“Trust not their presents, nor admit the horse.”
—Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by John Dryden

News of a $5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the Hartford School District was reported with the usual unquestioning cheerleading from the state’s news media.

But Connecticut parents and students should be wary of billionaires bearing gifts. Close reading of the proposal reveals the grant, lauded as a gift of altruism, shares many characteristics with the Trojan Horse in terms of what it means for both the well-being of our children and for our state’s education budget.

Page 6 of the grant proposal states: “Major outcomes . . . are district-wide implementation of a standards-based grading system, and the capacity to consistently and continually measure student growth related to the standards for the purpose of guiding and individualizing instruction.”

Sounds reasonable. It’s when one looks at what this entails for students, teachers, costs, and actual learning time that the picture becomes disturbing.

On page 7, the proposal lists the components necessary to achieve the above outcomes: 1) Integration of the Common Core Standards into the curriculum so that the first students to take the new SBAC test that replaces the CMT in 2014-15 will have been exposed to it for at least two years; 2) A new standards-based report card that is integrated into “PowerSchool” (an electronic grading system), and; 3) The use of the NorthWest Evaluation Association (NWEA) Assessment.

Number 3 was the one that set my alarm bells started ringing, particularly when I read this: “In addition, the State of Connecticut is moving to NWEA providing additional information to Gates Partners.”

Oh really? That’s news to us. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the NWEA assessment is a computer-based adaptive assessment that is meant to:

-Provide teachers with timely information to improve student learning
-Monitor academic growth and consistently track progress over time
-Inform students, teachers, and families about student skills
-Make data driven decisions about instruction
-Provide reliable data to evaluate the effectiveness of programs and curriculum.

Again, this all sounds wonderful in theory. But let’s have a look at what this means in practice.

MAP tests are computer based and, according to the technological requirements on the NWEA site, they require an individual workstation for each student taking the test. Even in Greenwich, one of the the wealthier and well-equipped districts in the state, I’ve heard concerns about adequate technological resources to administer the SBAC tests when they are implemented. To achieve this, schools will have to set aside much-needed resources — in addition to staff, for proctoring — such as the computer labs and libraries for extended periods of time to allow the test to be administered. These facilities are needed for other purposes with actual educational merit.

Then there’s the cost. I didn’t receive an answer to my request for information from Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor’s office, so I can only go from the experience in other districts where MAP testing was implemented. Here’s a post from the Seattle Education Blog about how it went down in their city after a similar grant from the Gates Foundation:

The initial subscription to the test cost $370,000. But the district has spent much more since then in implementation costs. A portion of the $7.2 million Gates Foundation grant to SPS in 2009 went toward MAP®. Another $4.3 million of the February 2010 school levy was also earmarked for MAP®. Some believe that the proposed $2 million network capacity upgrade currently before the school board is also associated with the test. By some measures, MAP® has cost our school district as much as $10 million. [UPDATE: The yearly subscription/licensing cost for MAP® was estimated to be $500,000 per year, according to SPS staffer Brad Bernatek and then-Broad Resident Jessica DeBarros in a report on April 2009.] . . . This makes MAP® essentially an unfunded mandate . . . As many as 40 percent of Seattle’s public schools lose their libraries to MAP® testing for as much as three months of every school year, according to SPS’s Jessica DeBarros.

Being a billionaire doesn’t make you an educator, or even an expert on education. But it does give you undue influence. As Valerie Strauss reported in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, The Gates Foundation spent over $3.5 million to start a front group — “Communities for Teaching Excellence” — in order to to “win public approval for the foundation’s investment of more than $335 million in teacher effectiveness programs in four school districts that involve controversial initiatives including linking teacher pay to student standardized test scores.” The organization has since closed its doors because, as former Board Chairwoman Amy Wilkins pointed out, “Gates was such a big part of the funding . . . That made some of the partners and other funders nervous. How do you look like an independent actor? You have to show broad public support so you’re not seen as a phony-baloney front for Gates.”

Phony-baloney front indeed.

But let’s not single out the Gates Foundation for bearing the Trojan Horse of the Education Reform movement. They’ve got company with the Broad Foundation. Just this week, after the Education Law Center filed an Open Public Records Act request, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration was forced to reveal the terms of a $430,000 grant from the the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. One of the more disturbing terms of the grant was that it was

Gov. Malloy has made his position clear: “I’ll settle for teaching to the test if it means raising scores.”

Here’s another point of view from Henry Rollins:

“When you teach to a test you’re basically just trying to get reelected. You’re looking good at tax time. You’re looking good when they come through the building and evaluate you, well they learned the test.
They learned the test, but they didn’t learn how to learn and so that’s what I find as a breakdown in teaching systems. They don’t teach you how to think because as soon as you get that under your cap books are books, information is information. You just find what pleases you. But if you have the ability to learn you’re going to make better choices and you’ll have an intellectual confidence that will allow you to really maximize your potential.”

Or, as I quoted in my college application essay all those years ago: “A child is not a vase to be filled, but a fire to be lit.” Are these billionaires afraid of lighting fires of genuine intellectual curiosity and learning?

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.