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Seattle Times’ Gates-funded Education Lab Blog Experiment

August 24, 2014

Bill Gates lives in Seattle.

His money buys experiments there, too.

In October 2013, the Seattle Times announced that it had “sought” a grant from the Gates Foundation for a year-long “project” in partnership with Solutions Journalism Network– a blog called the “Education Lab”:

Education Lab, a partnership between The Seattle Times and Solutions Journalism Network, will explore promising programs and innovations inside early-education programs, K-12 schools and colleges that are addressing some of the biggest challenges facing public education.

The yearlong project is funded by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

As part of a “Q and A” on the grant money and the project, Seattle Times offers the following:

The project has received $530,000 in foundation funding — $450,000 from the Gates Foundation and $80,000 from the Knight Foundation, a foundation that supports journalism excellence and media innovation.

The Seattle Times will receive $426,000 during an 18-month period. The bulk of its funding will pay for the salaries of two education reporters, allowing us to expand our education team; an editor and photographer primarily dedicated to the project; and a newly hired community-engagement editor. The funds will also be used for community outreach and public forums, creation of a blog and design and data work. …

The Seattle Times would neither seek nor accept a grant that did not give us full editorial control over what is published. Generally, when a grant is made, there is agreement on a specific project or a broad area of reporting it will support. … The foundation had no role in deciding which stories we choose to pursue or how we report those stories. It also does not review stories before publication. … 

Beyond agreeing to fund the project, the foundations have not asked for and will not have any input into the reporting of stories or into any of the content that will emerge from the project. The foundations will not be aware of specific stories we are working on or review them before publication. …

There will be no direct relationship between the foundation’s education advocacy and the reporting for Education Lab. It is possible the project will analyze and report on efforts that the Gates Foundation supports and those it does not. In determining the focus of the reporting in the project, the support of the Gates Foundation, or lack thereof, will play no role. Throughout the duration of the project, we will be transparent about funding for Education Lab.

For this project, the [Gates] foundation has a strong desire to test and learn whether this solutions-oriented approach would help promote deeper engagement on a complex topic like education. [Emphasis added.]

The Seattle Times sure is making an effort to convince those in Bill Gates’ home town that this is not just another Gates overreach.

Or is it?

In offering the above information up front, Seattle Times notes that it is being “transparent with readers about the source of the money.”

That’s $450,000 directly from Gates to the Seattle Times, right?

Not according to the Gates Grants search engine, which indicates no grant paid to the Seattle Times on or around October 2013 in the amount of $450,000. The search engine also indicates no $450,000 grant paid to either Solutions Journalism Network or Education Lab.


…the Gates grants search engine does include this this July 2013 grant for $700,000, paid to New Ventures Fund of Washington, DC, for “communications” and “strategic partnerships”– specific to education journalism in the Seattle Times:

New Venture Fund

Date: July 2013
Purpose: to test solutions-oriented education journalism that leads to problem-solving and positive outcomes with the Seattle Times
Amount: $700,000
Term: 18
Topic: Communications, Strategic Partnerships
Program: Communications
Grantee Location: Washington, District of Columbia
Grantee Website:


It seems that someone is not being “completely transparent,” after all.

Looks like Education Lab goes beyond being a Seattle Times idea. Looks like it is another Gates “strategic” education experiment.

Here is what New Venture Fund offers as its mission:

The New Venture Fund, a 501(c)(3) public charity, supports innovative and effective public interest projects. NVF was established in 2006 in response to demand from leading philanthropists for an efficient, cost-effective, and time-saving platform to launch and operate charitable projects. We execute a range of donor-driven public interest projects in conservation, global health, public policy, international development, education, disaster recovery, and the arts. More than half of the 50 largest US grantmaking foundations have funded projects hosted at NVF, including 8 of the top 10. 

NVF is overseen by an independent board of directors that has extensive experience in philanthropy and nonprofit management. NVF is managed under an administrative agreement with Arabella Advisors, a leading national philanthropy services firm that helps philanthropists and investors find innovative ways to achieve greater good with their resources. NVF has collaborated with Arabella on successful projects for many of philanthropy’s leading players and institutions, and the two organizations share a commitment to evaluation and measuring impact. [Emphasis added.]

