REVEALED: Gates Foundation financed PBS education programming which promoted Microsoft's interests

By Nathaniel Mott and David Sirota , written on June 5, 2014

From The News Desk

In September 2011, a newly-launched nonprofit called the Teaching Channel announced that it would be producing a video series dubbed “Teaching Channel Presents” for PBS.

The videos would be produced in partnership with WNET, New York City's PBS-affiliated station said to attract some five million viewers each month, and broadcast on PBS stations across the country. The goal of the series, according to Teaching Channel's website, is to provide “teachers, principals and others with specific guidance and professional development around the Common Core State Standards.” The series was joined by the “Let’s Chat Core” web series meant to help teachers “better understand the Common Core State Standards and how to implement them in their own classrooms” in October 2012.

While the Teaching Channel proudly promotes the Common Core, it is far less forthcoming about the fact that its primary backer is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation - aka the philanthrocapitalist enterprise that has spent somewhere between $200 million and $2.3 billion to champion the Common Core State Standards in schools and in the political arena. Indeed, a Pando investigation has found no explicit disclosure about the Gates Foundation's political activism made in episodes about the standards, the press release announcing the series, or the newsletter sent before its debut. The only prominent mention of the foundation comes after “Teaching Channel Presents” episode credits, in FAQs on the Teaching Channel's website and at the bottom of press releases for the series second and third seasons. “Let’s Chat Core” doesn’t mention the Gates Foundation’s support at all in its videos.

The discovery that the Gates Foundation is funding PBS programming that supports its political agenda comes only a few months after Pando first revealed that Enron mogul John Arnold attempted to use $3.5 million of his fortune to finance an anti-pension "news" series on the PBS NewsHour. The two stories are similar, in that they involve the foundations of politically active billionaires using the public broadcasting system to promote their political agenda. In this Gates case, the agenda being promoted also happens to dovetail with Microsoft's commercial interests in the Common Core. This has been allowed to happen despite PBS programming rules aiming to prevent those with specific political and commercial interests from financing public broadcasting content that promotes those interests.

Understanding the significance of this new revelation about Gates and Common Core requires an understanding of the larger controversy surrounding the Common Core State Standards, the Gates Foundation’s extensive financial support of many groups related to those standards’ passing, and the Foundation’s ties to Teaching Channel itself.

Common Controversy

The Common Core State Standards, co-sponsored by the Gates-funded National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, will introduce harsher language and math testing in American schools from 2015. The changes were first announced in 2009 and were initially supported by 49 states and territories. But when schools in those states tried to implement the new standards, teachers expressed their concerns, and the standards’ bipartisan backing quickly turned into widespread condemnation.

U.S. News and World Report notes that "The push against Common Core is coming from both sides of the political aisle." Conservatives have slammed the standards as a federal government overreach that usurps local control, while progressives and some teachers unions have derided the standards as autocratic and too tied to rigid standardized tests.

In response, one state, Indiana, has opted out of the Common Core, prompting threats of retribution from the Obama administration. More recently, Oklahoma's legislature just voted to repeal the standards. Other states, including Kansas, Wisconsin, and South Carolina, have met the standards with open hostility but have not yet managed to repeal their adoption. (Alaska, Texas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Virginia never adopted them at all). Meanwhile, New York initially raced to implement Common Core standards before they were even completed, and then faced such a public backlash that lawmakers in February moved to delay the standards and testing-focused teacher evaluations.

Much of the pushback comes from teachers and education experts who assert that while Common Core's standardized testing may make big money for testing and technology companies, those tests and one-size-fits-all standards aren't a proven way to improve student learning and creative thinking. As the Brookings Institution's Tom Loveless put it, "On the basis of past experience with standards, the most reasonable prediction is that the common core will have little to no effect on student achievement."

