Tuesday, August 30, 2016

NY Times and "Solutions Journalism" ignore their own conflict of interest guidelines in promoting Gates investments in privatization

Update: At the suggestion of Diane Ravitch and others, I sent a message about this NY Times lack of conflict of interest disclosure to their public editor, Liz Spayd, on August 30 and again on October 1.  I have so far received no response.  The only change I noticed is that the Times added to Rosenberg's bio on her June 14 column praising Bridge International Academy that she co-founded Solutions Journalism,  but not her earlier columns.  And more to the point, there is still no disclosure that SJ is funded by the Gates Foundation, or any disclaimer related to the potential conflict of interest between her promoting companies in her column funded by the Foundation or Gates himself.  If you'd like to send your own message to the public editor, you can do so by emailing public@nytimes.com  Thanks!

Recently, the NY Times published a fascinating piece on how private donors influence the supposedly dispassionate policy reports of DC think tanks, which fail to  clearly reveal potential bias arising from the sources of their funding.  

Yet the NY Times has a similar problem of its own.  Check out not one but two cheerleading columns by Tina Rosenberg about the Bridge International Academy (BIA), a controversial for-profit chain of schools, which claims to educate 100,000 children in 400 schools across Africa and Asia, and has plans to enroll ten million pupils by 2025. The first column by Rosenberg touting BIA was published in the Times in 2013, the second one just this past June 14. About this chain  of schools, which received a no-bid contract from the Liberian government to operate free schools in that nation, she wrote, 

Bridge is different. Teachers are closely monitored, supervised and coached. They get scripted lessons on tablets, which tell them what to say and do every minute. Bridge has master teachers who create lessons; the classroom teacher’s job is to deliver them. This allows Bridge to hire high school graduates at low salaries. They get a three-week course in teaching methods and managing a classroom….

Werner [the Liberian Education Minister] visited Bridge schools in Kenya and Uganda, talking to parents and teachers. “I was awed by what I saw: the ability of children to read and write, the commitment of teachers, the measurement and evaluation mechanisms, the organization,” he said in an interview last week.

Rosenberg then countered the widespread criticisms of this company this way:

Bridge is bringing rote learning to Liberia: Just the opposite. Scripted lessons do not mean rote lessons. (Here’s a video.) Lucy Bradlow, Bridge’s director of public relations, said that in a typical Bridge lesson, the teacher solves a problem on the blackboard, and then three more at the blackboard with students. Then the students work on problems in their textbooks, while the teacher walks around checking for understanding.

Liberia is privatizing its country’s schools: The problem with private education is that it creates inequity, one tier of education for rich and another for poor. In a sense, Liberia is creating a solution: All the Partnership schools will be free. As it does for all schools, the government will provide schools in the pilot with teachers, administrative staff and school buildings, all paid for from the education budget….

The project should have been envisioned sooner, and the process should have been fairer. But if experimentation is justified anywhere, it’s there. It’s hard to look at Liberia’s educational system and say: Do nothing new. 

In reality, this is a radical experiment for Liberia: to essentially out-source its entire public education system to a private for-profit company, with the first step offering a no-bid contract to BIA.  

As an article in Foreign Policy explained, the model is called “School in a Box” : 

The hybrid privatization plan, which has been described as one of the most expansive and ambitious anywhere in the world, calls for 3 percent of primary schools to be turned over to private companies during a pilot year beginning this fall. Fifty schools will be run by Bridge International Academies, an American for-profit company backed by the likes of Mark Zuckerburg [sic] and Bill Gates that builds and runs low-cost schools primarily in East Africa. As many as 70 more Liberian schools will be turned over to a host of other private operators. If the pilot is deemed a success, it will be scaled up to at least 300 more schools in September 2017. It could cover the country’s entire primary school system by 2020, according to the timeline set by the government….

The backlash to the plan was swift. Liberian civil society organizations were irate, claiming the government had broken public procurement laws by making a unilateral decision to hire Bridge as the sole operator of the schools. The National Teachers Association of Liberia, the country’s largest teachers union, has threatened a nationwide strike and unions from across the world have sent Werner letters denouncing the plan.

