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A relatively tiny donation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has created quite a stir over the past several days. News broke that Clemson U. had late last year obtained a nearly half million dollar grant from the foundation to conduct a pilot study with Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets, wireless sensors that track physiological reactions, in schools. The idea supposedly was that children would wear these biometric bracelets in classrooms to measure their engagement. What made this grant even more polarizing was the notion that the bracelets were in fact tools that would evaluate teachers’ effectiveness.
Then came the discovery of another grant, this one for $621,265, awarded to the National Center on Time & Learning Inc. to “measure engagement physiologically with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Galvanic Skin Response,” also to be used to gauge degrees or levels of engagement.”
All of this was just too much for Diane Ravitch, a leading education expert who is now Research Professor of Education at New York University, who has been writing about the controversy on her blog. “I’m sorry. I think this is madness. Is there a mad scientist or psychologist advising the Gates Foundation? Does Dr. Moreau work in a Gates laboratory in Seattle?”
Turns out that one of the biggest concerns about the study was actually wrong, due to an error on the Gates’ foundation website. The biometric bracelets were not supposed to measure teachers’ effectiveness, insisted Deborah Veney Robinson, the foundation’s senior communications officer. The grants are not related to the Measures of Effective Teaching research project, and “will not in any way be used to evaluate teacher performance.”
So what are these bracelets for? According to the foundation, they are intended to “help students and teachers gain a better understanding of how and when students are most engaged in the classroom.” The bracelets, which are made by a company called Affectiva, a spinoff of the MIT Media Lab, have been tested in the past on autistic children who have worn the bracelets to help evaluate which students, who are seemingly unresponsive to external stimuli, are in fact engaged and learning. (Disclosure: Forbes apparently used Affectiva last year to analyze readers reactions to videos).
The Clemson pilot, which will start in the fall, will not involve students with special needs. Clemson would not confirm where the study will take place but did say that the 100 or so students who wear them will be 11 to 13 years of age.
“Optimally, our goal is to support empathy and understanding in the classroom. With so many empathetic teachers out there, we want to continue to find ways to help support these types of practices. We hope that there would be a tool to measure engagement and provide teachers and students something they can look to for real-time (reflective feedback), kind of like a pedometer,” explained Shaundra Daily, an assistant professor in Clemson’s Human-Centered Computing division.
Ravitch, for one, is not sold. “Why do they want bracelets with wireless sensors for children and teachers that can gauge physiological reactions? What’s the purpose of this research?,” said Ravitch, “I don’t understand what those bracelets are for. Still don’t.”
It all sounds a bit futuristic and creepy and I would not be happy if either of my daughters were part of the study. But I, for one, will give Gates the benefit of the doubt. For starters, it’s truly a small sum in the scheme of things. The Gates Foundation spent $311 million on education in the U.S. in 2010, the last year for which figures are available; $237 million of that amount was spent on “College ready” K-12. “The lion’s share in college ready goes to teacher’s support,” says Daily.
Furthermore, Gates, who has given more money away than anyone else on theplanet, is struggling to find effective solutions, something that has initially eluded him.
From 2000 to 2008, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made over $2 billion in grants to help high schools around the U.S. reorganize curriculum, teaching methods, and even their total student body size. However, Gates admitted in 2009 that despite donating all that money, the foundation “fell short” of its ultimate goal of raising college-ready graduation rates. He refocused on a more specific subset of schools — mostly charter schools — and has donated hundreds of millions in the last several years to programs aimed at measuring and evaluating teachers.
Research (and the results from his first wave of grants) showed Gates that great teachers, not great schools, make the biggest difference in education. So now he’s investing in teacher assessment programs that are data-oriented, testing systems that extend the time before a teacher earns tenure and link both tenure and pay raises to student achievement.
There are no easy answers when it comes to fixing education in this country. Let’s be glad that Bill Gates is at least trying, even if he makes some controversial decisions along the way.