Summarizing some of the specific criticism, Carol Burris, principal of the South Side High School in New York, wrote this in a 2013 Washington Post article describing her conversion from a Common Core supporter to an opponent:

There are so many stories that I could tell–the story of my guidance counselor’s sixth-grade, learning disabled child who feels like a failure due to constant testing, a principal of an elementary school who is furious with having to use to use a book he deems inappropriate for third graders because his district bought the State Education Department approved common core curriculum, and the frustration of math teachers due to the ever-changing rules regarding the use of calculators on the tests. And all of this is mixed with the toxic fear that comes from knowing you will be evaluated by test results and that ‘your score’ will be known to any of your parents who ask.
Yet, as organizations representing teachers were working to halt or revise the Common Core standards that the Gates Foundation sculpted in the political arena, the Gates Foundation-backed Teaching Channel began using PBS to proudly promote the new standards when the public started fighting back.

Common Core TV

Teaching Channel launched in September 2011 with a website dedicated to the Common Core State Standards. It has since posted hundreds of videos featuring interviews with educators, instructions on how to implement the standards in classrooms, and guides to preparing students for the new tests. It claims that almost 500,000 teachers have joined its online “community,” and in June 2013 announced an online platform for “schools, districts, and education organizations enabling teachers and teacher leaders to work together.”

But perhaps the most important aspect of Teaching Channel is the “Teaching Channel Presents” series it produces for PBS. The series, currently in its third season, offers hour-long guides to everything from lesson planning to exploring “the many ways Common Core is being integrated into classrooms.” The series visits real classrooms to demonstrate the challenges – and eventual solutions – teachers will face as they keep pace with the changing standards. It’s a bit like the “DIY Channel” for educators, except that it also includes an ideological message promoting a set of standards that have divided teachers and lawmakers around the country. Indeed, as if aiming for a self-fulfilling prophecy, it presents the standards as the presupposed normal rather than controversial policy still being debated.

On “Teaching Channel Presents,” for example, there isn’t a problem that can’t be described and solved with a 20-minute segment, and all of the students are responding well to the shifting standards they have to meet. Teachers turn to the camera and say things like “the Common Core has become part of my teacher DNA” in testimonials that never mention the controversies surrounding the standards. This isn’t a place where educators can learn so much as it’s a series of videos that make the standards seem like the greatest thing to happen to education since the first teacher thought to use a chalkboard.

And, at the end of every video, there’s a reminder that the programming was all made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but there's no mention of the foundation's role as the primary political benefactor behind the Common Core.

Millions of dollars builds a platform promoting Gates’ education ideology 

The Gates Foundation - aka the personal foundation of a current Microsoft board member - is being permitted to promote Common Core on PBS at the very moment Microsoft is building parts of its business around the Common Core.

In February, Microsoft joined up with education publisher and technology firm Pearson on a joint Common Core venture. According to a Pearson press release, the project aims "to create new applications and advance a digital education model" - with the collaboration's first initiative combining "Pearson’s Common Core System of Courses with the groundbreaking capabilities of the Windows 8 touchscreen environment."

Meanwhile, with Common Core promoting a shift to computer-based testing, Microsoft will likely benefit from school districts now being compelled to rely on those machines, many of which are Windows-based. Additionally, Microsoft stands to make money from school districts that are using Windows-based devices for Common Core test prep.

This is all part of what Stanford University professor Deborah Stipek called "a cottage industry now that’s sprung up around Common Core.” The potential for such a for-profit industry was championed by none other than Bill Gates. In a 2009 Common Core-themed speech to the Gates-funded National Conference of State Legislatures, he declared (emphasis added):

The state-led Common Core State Standards Initiative is developing clear, rigorous common standards that match the best in the world. Last month, 46 Governors and Chief State School Officers made a public commitment to embrace these common standards...

When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. With Microsoft seeing the commercial potential of Common Core, and with Gates' political interest in Common Core, the Teaching Channel has received more than $18 million from Gates Foundation, according to the foundation's website. As originally noted by education blogger Jonathan Pelto, the grants vary between $250,000 and $7 million and have been given at least once a year since May 2011. But the Gates Foundation’s ties to Teaching Channel don’t end at the checkbook.

Three of Teaching Channel’s five board members have clear ties to the foundation: Steve Arnold was previously the chief executive of Corbis, a Gates-owned digital media company; Ted Mitchell is the chief executive of the NewSchool Venture Fund, to which the Gates Foundation has given over $82 million since 2003. and Vicki Phillips is the Gates Foundation’s director of education.

