT and enrolled at Harvard College in the autumn of 1973. While at Harvard, he met Steve Ballmer, who would later succeed Gates as CEO of Microsoft.[citation needed]
    The Poker Room in Currier House at Harvard University, where Gates and Allen formed Microsoft

    In his sophomore year, Gates devised an algorithm for pancake sorting as a solution to one of a series of unsolved problems[35] presented in a combinatorics class by Harry Lewis, one of his professors. Gates’s solution held the record as the fastest version for over thirty years; its successor is faster by only one percent. His solution was later formalized in a published paper in collaboration with Harvard computer scientist Christos Papadimitriou.

    Gates did not have a definite study plan while a student at Harvard and spent a lot of time using the school’s computers. Gates remained in contact with Paul Allen, and he joined him at Honeywell during the summer of 1974. The following year saw the release of the MITS Altair 8800 based on the Intel 8080 CPU, and Gates and Allen saw this as the opportunity to start their own computer software company. Gates dropped out of Harvard at this time. He had talked this decision over with his parents, who were supportive of him after seeing how much Gates wanted to start a company.”

    Gates may well be a genius, but he has absolutely no experience with public education. He comes from a prominent upper-middle class family and his two schools were an upscale prep school and Harvard. Billions of dollars in wealth do not equate to either wisdom, or talent from problem solving outside of ones field. unfortunately in America, we equate money with all sorts of positive traits. Given the opportunities that Gates had in life, his not being a success in almost any endeavor would have been surprising. How then he supposed to identify with the plight of average children? Melinda Gates also came from a privileged background and attended private schools, before attending Duke University. These two people of privilege are probably not even capable of understanding the plight of America’s public school children, or teachers.

  13. po says:

    Mike Spindell says:
    October 21, 2014 at 11:53 am
    The following from the Wikipedia entry on Bill Gates explains why he shouldn’t have anything to do with public education planning.
    ——————————————————-And surely it does, Mike. With this added perspective, pretty shocking he thought otherwise.

  14. Elaine M. says:

    po said: “Education is one of those areas where any misstep ends up costing generations…”

    That’s true. Sadly many of these school reformers don’t appear to give a second thought to the negative impact their educational failures will have on the children of this country.


    Many of these folks who call themselves school reformers don’t have a clue about the best methods for educating children…nor do they understand child development –or how different children may need different educational approaches. In addition, the goal of many of these school reformers is the privatization of public education, which will bring financial rewards for them. There’s is a lot of money to be made in the “education market.”

  15. Elaine M. says:

    Behind Grass-Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates
    Published: May 21, 2011

    INDIANAPOLIS — A handful of outspoken teachers helped persuade state lawmakers this spring to eliminate seniority-based layoff policies. They testified before the legislature, wrote briefing papers and published an op-ed article in The Indianapolis Star.

    They described themselves simply as local teachers who favored school reform — one sympathetic state representative, Mary Ann Sullivan, said, “They seemed like genuine, real people versus the teachers’ union lobbyists.” They were, but they were also recruits in a national organization, Teach Plus, financed significantly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

    For years, Bill Gates focused his education philanthropy on overhauling large schools and opening small ones. His new strategy is more ambitious: overhauling the nation’s education policies. To that end, the foundation is financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.

    In some cases, Mr. Gates is creating entirely new advocacy groups. The foundation is also paying Harvard-trained data specialists to work inside school districts, not only to crunch numbers but also to change practices. It is bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations…

    Given the scale and scope of the largess, some worry that the foundation’s assertive philanthropy is squelching independent thought, while others express concerns about transparency. Few policy makers, reporters or members of the public who encounter advocates like Teach Plus or pundits like Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute realize they are underwritten by the foundation.

    “It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who said he received no financing from the foundation.

    Mr. Hess, a frequent blogger on education whose institute received $500,000 from the Gates foundation in 2009 “to influence the national education debates,” acknowledged that he and others sometimes felt constrained. “As researchers, we have a reasonable self-preservation instinct,” he said. “There can be an exquisite carefulness about how we’re going to say anything that could reflect badly on a foundation.”

  16. Elaine,
    Wonderful piece. My suspicion is that most of those who are behind the notion of reforming public education (Charter School, Core Curriculum, etc.) have never taken a single course in education.

    “Horace Mann?”

    ” Wasn’t he a drummer with a rock band in the ’60s?”

    Wonder if any of them, from Bill Gates on down, have ever examined the history of education in this country? The bottom line is about money. They have these grand theories about stuff they know little about. The Fox Spews News versions of history. Not to mention the Jerry Falwell, et al, biology and science curriculum.

    If they really want better education for kids, they will fund small classes, provide individualized instruction with lots of resources of all kinds, excellent libraries, and much less reliance on the Procrustean Bed of standardized testing.

    I read of a plan to break up large high schools. That is a large steaming pile of that famous barnyard product. Large high schools are NOT the problem. It is that the large school should have small class sizes, then it won’t make a bit of difference how big the school is.

  17. Pingback: What’s Going on in Public Education: A Brief History of the “Testocracy,” Standardized Testing and Test-Defying | Flowers For Socrates

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