After spending $5 billion on education grants and scholarships, Bill Gates tells the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley, “It’s been about a decade of learning.”
The Microsoft co-founder’s foundation is worth $34 billion, more than the next three largest foundations (Ford, Getty and Robert Wood Johnson) combined.
Small schools, an early Gates Foundation initiative, didn’t improve achievement. I was impressed by the foundation’s willingness to admit that.
Small schools improved students’ attendance and behavior, but “didn’t move the needle much” on college attendance, which is a foundation priority, Bill Gates told Riley. “We didn’t see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that.”
The foundation decided to focus on curriculum — Gates strongly backs a core curriculum — and teacher quality — the foundation is researching what makes good teachers effective.
Many worry that a multi-billionaire has too much power, even if his intentions are noble. (And not everyone thinks they are.) And Gates tells Riley he’s trying to use his money to influence how public money is spent.
Instead of trying to buy systemic reform with school-level investments, a new goal is to leverage private money in a way that redirects how public education dollars are spent.
However, the foundation’s approach is scientific, not political, Gates say.
“I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. “That’s partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don’t think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research.”
Gates supports charters — he’s a KIPP fan — but not school vouchers.
. . . the politics, he says, are just too tough right now. “We haven’t chosen to get behind [vouchers] in a big way, as we have with personnel systems or charters, because the negativity about them is very, very high.”
Gates’ approach is doomed to fail, responds Jay Greene. While trying to influence education policy is sensible, “education does not lend itself to a single ‘best’ approach.” The foundation invokes science “to advance practices and policies they prefer for which they have no scientific support,” Greene charges.
Attempting to impose particular practices on the nation’s education system is generating more political resistance than even the Gates Foundation can overcome, despite their focus on political influence and their devotion of significant resources to that effort.
Greene’s part 2 on the Gates Foundation is here.
In a new mini-book, Greene advocates school choice as the way to create incentives for school improvement. Here’s his interview with Jason Riley.
Community College Spotlight, which I write for the Hechinger Institute, is funded, in part, by Gates money. Gates is funding almost every innovative idea involving community colleges, notably research on how to improve remediation and boost graduation rates. I think it’s money well spent, though the research isn’t likely to find a silver bullet.