Editor’s Note: Michael Hynes is a New York State district school superintendent, a former classroom teacher and principal and author of “Staying Grounded;” and William Doyle is a New York City public school parent and co-author of “Let the Children Play.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinions on CNN.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced what at first looks to be a terrible idea – the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been asked to help “reimagine” our state’s school system in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Gates Foundation has been a driving force behind nearly 20 years of consistently failed federal and state attempts at education reform, including the widely reviled “Common Core” state standards. In that time, little-to-no system improvement has occurred, despite the squandering of vast sums of money by the Gates Foundation and by taxpayers. In a blog post noting the flaws of Common Core and announcing plans to re-focus their funding, Gates announced, “As we have reflected on our work and spoken with educators over the last few years, we have identified a few key insights that will shape our work and investments going forward.”
The Gates Foundation now has a historic chance to redeem and distinguish itself as a world leader in education as it has in the field of public health. In fact, we believe that the educators, parents and children of New York should welcome the Gates Foundation to New York with open arms and marching brass bands – but with three ironclad conditions.
First, in its New York work, the Foundation should abandon its core assumption that standardized test data should be the basis of childhood education, and instead commit to placing the health, happiness and the well-being of every child at the center of learning in the post-pandemic era.
Second, a representative body of New York State educators, students and parents would review, approve or veto any recommendations the Gates Foundation has to offer.
And third, to “reimagine” education once schools are safe to re-open, the Gates Foundation would seek inspiration and advice not from its own history of failed policies or from consultants or technology salespeople, but from the world’s best subject matter experts: New York teachers, parents, pediatricians and children themselves. As Melinda Gates notes in the Gates Foundation’s 2020 annual letter, “We certainly understand why many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy. Frankly, we are, too. Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers, and community leaders.”
Here’s what we believe many of them will say.
Schools should follow pediatric medical guidelines to reopen and operate schools
In its May 5 “Critical Update” on “COVID-19 Planning Considerations: Return to In-person Education in Schools,” the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), representing the nation’s 67,000 children’s doctors, writes, “Plans to make up for lost academic progress due to school closures and distress associated with the pandemic should be balanced by a recognition of the likely continued distress of educators and students that will persist when schools re-open. If the academic expectations are unrealistic, school will likely become a source of further distress for students (and educators) at a time when they need additional support.”
The AAP also considers it “critical to maintain a balanced curriculum with continued physical education and other learning experiences rather than an exclusive emphasis on core subject areas.” In previous clinical reports, the AAP has stressed the absolutely critical roles of physical activity, play, the arts and recess as foundations of learning, all of which should be top priorities in post-pandemic schools, including and especially high poverty schools.
The Gates Foundation can help strategize how New York State schools can safely deliver much more high-quality physical education, recess, sports and periods of play-based, non-digital teaching and learning. As the AAP has stated, “the lifelong success of children is based on their ability to be creative and apply the lessons learned from playing.”
Technology should be put in its proper place
In the words of advocacy groups New York State Allies for Public Education, Class Size Matters and Parent Coalition for Student Privacy in their May 5 letter to Governor Cuomo criticizing the decision to engage the Gates Foundation, “Since the schools were shut down in mid-March, our understanding of the profound deficiencies of screen-based instruction has only grown. The use of education tech may have its place, but only as an ancillary to in-person learning, not as its replacement.” As the American Academy of Pediatrics puts it, distance learning “is not generally believed to replicate the in-person learning experience.” As parents who have grappled with this reality in our own families, we couldn’t agree more.
Digital devices are of critical use during school shutdowns, but as soon as schools can safely reopen, screens should be relegated to their proper role as classroom tools among many others, not as the Holy Grail of education. The last thing our children need is indiscriminately more screens and screen time in school.
Student and teacher well-being is critical to learning
According to the recent “Framework for opening schools” report jointly issued by UNICEF, the World Bank, UNESCO and the World Food Programme, reducing class sizes, increasing mental health services and focusing on the well-being of students and educators should be all part of the reopening process. The report also mentions the option of moving classes outdoors, which, when possible, will be a powerful boost to everyone’s health, healing and happiness. And as the pediatrician’s report states, “Schools are encouraged to adopt an approach of universal services for mental health support for all students.”
Public education ‘is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms’
These are the words of the United States Supreme Court in its historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, and we have failed to live up to them. Today, for example, New York City schools are among the most segregated in the nation. Many of our schools throughout the state are unfairly and inadequately funded, and cursed by generations of neglect, segregation and political mismanagement, the results of which are incorrectly blamed on our teachers. We should fund and support schools fairly and fully, and work to integrate our schools to the maximum extent possible, which research strongly indicates helps all children.
Teachers should be respected and supported as elite professionals
We are blessed in New York State with some of the most brilliant, committed and heroic educators and school support staff in the world, some of whom have literally laid down their lives during the pandemic to serve our children. But for years they have been shackled by bureaucracy, overwork, inept political interference and micromanagement. We should free educators to do their best work and shower them with respect and support. We should take the job of assessing student progress away from for-profit standardized testing companies and place it where it belongs – in the hands of classroom teachers who know our students best. As a bonus, this will free up huge amounts of money and energy we can apply to urgent school priorities.
If and when the Gates Foundation is ready to help New York State’s schools on these terms, we should roll out the red carpet. If not, we should say thanks but no thanks.
Well, as Governor Cuomo has said, “let New York lead the way, because we are New York tough,” which he defines as, “being smart, and being disciplined, and being unified, and being loving.”
Now is the time for us to make our love for children and teachers the guiding light of education. With or without the Gates Foundation, New York State should lead the way.
Note: An earlier version named Leonie Haimson as the writer of a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Haimson is the executive director of Class Size Matters, one of the three groups that signed the letter.