Along the side bar of the Education Lab funding Q and A page, I noticed a number of Seattle Times stories focusing on test scores (see here and here and here and here). And here, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are mentioned, and it seems that parents are fine with CCSS “perhaps because test scores are going up.”

Based upon its sidebar of education stories, the Seattle Times sure is promoting a sunny perspective on test-driven education reform.

Now, according to the Seattle Times, this is their agenda, not a forced Gates agenda.

So that makes it okay… right?


Note that Bill Gates has really pushed usage of high stakes test scores. Though Gates is only a “neutral party” when it comes to issues of American education (tongue in cheek), and though he might be willing to delay their high-stakes usage (and by sheer coincidence, the federal government “comes up with the idea” two months after Gates does), Gates clearly intends to promote test-driven education for the masses.

So, for both Gates and the Seattle Times: high test scores are the ultimate determinant of education “success.”

Based upon the sidebar of Seattle Times stories on the Education Lab site, one reads that the Seattle Times also pushes the message that the best outcome for all students is college.

College. For. ALL.

I didn’t see any sidebar stories about students who become successes in jobs requiring specialized– dare I write it– non-college— training or apprenticeships.

If such stories exist, they are not featured on this sidebar.

The Seattle Times does offer some unique stories– like this one about a school transformed into a STEM school with a focus on hands-on projects. Even here, the “college is best” and “higher test scores means it’s valuable” messages lurk in the background of a “learning for learning’s sake” story.

Let us now turn our attention to Education Lab.

Here is the curiosity:

In contrast to the Seattle Times sidebar stories, the two Education Lab blog writers, Claudia Rowe and Linda Shaw, write stories that appear to critically question test-driven reform, as well as stories on special interest, education issues not part of the test-score-driven, education privatization agenda. (Click links to see archived stories by Rowe and Shaw.)

So, one sees this Education Lab blog with some rather refreshing education stories– and at the same time, one sees the primarily test-score-measure-of-success, Seattle Times education stories along the Education Lab sidebar.

Part of the experiment, perhaps?

We might soon find out. That “yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest” will expire in a couple of months.

Perhaps then, the Seattle Times, or the New Venture Fund, or Solutions Journalism Network, or the Gates Foundation will have the word for us on what this “project” means for American education.

Perhaps Bill will address the matter himself. Perhaps Melinda will do it.

You’ll have to forgive me if I appear skeptical of Gates involvement in American education ventures– and especially in the “measuring impact” of Gates-funded “positive outcomes.” Only last month, for my upcoming book on Common Core origins, I wrote a detailed chapter about what Gates promotes as his “neutral” involvement in American education and the reality of his repeatedly and actively promoting his personal view of what American education should look like.

Then again, this Gates “venture” is taking place in Seattle, where people are familiar with his games.


Like my writing? Read my newly-released ed “reform” whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education




  1. How much would the Gates Foundation pay to have this link removed from your site?: V-log: Christina Halasz-Lane, President of Glass Mountain Inc., Calls Out Melinda Gates on breeches of international competition law, illegal surveillance for the purpose of intellectual property theft, germ warfare, extortion – the tip of the iceberg:

  2. NShrubs permalink

    The Seattle Times is a willing “victim” of the Gates Foundation and their experiments. They hate public schools, teachers, and unions, and they can’t wait for charter schools – though they’ll never admit their biases. They are pro-business, anti-tax, pro-Gates, and unfortunately we are stuck with them after their dirty dealings sunk the better paper, the Seattle PI. Luckily most people in Seattle pretry much know not to take anything they write too seriously anymore. The only function I have found the Times useful for is elections. If the Times is against it, then I know to vote for it, and vice versa.

