Bill Gates tests higher education with competency

Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates. Credit: Reuters
Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who believes that competency is the way to make education work.
Credit: Reuters

When it comes to education, Bill Gates is no longer limiting his influence to K through 12. He’s moving into higher education — big time. A recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Gates Effect”, revealed much about the goals of the Gates Foundation, largely unknown to the American public.

According to the Chronicle, since 2008 Gates has spent $343 million to encourage greater emphasis on “competency-based learning.” But the word “competency” is a well-known trigger of anger and vitriol from many professors.

“At the four-year level, where there’s an emphasis on the liberal arts and critical thinking, people tend to reject the idea of reducing the educational process to a set of skills or competencies. It feels reductionist to them,” explains Thomas J. Lasley, the former dean of the School of Education at the University of Dayton.

Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University, puts it more bluntly:

“We’ve seen this play out already in K-12. If you’re measuring competence, you have to have data gathering, and if that data is high stakes – if jobs are on the line – then the class becomes about teaching to the test. It undermines classroom creativity and autonomy.”

But the No Child Left Behind flavor of “competency” isn’t the only approach out there. And some teachers are hoping to see a new, more flexible form emerge.

“It’s such a politically charged term – so polarizing – that it becomes difficult to discuss seriously,” says Stephen D. Brookfield, a longtime researcher of adult learning at the University of St. Thomas. “I think the devil’s the details. If the competencies that need to be achieved are open to negotiation, and if they can be adjusted to the student’s circumstances and preparedness, then competency-based learning doesn’t have to be the straight-jacket that critics of it assume.”

Educators weigh in on the increasing influence of the Gates Foundation on higher education:

“Higher education is largely very change-averse so we need large foundations, like Gates, to change things for the better. The best example is the increase in virtual learning opportunities. I don’t think higher ed on its own would have embraced that.”
– Thomas J. Lasley, University of Dayton

“There’s nothing wrong with a foundation generously giving to higher education. The problem comes in when we allow a foundation to substitute for our tax dollars, and that foundation gets to institute their agenda. They haven’t been elected, and yet they are determining the direction of public education.”
– Stephen D. Brookfield, University of St. Thomas

“Gates has never taught a day in his life. His children go to private school. And he feels he has the right to tell some of the hardest working people in the country that they’re doing everything wrong. He’s in no moral position to do that. The power he is wielding is profoundly undemocratic.”
– Mark Naison, Fordham University


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