What’s with the Foundations?

Last spring, one of our state education officials explained to me in an email that our one-of-a-kind proficiency-based diploma mandate was critical for producing the types of graduates that businesses in Maine are desperate to find.

“My friend at Texas Instruments tells me that he has over 120 openings that they simply cannot fill,” he wrote to me.

This struck me as odd, because when we first moved to Maine, my husband – who has a computer science degree – had a difficult time finding a decent paying job. I had done a bunch of job searching for him, and never once saw that many openings for any company in Maine.

And so I looked it up to confirm. Sure enough, Texas Instruments had only two job openings posted – and one was for an unpaid internship.

“You might want to tell your friend that a good way to fill job openings is to actually advertise them,” I wrote back.

The myth of the useless high school diploma, of course, is the latest story being spun by corporate reformers, as they seek to remake our system into one based on the purported needs of the workforce. Out with grade-level cohorts led by experienced educators, they demand, and in with ill-defined “competencies,” online learning, digital badges, and growth-trajectories with big-red warning systems for students who fall off track.

There are a lot of things that disturb me about all of this, but one of the things that me troubles me the most is how orchestrated it all appears to be.

In response to my snarky reply, our state education official sent me a link to a document from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce called “A Decade Behind: Breaking out of the Low Skill Trap in the Southern Economy.”

(This time I was kind and didn’t write back to inform him that we live in the northeast.)

Despite the fact that it came from as prestigious an institution as Georgetown, the document struck me as a bunch of fluff – full of nebulous statements and odd interpretations of data.

Here’s just one example:

 Today, some 59 percent of all jobs nationally require postsecondary education and training, compared to 54 percent for the South. By 2020, 59 percent of jobs for the South will require postsecondary education and training – the same percentage that the nation as a whole reached in 2010. In other words, the South is 10 years behind in terms of educational attainment.





With my suspicions now thoroughly raised – and having been through this sort of thing just a few weeks prior – I went to check the trusty “awarded grants” sections of the three big foundations that I knew were pushing competency/proficiency-based education: Gates, Nellie Mae, and Lumina.


No dice.

Nellie Mae?



Sure enough…

Screen shot 2016-01-03 at 10.01.48 AM

Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any better when you learn the facts about the founding of the Lumina Foundation.

According to a document detailing the history of their beginnings, in the late 90’s, private student loan behemoth USA Group began to grow concerned that the government would decide to challenge their tax-exempt status. And so they orchestrated a sale to Sallie Mae, did a little do-si-do of leadership, and voila!

Here is how Norris Darrel, board member of Lumina, describes what happened:

 “The transaction was a magical thing. All of a sudden we snapped our fingers, and we had almost a billion dollars. What do we do with it?”

I wonder if it looked something like this?



Of course, the newly minted foundation knew exactly what to do with it: find ways to get more kids to take out more loans.

And so, among other dubious strategies, the Lumina Foundation has decided to “lead the discussion” on competency-based education, as well fund organizations to help spin the narrative that we have a skills crisis in our country and, consequently, a greater need for students to take out still more loans because – of course – this is all ultimately an education crisis.

(Side note: I have yet to find as detailed a history of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, but the fact that they were also formed of a sale to Sallie Mae and now have the same strategic focus as Lumina for K-12 seems just a little more than coincidental.)

As is the norm when corporate America decides to take over our public schools, the crises they are spinning are, of course, built mostly on well-crafted myths.

According to this analysis, for every two students that U.S. colleges graduate with STEM degrees, only one is hired into a STEM job.

(My husband – the computer science major – is a law student now, hoping for better luck in the job market after graduation.)

But why would a Georgetown organization agree to spin this narrative?

Linsey McGoey, author of No Such Thing As A Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, offers a compelling explanation in this article:

 Grantees feel increasingly burdened by unreasonable expectations and short turnarounds for demonstrating a gift’s impact. The education sector in the United States has gone through upheaval after upheaval as schools and school districts try and meet the mercurial demands of donors who are themselves accountable to no one other than a foundation’s trustees or board of directors.

For all the talk among corporate American and their strategically formed foundations about the need to hold our public schools accountable, it seems to me that it’s time to turn the tables and hold them accountable before they wreak more havoc on our schools than they already have.

Is it time for another Reece Committee?

Screen shot 2016-01-03 at 9.59.28 AM.png

I’d say we’re past due for another investigation.

















Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

3 thoughts on “What’s with the Foundations?”

  1. Thank you, Emily. The world need to be aware of the snake in the grass. Public opinion is kind to these generous benefactors that are ripe to the demise of our autonomy. We need more of this research and outing of their true intent. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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