The first time Rosenberg wrote about this company in 2013, she focused on its operations in Kenya, where the company runs a chain of private schools that during that time period reportedly charged tuition of $5.16 a month for each child.  As we shall see, this is not an insignificant amount considering the low incomes of most Kenyan families.  Then she cited some questionable non-peer reviewed studies by BIA that claimed to show better test scores:

Does Bridge work? The answer is probably. Bridge arranged for its students to be tested alongside neighborhood students in government schools and other low-cost private schools at the beginning and end of second grade. Bridge students generally outperformed the others, in some cases by a wide margin. (Bridge provided me with the private school numbers, which are not on its Web site.)
But the numbers may be somewhat misleading. Private schools almost always outperform public schools — but much of the reason has nothing to do with schools: these students are richer, and tend to have more involved and better-educated parents. 

A good experiment controls for this selection bias and tests only the effects of the school. Bridge does this — but not entirely.  Still, the differences are dramatic enough that it is likely that Bridge is right.

“Likely that Bridge is right”? I would hope that such self-generated studies might be approached with a bit more skepticism; or offered up to an academic expert for comment.  Here, for example, is a  critique of the evidence for the efficacy of BIA schools, which concludes: “No reliable evidence of efficacy supported by independent academic research conducting randomised school trials.”

Clearly, most African public schools are not ideal learning environments.  As Rosenberg herself points out, “Public schools in poor countries are mostly overcrowded — there can be 100 or more children in a class.”  But then she explains that at Bridge International, the company seeks to achieve profit by increasing class size, and adds:

(Bridge argues, with good supporting evidence, that teacher-student ratio — unless the number of students is overwhelmingly high — matters much less than other factors.)

Hmm, like what?  Teacher quality?  When Bridge hires high school graduates and give them three weeks of training? 

To keep tuition costs low – about $6 a term – Bridge depends on large class sizes. An ideal class size is 40 to 50 pupils, but the classes can get to 60 students. The physical infrastructure is modest too – often just simple building made of sheet metal and timber, which can be constructed in a few days.

Bridge International has been confronted with even more controversy lately. 

In September 2015, the Kenyan government stopped the planned expansion of these private schools in order to issue new regulations to ensure quality.  Shannon May, one of the two BIA co-founders, objected, by saying that they needed to enroll at least “500,000 pupils to break even.”

This “break-even point” seems excessive, given the low salaries of the teachers, and the millions of dollars provided by investors, including Pearson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg ($10 million), the World Bank ($10 million) and even US taxpayers, via the federal government’s low-interest loans through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation ($10 million.)

Then in January 2016, Kishore Singh, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, sent a letter to the Liberian president, stating that by outsourcing its educational system to a for-profit company, the country was committing a “gross violation” of its education obligations under the Sustainable Development Goal number four, which states that by 2030, the nation would “ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.”

As Singh wrote, the Liberian plan “is unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed. …Provision of public education of good quality is a core function of the state, and abandoning this to the commercial benefit of a private company constitutes a gross violation of the right to education.”

In April 2016, the Minister of Education in Uganda, Rose Nassali Lukwago, ordered the owners of Bridge International to immediately halt their expansion, concerned about the school’s “legality … the quality of infrastructure, teachers' issues, methodology and curriculum." 

In May, 100 African organizations signed a statement, blasting the World Bank for subsidizing the chain’s operations.  They pointed out that contrary to the implications in a speech by the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, the tuition was a considerable sum for the average Kenyan or Ugandan family:

 “Schools fees at BIA range from about $6.5 to $9, depending on the grade. To this should be added the cost of uniforms, sold by Bridge, which cost about $18.5 per year, the equivalent of another $2 per month over 9 months, and exam fees of $2 to $3 per term. Other costs for textbooks, payment transfers, or other items may be added, and so a conservative estimate of the real monthly amount received by BIA for each child ranges rather between $9 and $13 a month – excluding food, which BIA provides for an additional $7 per month. The total monthly bill including school meals thus ranges between $16 and $20.  

Nevertheless, even assuming a cost of $6 per month, the speech reveals the World Bank’s profound lack of understanding of the reality of poor people’s lives. When President [of the World Bank] Kim argues that schooling at Bridge costs “just” $6, the underlying message is that $6 a month is a small amount of money worth paying for schooling, even in contexts of great poverty. Such a statement is ill-informed and dangerous… for half of Kenyan households, even assuming a cost of $6 a month, sending 3 children of primary school age to a Bridge Academy would cost at least 24% of their monthly income. Taking into account more realistic monthly costs of about $17 that include school meals, sending their children to a Bridge Academy would cost half Kenyan households at least 68% of their monthly income. But it’s often more. 47% of Kenya’s population live below the poverty line, and for some counties in the rural areas the poverty rates escalate to as high as 70%.5 This means that for 47% of the population, any expenditure to access education, even $6, means sacrificing another essential right for their survival, such as health, food, or water.”[emphasis mine]

For a typical Uganda family, they added, “the total cost of sending their children to Bridge Academies would be at least 26% of their monthly income (assuming a cost of $6 a month), and more likely around 75%.”