  3. Mercedes,
    I’ve been on panels with Rowe, whom assured me multiple times that Gates has no influence on their reporting, other than being limited to “what works.” But it is all B.S. In the last few weeks Rowe has done two puff pieces on Teachers United, a local Gates funded astro-turf group that is all aboard the corporate ed machine a la VAM and anti-unions and pro-charters. It’s just part of their continued strategy to make it seem as if there is community support for their projects. – Wayne

    • Wayne, this is Claudia. The fact is: I have had zero communication from anyone at the Gates Foundation about what to cover in the Education Lab series or how to do so. During the life of this project, we have run literally hundreds of blog posts. To single out two — one of which discusses a potential candidate for state superintendent — strikes me as rather selective. But hey, thanks for reading.

      • Claudia,
        I’ve read multiple blog posts from the lab, not just those two. And I’m not saying you all “only” report on things like those two blog posts I singled out. I see a wide range ( in terms of individual topics) reported in the blog. None of that is my point. And I absolutely believe you that you’ve had zero communication from Gates. I’ve never asserted otherwise and have no reason to doubt you individually.

        What is striking to me is the thin political range of the Ed Lab. I see mainly “safe” stories about mainstream stuff almost no one would would question, and then I see stories like the two PR pieces about TU. A lot of this has to do with what you and the Times count or value as “what works” or as a “solution.” Why focus on TU as something that “works”/is a “solution”? It isn’t clear to me at all that they are doing anything that is “working” in education to solve much of anhyting, and if your point is to highlight the potential and power of teachers doing political work – like you did in your TU pieces – then why don’t you look towards other teachers and teacher organizations that are doing political work? Why not look at WA Bad Assed Teachers (WABATS), who do a ton of on the ground work in Olympia, in their respective union locals, in the state union, in the national union, in their communities, and in their schools? And they are all volunteer.

        Or I might suggest Social Equality Educators, the progressive caucus within the Seattle Education Association, who are doing much more effective work organizing and shifting the SEA than anything TU has done (ever).

        You should also check out the Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference. We’re on our 6th or 7th year at this point, and we pull in around 800 educators from around the region, sharing curriculum and discussing the politics of education.

        I would define test resistance and parent activism as a solution. Or ethnic studies. Or social justice curriculum. Maybe something on Greenberg’s reinstatement and the work on white privilege he was doing at Center School…

        And if you want something safer, at least highlight Proyecto Saber at Seatlh.

        To me, all of these groups/programs are examples of solutions/what works. And all of them push back against the assumptive norms of what guides Gates’ definition of solutions/what works, and these things generally don’t appear in anything supported by the Times, save for the once-a-year progressive education op-ed that they allow (and I mean this literally, once-a-year).

        But I’m really glad you responded here (and I’m being sincere here, not snarky), because I think it is important that you get a sense from us media outsiders of how much the context of The Seattle Times concretely shapes how we make sense of your writing. The Times has its own political agenda when it comes to education, and they’ve made this crystal clear through not only their editorials, but also op-ed pages. Even their straight ahead news stories about education are selective and fall within a particular range of politics.

        So when we see the ed lab blog from the Seattle Times, funded by Gates, either reporting on fairly safe stuff or putting so much weight behind TU as something that “works” in education/an educational solution, you HAVE to expect that kind of response. In fact, it is a quite reasonable response, given that context.

        In many ways you are in a similar position to the other Gates funded organizations locally – like the League of Education Voters. They tell me all the time, “Gates funds us but they don’t tell us what to do.” And my response to them is always, “Gates doesn’t have to tell you what to do because your politics and agenda align with Gates. That’s WHY they fund you. If you changed your agenda, you’d lose your Gates money…” Gates doesn’t have to pull the strings. They just need to provide resources to the right policy actors.

        To be clear, I’m NOT saying this applies to you as an individual. I don’t fully know your educational politics enough to know where you actually land on this stuff. But I am saying that, until we see anything significantly different coming from the ed lab or The Times as a whole, it doesn’t matter if Gates isn’t directly “steering” the reporting – for the most part, the reporting just happens to either fall in line with the Gates agenda anyways (or pose no threat to it).

        I am curious though. How much say do the Times editors have in determining not what you write, but what gets deemed “worthy” for the ed lab? Who determines what counts as a “solution” or “what works”?