The Gates Foundation has also supported WNET, the PBS affiliate station responsible for the videos in the “Teaching Channel Presents” series, with $300,000 in grants meant to help the station host the International Summit on the Future of the Teacher Profession in March 2011 and March 2012. (WNET, incidentally, was the same public broadcasting station at the center of Pando's "Wolf of Sesame Street" investigation).

And the Gates Foundation hasn’t just supported Teaching Channel’s education-focused videos, either. It has also supported a PBS documentary called “Generation XY: Teenagers in the New Millennium” with a $50,000 grant made to the Filmmakers Collaborative in February 1999; the “production of reports on Washington DC and New Orleans school districts for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” with a $308,000 grant to Learning Matters in November 2007; “reporting on national education issues and the development of video and digital content for broadcast and online distribution” with a $525,048 grant to Learning Matters in July 2009; the “completion of a film about the revitalization and recovery of New Orleans, including the public education system, after Hurricane Katrina” with a $20,000 grant to Learning Matters in November 2012; and further “reporting on the Common Core State Standards” with a $25,000 grant to Learning Matters in October 2013.

The Gates Foundation has also supported PBS directly with a $499,997 grant given in October 2010 to “create Digital Learning Objects (DLOs) that enhance middle school mathematics achievement.” It has also given NPR $3.3 million in grants meant to support its education coverage since December 2006.

All of this means that, while the Gates Foundation was spending hundreds of millions – or billions – of dollars to promote the Common Core State Standards in the political arena, it was also giving public media companies major resources to report on those very same standards, either directly (in Teaching Channel and Learning Matters’ cases) or indirectly (in other grants made to Learning Matters and NPR).

Gates, the Teaching Channel and PBS rules

According to its website, PBS has a strict “perception test” for programming that it says “will be applied most vigorously to current affairs programs and programs that address controversial issues.” The rules go on to say that “when there exists a clear and direct connection between the interests or products or services of a proposed funder and the subject matter of the program, the proposed funding will be deemed unacceptable.”

Recent polls and growing opposition to the Common Core State Standards clearly show that the topic of education standards is, indeed, controversial. And it is similarly clear that the Gates Foundation has displayed a deep “interest” in promoting the Common Core State Standards. Yet, despite the PBS rules, the Gates Foundation has been permitted to finance programming promoting Common Core on PBS through “Teaching Channel Presents.”

Similarly, PBS rules say that if programming has “been created to serve the business or other interests of the funder” it would be deemed “unacceptable.”

PBS/Gates respond

Teaching Channel spokesperson Candice Meyers says that the group has never been told by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation what it should produce. "You'll see hundreds of videos on classroom management, hundreds of videos on differentiation, and hundreds of videos on frustrations that teachers have," she says. "Not once -- not once -- has the Gates Foundation told us what to film." She adds that Common Core wasn't even law when Teaching Channel was founded, and that the group has focused on Common Core after teachers said that is what they needed help with from a company dedicated to solving problems inside the classroom.

Update: A spokesperson for WNET responded after publication with this statement:

 The Teaching Channel project described in your article is not affiliated with PBS in any way.  Like all local public television stations, WNET is independently owned and operated and its activities reach into many areas that do not involve PBS.

WNET subsidiary WLIW was commissioned by the Teaching Channel to produce professional development content for educators. The online video segments and the series Teaching Channel Presents included a wide variety of subjects, “The New Teacher Experience,” “Bullying at School,” Digital Literacy in the Classroom,” to “Connecting Arts to the Classroom,” “Inquiry-based Teaching” and many other topics.

Across the three seasons of Teaching Channel Presents, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the initiative’s other funders, were clearly identified both on-air and in publicity materials. Neither the Gates Foundation – nor any of the other funders – had editorial control regarding this content.

The final episode of Teaching Channel Presents has been produced, and we have no further deliverables to the Teaching Channel. Pando reached out to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on June 4 at 11am Pacific Time and did not receive a response prior to publication. This story will be updated if and when those groups agree to an interview or offer a statement to Pando.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]