Wanted ad showing Curtis Riep placed by BIA
Then, on May 30, Curtis Riep, a Canadian academic was arrested in Uganda while researching the conditions of BIA schools for non-profit organization called Education International.   Five days before his arrest,  Bridge International had placed a ‘wanted ad’ in a national newspaper, accusing Riep of ‘illegally’ impersonating one of its employees.  All charges were dropped after Riep explained to the police that he had made appointments with school personnel using his name and explaining his mission.  (For more on Riep’s arrest, and BIA in general, see this excellent piece from Graham Brown-Martin.)

On June 9, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) criticized the UK government for investing in the chain, and urged the government to “refrain from funding for-profit private schools” and “prioritise free and quality primary education in public schools.”

On July 14, Front Page Africa reported that the Liberian government had demanded that BIA allow a randomized control trial, the “gold standard” of research,  to see if their results were in fact better than other schools in the nation – and that BIA was resisting this requirement.

On August 9, the President of Uganda announced that all 63 BIA schools would be closed at the end of the school term and would stay closed “until the ministry is satisfied that they have put in place what is required to operate a school as per ministry’s guidelines,” according to a transcript of her speech.  She referred to the poor infrastructure, the curriculum which “could not promote teacher pupil interaction” and inadequate hygiene and sanitation, which she said “put the life and safety of the school children in danger.”

Salima Namusobya, Executive Director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), a Ugandan NGO, applauded the President’s announcement:

“This decision, which is backed up by field visits of Ministry officials, confirms the grave concerns we have had about Bridge. We have long been worried that BIA schools did not respect the Government Guidelines on Basic Requirements and Minimum Standards for Schools for example regarding infrastructure, purposefully used unqualified teachers in order to reduce costs, in violations of Ugandan laws, and were developing a massive for-profit business without the agreement and proper oversight of the authorities.” 

It turns out that the Brookings Institution, the major focus of the recent NY Times critique about DC think tanks, also put out a glowing report on Bridge International  in June. As pointed out by Graham Brown Martin, the report was funded by the MacArthur Foundation and MasterCard Foundation:

Both organisations have made direct investments in BIA programmes. Furthermore, according to Brookings 2015 Annual Report, one of their most generous donors is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Brookings receives funding from the Gates Foundation, and Bill Gates has personally invested in this school.

Strangely enough, though the arrest and release of Riep occurred before the NY Times article appeared on June 14, neither one was mentioned by Tina Rosenberg.  Clearly she must have known about this since it was reported in the Washington Post on June 6, as well as several Canadian papers on June 7 and June 11.  Also omitted from her article was any mention of the decisions of the Kenyan and Uganda governments to halt the expansion of Bridge International schools.

So even if the NY Times piece was flawed, incomplete and perhaps biased, why did I lead with the claim of an unannounced conflict of interest? 

The column appeared in a section of the Times called  Fixes which is described this way: “Fixes looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.” The columns are written by Rosenberg and David Bornstein.  When Bornstein writes a column, this explanation appears next to his words:

Fixes explores solutions to major social problems. Each week, it examines creative initiatives that can tell us about the difference between success and failure. It is written by David Bornstein, author of “How to Change the World,” and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, and Tina Rosenberg, contributing writer for The New York Times magazine and author of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.”  

Strangely, this same explanation is missing from Tina Rosenberg’s columns, even though she is a co-founder of Solutions Journalism and runs the organization along with Bornstein. 

And where is the conflict?  It turns out that Solutions Journalism has received $2.4 million in grants from the Gates Foundation since 2014 – with the latest grant of $850,000 provided in July 2016, shortly after Rosenberg's second laudatory column on BIA.  And as mentioned earlier,  Gates himself is an investor in this for-profit chain.  Yet none of this is mentioned in either of her columns.

And these two columns are not the only times Rosenberg has promoted the priorities of Bill Gates and his Foundation.  