  4. Hemlock permalink

    Seattke is one town where gares may get the green glare of people who epitomize grass roots and anti establishment collectives . Again, this blog must be tbe babe of the reformers existence as its research prives just how sloppy teur diiabolicak plots are , nit to mention , how capable and resourceful teachers can be. I read and repost blogs daily and there are many many more than there were two or 3 years ago when Ravitch began hers, which facilitates discourse, community and collaboration to a point. Readers are enlightened and inspired by her efforts which are founded on what readers themselves bring to the table . It has evolved a great deal and paved the way for blogs like this , which is, frankly , far more of a threat to the reformers now than it may have been two years ago because most teachers and parents were not truly hip to the complexity of a free market free for all in schools thanks to media blackouts, economic fears and unrelenting churn . Who could suspect such cunning and. Destructive affronts to our most sacred conceits? Our children, education and the American dream are off limits! Gov doesn’t enable corporate takeovers in public schools where students become billionaires’ ” assets ” and teachers become “human capital” which is not afforded constitutional or civil rights , much less empathy .
    Or do they?
    If you fell into windows 7 , you know how diabolical Gates and his minions can be .
    We teachers tend to be too trusting or complacent. Most of us are exhausted . I don’t know how this blogger keeps up if she is also teaching . I think a few of us are driven beyond sleep because there is such a sense of urgency—we cannot lose our momentum.
    Anyway , I am glad she is willing to dig into the truth which is right in front of us , but most just cannot see it. Beware, like a snake it can bite you . Mercedes looks that snake in the eye like a mongoose .
    She is assembling evidence ( ADVICE: copy and paste ressearch . Rely on links and the text will be revised or obliterated when you need it most ). Evidence is necessary because we need to plead our case to the public . We need to have an answer for anything they ask us. This is artillery.
    This reform stuff is coming apart at the seams as common core continues to reel from the blows delivered by way of national jokes and Gates’ murky realization that casino capitalism is gambling . Even cheaters tend to lose. We are hitting him where he lives ($$$$) and the domino effect is likely as Walmart wage slaves demand a living and Eli Broad’s shrine to himself downtown Displaces miles of skid row squatters who call it home And just in time to see his fav meat puppet collide with karmic quicksand for ipad antics, TFA posed as credentialed teachers and serious questions about the budget in LCFF for high need kids; dare I dream of them in orange jumpers?
    Pribabiy not as what looks like national unrest over racism, murderous police states etc . In SOUTH LA there was a march over another young black man with a learning disability who was brutally murdered by police last week. They are not going to riot this time . They are being civil. As are others decrying drones DTLA that police have and are being spotted . It is rightously sitirred up dissent, but the response from law enforcement and leadership is worrisome.i
    This was apparently the first the mayor heard of these drones –what is truly scary is I think what he says is absolutely true .
    One reads the ed blogs and knows the publics awareness is growing, like our iown , which is Sweeeeeeet, but when I read this blog I see we are also becoming prepared because there are new battle fields ahead of us. I too see the best avenue is rhetoric and law but it is not my forte nor could I translate it so adeptly.
    The resistance doesn’t realize it yet, but we are winning. We are going to win, Mercedes is providing data driven odds that are in our favor , which is why we all must be vigilant and at the ready because we can never underestimate the extreme deviance of this enemy.

  5. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    I am dizzy with the spin. Gates funding of Teachers United is minor. The foundations are complicit in propaganda that legitimizes the work of “teacher voice groups” who are anti-union, pro-charter and propagandists for the USDE funded “Reform Support Network” for RttT. That is a propaganda machine with the explicit purpose of making pay for performance the national norm. I have the references. Here are some of the “teacher voice groups” Gates has funded, but the groups are also supported by many others. The sums are just from Gates.
    Teach Plus ($9.5 million),
    Center for Teacher Quality ($6.3 million),
    Hope Street Group ($4.7 million),
    Educators for Excellence ($3.9 million), and
    Teachers United ($942,000).
    Other foundations are supporting these groups. For example, Teach Plus receives “partner” grants from eight other foundations (including the Broad, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Joyce) and major investment firms.

