Gates: Was the $5 billion worth it?

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.

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  1. The interview with Gates was puzzling. He advocates innovation, but sees nothing wrong with every kid in the country using the same textbook. The comparison to a standard electrical system fails– we aren’t dealing with light bulbs.

    TFA — to name just one organization– has spent lots of time and money to identify what qualities make for an effective teacher. This is research that has been going on for at least 20 years.

    Maybe I’m just grumpy because I read today in the Heritage Foundation’s Education Notebook that school and school district employees spend 7.8 million hours each year to gather and report data required for participation in Title I.

  2. I found this to be a step in the right direction.

    Too many decisions about schooling have to do with politics and not research.

  3. Bill Leonard says:

    I’m probably missing something here, but it seems as though nobody is willing to talk about culture in the home and the immediate community.

    There are cultures that value education; there are those that, regardless of lip service, really do not.. Until and unless we start talking about such phenomena in a frank way, all of us, including Bill Gates, are uninating away time and money, much of it public money.


  4. The reason you missed it Bill is b/c Gates would never bring it up. They are more interested in bashing teachers.

  5. Gates is right that all the studies agree that the teacher is the most important in-school factor (more important than class size, per pupil funding). But what’s known as “home atmosphere” (parental involvement and attitudes about the importance of school) is the most important outside-of-school factor.

    Bill Leonard is right that that’s what missing. Though (if I’m reading Mike in Texas correctly) that doesn’t take away from the importance of having an excellent teacher in the classroom.

  6. BadaBing says:

    Bill Gates doesn’t know jack about education. Has he ever been in a classroom? He needs to spend at least one year in a classroom so he can get a feel for what’ happens where the rubber meets the road. He also needs to abandon the asinine belief that problems can be solved by throwing huge amounts of money at them.

    I teach high school English in a Title I school in California, where the main thrust is not teaching but intervention. As teachers we are tasked with being not only educators but good buddies, parents, counselors, psychiatrists, tutors, therapists and police. An administrator at our district office wrote a grant so the school could break up into small learning communities, one of Gates’ pet programs until he found out it doesn’t work. Small learning communities (SLCs) take the form of small schools within the school, and their purpose is to better enable teachers to “bond” with students and perform intervention for the slackers and disruptors. Few teachers think it a good idea because it carries a number of negative unintended consequences that more than cancel out any good it might be doing.

    Sooner or later we are all going to have to come to terms with the fact that those who ride herd over us have made a conscious decision to allow millions of low-IQ, unmotivated and anti-intellectual immigrants to flood into this country almost unchecked. The kids of said immigrants often come from broken homes. Their parents do not involve themselves with their kids’ education. It is a community where doing schoolwork is a very low priority. What’s high priority? Hanging out with the homeys, playing video games, having a boyfriend/girlfriend, partying, hanging out, or doing anything other than improving oneself academically.

    Why can’t we accept the fact that we, as a nation, have decided to take in millions of kids who care nothing about education. These kids bring to school the attitudes they learn at home. We can wring our hands about it all we want, but the solution is out of our control. Bill Gates can throw his billion$ at the problem all he wants, and it isn’t going to get much better. And now we need a scapegoat for our failed education system. This is why teachers are being blamed for the low test scores and lack of skills of their charges. (Our freshmen come in reading at a 5th-grade level. They cannot write.) But this problem is not going to go away, even if you replace every teacher with a super-teacher a la Erin Gruwell of Freedom Writers fame. The cycle repeats itself with every new immigrant generation. It’s a mess, but it’s a mess we brought on ourselves, and if current immigration policy continues, the mess is only going to get messier.

  7. Wally Katolik says:

    Badabing has it mostly right on target EXCEPT where the word IMMIGRANT is used TOO loosely. America was built on the backs of LEGAL waves of immigrants.

    “The cycle repeats itself with every new immigrant generation. It’s a mess, but it’s a mess we brought on ourselves, and if current immigration policy continues, the mess is only going to get messier.”

    The REAL problem is NOT just with the ILLEGAL immigrants. Let’s not overlook where the preponderance of problems are and what the kid population is = a super-majority of black & Hispanic kids in urban areas. This population also creates problems in suburbia where there is Section 8 housing.’ You can take the kid out of the ghetto but you can take the ghetto out of the kid.’ Of course, like any generalization, there are limited exceptions to this.

    Take a look at:

    Can We Blame Kids for Bad Schools?
    Date: Thursday, January 13, 2011, 6:31 am
    By: Gregory Kane,

    …Here’s Audie’s assessment of the importance of school and academics: “This is what we do,” he said in the documentary. He was talking about himself and a bunch of other students, who roamed the halls all day and learned nothing.

    “Just walking the halls all day, baby. (Bleep) class. That (bleep’s) for clowns, man. Don’t nobody go to class around here, man. Man, (bleep) academics. Academics? We gon’ leave that to them nerd-(bleep)(bleeps). We gon’ keep it straight ‘hood. All my (bleeps) out here, we gon’ keep it gutter.”…

    Here’s the link to Weissberg’s book:

    …Bad Students, Not Bad Schools is an Emperor’s new clothes book—it openly speaks the unspeakable: America’s education woes are caused by intellectually mediocre, unmotivated students, not “bad schools,” rotten teachers, faculty curriculum, lack of sufficient funding and similar alleged culprits. Alter the student population and push students harder, even if this means lowering their self-esteem and America’s schools will thrive. If mischief-makers refuse to learn, let them drop out! Politicians and professional educators avoid this awkward reality and prefer instead to squander billions while lurching from one guaranteed-to-fail gimmick after the next….

    …Chapter 1 Introduction: A Nation at Risk or a Nation in Denial?

    Academic achievement requires intelligence and motivation. School resources, pedagogy and instructional quality are important but secondary. Unfortunately, both liberal and conservative reformers have ignored brains and work ethic and concentrate on secondary factors. It is possible to attract smarter, more motivated students if the high political price will be paid. Politicians, parents and reformers instead prefer mediocrity since it is easier….

    So this begs the question what is the solution? It’s been 27 years since ‘A Nation at Risk’ was published followed by a FLOOD of money pouring into public education with basically NOTHING to show for it. Just look at all of the machinations that school districts go through (Atlanta cheating scandal for one) to show increased student achievement on paper. Two and a half decades have proved that this approach does NOT work.

    The real solution is NOT Core Standards or more Federal involvement. The MORE they have become involved the WORSE the situation has become. Education should be strictly left to local control without Federal or State involvement other than providing equitable funding for the less financially capable districts. Each local situation is different so the parents in each locality need to get involved in their district and take the power away from the EduCrats (just look at the mess they have created) demanding what is best for their children. Instead of spending tens if not hundreds of millions on building 20th century brick and mortar ‘factories,’ to produce workers for factories which no longer exist, it would be much more profitable to invest in one-to-one, anytime, anywhere learning.

  8. There was one quote in that piece that struck as important — and more than a little shocking: Gates said, ” . . .schools of education are not about research”.

    In my own post on the interview, I said that there were exceptions, but that I agreed with his general point; our schools of education are not doing much worthwhile research.

    And, as you all know, we are paying them to do research (among other things).