Rosenberg  wrote not one but two columns praising “Flipped Classrooms” which are also one of Bill Gates’ greatest enthusiasms – in which students watch video lessons at home and then do their homework in class.  The Gates Foundation has given millions to Flipped classrooms.  In the article, Rosenberg  quoted Justin Reich of Harvard, who said: 

Like everything disruptive, online education is highly controversial. But the flipped classroom is a strategy that nearly everyone agrees on. “It’s the only thing I write about as having broad positive agreement,” said Justin Reich, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard who studies technology and education.

Nearly everyone agrees on “Flipped Classrooms”?  Reich later qualified  the statement, and wrote: “I would say there are very few people that are arguing that flipping classrooms is creating new harms. There are, however, plenty of people that think there isn't any there there with the flipped classroom.”

Rosenberg also wrote a glowing column in the New York Times in March 2015 in support of New Classrooms, a company spun off from a program in the NYC public schools, where it was called “ School of One”, in which students get much of their math instruction from computer programs and online tutors.  Gates has repeatedly praised the value of this program, most recently in April 2016 in a speech in which he called New Classrooms a model that “represents the future not only of math, but a number of subjects.”

Indeed, the Gates Foundation has funded this company with more than $10 million between 2011 and 2014, not counting the $500,000 it gave  the NYC Department of Education for launching “School of One” in 2010.  

In support of New Classrooms, Rosenberg cited a research study by Doug Ready of Columbia, and described the results this way: 

It evaluated students using a comprehensive test called Measures of Academic Progress, which many schools take at the beginning, the end and sometimes the middle of the school year.

Ready found that in their first year of using School of One, the seven New York City schools made progress statistically similar to the national average. The second year, however, School of One did much better. It added eight more schools, and the collective gains for the 15 schools were 47 percent higher than the national average. They were also highest among the worst-off students, which is exactly what you want to see. M.S. 88 did slightly better than the national average in math improvement the first year, but in the second year did 60 percent better. That’s an extra six months of learning.

Yet Ready himself points out in the study that “It is important to stress again that these findings cannot be attributed to TTO [Teach to One, another name for the program] without the use of experimental or quasi-experimental designs. In other words, we cannot state definitively that TTO caused the above-average achievement gains noted above.

But Rosenberg did not include these reservations in her column.  Nor did she mention another study – a true randomized controlled experiment, which examined whether the School of One had any impact on the student achievement during a two-year period in NYC schools (2012-13 and 2013-14). In contrast, this study concluded that School of One had no statistically significant effects on student achievement—positive or negative–relative to traditional math instruction.”

Worse yet, in none of her columns was there any disclaimer or mention of a potential conflict of interest, given that the Gates Foundation is also a major funder of Solutions Journalism.  One would think this might be a problem for the NY Times, whose handbook states:

Disclosure of Possible Conflicts
Staff members must be sensitive to these possibilities.  In some cases, disclosure is enough. But if The Times considers the problem serious, the staff member may have to withdraw from certain coverage. 

Apparently Times Op-Ed contributors are also asked to sign a document stating that they are abiding by The Times’s guidelines on conflicts of interest.

The fact that she did not include any disclaimer in her columns on BIA, blended learning or School of One also appears to violate the code of professionalism of Solutions Journalism itself. In a page on its website entitled Ethics, the following statement is made:

The Solutions Journalism Network is a nonpartisan organization committed to transparency and editorial independence. We do not support or advocate for any particular idea, model, organization, or agenda….

SJN’s grant recipients, whether newsrooms or individual journalists, should adhere to the highest standards of conduct as set forth in by bodies such as the Society of Professional Journalists…
We believe that it would be a disservice to society to exclude critical reporting on social innovations funded by these sources. On the other hand, it is critically important that such relationships not conflict with the principles of independent journalism. SJN’s grant recipients, whether newsrooms or individual journalists, should adhere to the highest standards of conduct as set forth in by bodies such as the Society of Professional Journalists.

We require that our grant recipients remain completely transparent about any potential conflicts of interest that could arise in the context of reporting on an issue of interest to a Solutions Journalism Network funder. 

A separate page on the website, called Ethics code,  proclaims:

The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
Journalists should:
– Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts. 

None of these actions were taken by the New York Times or Solutions Journalism, and Rosenberg herself has consistently failed to provide any disclosures of conflicts of interest, no less make any effort to avoid them in the first place by refusing to hype the favorite projects of her donors. 

Instead, the Times has run her excessively one-sided columns, promoting companies that have received Bill Gates’ personal investments or those from the Gates Foundation, which is also a major funder of the organization she helps run.  Hypocrisy or lack of oversight?  You be the judge. 

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