  6. ira shor permalink

    Keep digging, thank you; we are all grateful for the the exposures you provide, which help us do opposition better. Gates is “gee-whiz” billionaire boy who pulls the strings as the central figure in this whole ugly private war on public needs.

  7. So, here’s more on this “Education Blog.” (I’m a public education activist in Seattle and write for a public education blog, Seattle Schools Community Forum.)

    We were ALL suspicious when this first started. The Times could not fall over itself to say “oh no, the Gates Foundation doesn’t tell us what to do.” Maybe no but here’s what most of those who read the Times’ and their “education” reporting know:

    – the number of people – who get op-eds – in their Education blog is very narrow. Virtually all are ed reformers. It’s just funny to see how many times in a month, Teachers United (ANOTHER Gates Foundation funded entity) gets an op-ed or a story.

    – yes, if you look at sidebar stories versus actual stories, there is quite the difference. Linda Shaw is (was) a respected ed reporter but, like Claudia Rowe, most of it is directed towards stories that support ed reform positions or efforts. It’s a sad thing.

    – The biggest thing to note is that about two years ago – because of their Gates Foundation grant – the Times was able to get access to Seattle Schools student data via our state office of education, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. This was all done on the downlow but some of us got wind of it and let everyone know. Seattle Schools itself did NOT even know this was happening. OSPI lamely said that the Times could request info via public disclosure but “now we know what they are looking to do with that info.” Bullshit.

    So many people were so outraged that OSPI pulled back and took back the agreement with the Times. The Times says they currently have no agreement with the Times but I would lay odds that somehow the Gates Foundation is accessing that data. (We have other Gates-funded programs like the Road Map Project that also get to access a lot of school data. It never ends.)

    So to recap, a for-profit entity was allowed access to student data. I can only believe it was because of the Gates grant (which seems to be debunked here).

    Meanwhile, any real reporting on either Seattle Schools or state education issues, seems to have taken a nosedive in the regular section of the Times. It’s very sad.

    The Times really believes they can help Gates control the conversation around public education in Washington State. They’re wrong, of course.

    We’re going to keep the public in public education in Washington State (whether or not Bill lives here or not).

  8. I think I’ll ask them to report on Canadian National Rail – I think this coverage would be highly educational. Maybe SJN can report on how many lives have been lost in three countries by atomic bomb-sized explosions and how many people throughout these nations have been exposed to toxic substances that cause cancer, failure of internal organs, generational genetic mutations, and birth defects. I hope they look into the 49 pages of documented accidents, derailments, and other incidents and CN’s pattern of lying, cover-ups, and refusals to disclose information: Maybe they’ll research DOT111s and report on how these twenty-some year old train cars are still in use without their required shields and diamond-shaped placards identifying hazardous contents: I wonder if they would look into how the Sierra Club feels about this practice: and Even better, maybe they will involve themselves in RESPONSIBLE journalism and encourage democratic public comment: I’m very hopeful this substantial contribution made by the Gates Foundation will be put to good use. I’m sure SJN won’t let this generous funding bias their journalism and debase it by promoting more of that nasty “Bill Gates’ Let Me Control U.S. Education By Shoving More Propaganda Down Your Throat” journalism reported by purchased, pleonectic apostates. And most of all, I do hope they take that extra little step and look up the largest single shareholder!! Thanks for the donation Bill!

    • Hi Wayne and everyone,

      Thanks for reaching out to me on these important issues. I’d like to respond to the concerns that have been raised. First: The position of the Seattle Times’ editorial board on matters of class size, charter schools, teachers unions and the like has no bearing whatsoever on the news side (that is, reporters like me). I know that’s sometimes not well understood outside of a newsroom, but inside the newsroom, this separation is fiercely protected.

      Second: Education Lab has reported – both in daily blog posts and our monthly long-form pieces – on a range of promising responses to problems in public education, many of them having nothing to do with test scores as a measure of “success.” For instance, we ran a lengthy story on dropout reengagement, another on ways to improve student attendance, and another on the importance of parent involvement.

      Here’s a link to the web page where you can read them:

      We’ve also published blog posts on the surging numbers of homeless children in Washington schools, concerns about discipline rates for minority students and the enormous impact that sustained, caring relationships with teachers can have for all students. Keep in mind that Education Lab is just a piece of the Times’ education coverage. We continue to report on problems as well as promising responses.

      On finances: The $700,000 referred to in the original post represents our initial $450,000 grant from the Gates Foundation, which covered many of the Seattle Times’ expenses for the project in its first year, plus a $250,000 supplement approved in late 2013 which went exclusively to support the Solutions Journalism Network. Gates made these grants to the New Venture Fund because the fund served as a fiscal agent for SJN — a common practice for new organizations in the philanthropic sector – until the Solutions Network received its own 501(c)3 tax exempt status from the IRS in mid-2014.

      The primary aim of Education Lab is not to define what constitutes “success,” but to open the conversation. That is, to provide an arena for thoughtful discussion and bring more readers into it. For this reason, I appreciate you and Wayne reading our series and weighing in.

  9. Hi Mercedes & Everyone,

    I’m a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. We’re working with the Seattle Times on the Education Lab (Ed Lab) series. We’ve received funding from the Gates Foundation, as well as several other foundations. I sympathize with the instinct to be skeptical and suspicious of powerful organizations. But the Gates Foundation hasn’t done anything to influence what gets reported in Ed Lab, and the Seattle Times would not allow such interference.

    The fact remains that, today, more and more major news organizations are accepting foundation funding because revenues have fallen. In order to continue to do deep, long-form reporting on issues of public interest, they often have to rely on grants. Just as news organizations have long kept a firewall between advertising and editorial, increasingly they have to maintain a firewall when revenues come from philanthropy or sponsorships. Shows like the PBS NewsHour, as well as investigative news organizations, have maintained this separation successfully for decades.

    The Seattle Times reporters and editors have done an excellent job selecting stories that shine a light on problems in public education and responses to those problems that are showing promise in Seattle and in other parts of the country. Over the past year, foundation watchdogs have paid close attention to the Ed Lab series, as they should, but they’ve found little to jump on because the journalism speaks for itself. It’s independent and balanced and high quality. Linda Shaw and Claudia Rowe are reporters with the highest level of integrity. I sincerely urge readers to check out their reporting.

    By doing hard nosed journalism that looks to understand how schools or systems could be improved, they and the Seattle Times are helping to depolarize the education debate and make it more constructive and enlightening.

    • “The Seattle Times reporters and editors have done an excellent job selecting stories that shine a light on problems in public education and responses to those problems that are showing promise in Seattle and in other parts of the country.”


    • Ugh.

      Normally I never respond to these things, but I find myself in a quandary. I fully agree with organizations that publicly state that the Gates Foundation has given money without strings or stipulations. But…

      Organizations that receive the funds (because as you say, funds have dried up and these grants are an important source of money) will eventually need more. And in order to get more they must align themselves with the views of those who control the purse strings. Does the Seattle Times support the views of those who are viewed as “education reformers”? I would suggest that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that this is so. Even more so, many of us involved in education in the Puget Sound region and beyond feel that stories posted by Education Lab are reflective of these points of view not only to continue the money but because the Seattle Times simply wouldn’t post any story counter to their own point of view. In some ways we see Education Lab not as an entity designed to promote education reform but rather as a group focused on self-preservation- and that means shining a light on what the Gates Foundation will support that it write about.

      Some of your stories have been commendable in their content and have been incredibly well-written, eye-opening, and useful pieces. But as Wayne has suggested, it’s not what has been printed that’s at issue; it’s the stories and views that haven’t been written that speak volumes about Education Lab’s ultimate goal.

      It’s not about journalism. It’s about money.

    • Firewall, my ass. Take a good long look in the mirror? You sure you are a journalist?

  10. Carolyn Leith permalink


    Would this be the same impenetrable firewall the Times breached when it ran $150,000 worth of free advertising for Washington state gubernatorial candidate Republican Rob McKenna and Referendum 74?

    ‘Seattle Times’ Under Fire For Free Political Ads

  11. critiquing the coverage is itself an attempt to influence the coverage, no?

    Who Influences Education Coverage Better — Reform Critics Or Reform Funders?

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