Gates Foundation’s Mega Philanthropy Keeps on Colliding with Democracy

In her annual letter summing up the year’s accomplishments of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, offers a sort of mea culpa to explain what has happened in the organization’s philanthropy in education. Gates has been at the forefront of strategic philanthropy, by which a foundation sets the priorities and tries to accomplish particular reforms its chosen “experts” have identified.

Here is what Desmond-Hellmann confesses, specifically regarding the Foundation’s push for the Common Core Standards: “Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards.  We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators—particularly teachers—but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning… This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart.  The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.”  Desmond-Hellman also explains that the Gates Foundation is committed to evidence-based experimentation: “From the beginning, Bill and Melinda wanted their foundation to be a learning organization; one that evolves and course corrects based on evidence.”

Desmond-Hellmann doesn’t seem to question the wisdom of the foundation’s strategy, merely that the Foundation missed engaging all the stakeholders.  And she seems to assume that a sort of apology will cover any worry about the collateral damage inflicted by mega-experiments, most particularly the experiments that were abandoned.

The Los Angeles Times, responded to Desmond-Hellman and the Gates Foundation in a stunning and scathing editorial about the damage inflicted.  The newspaper’s editors recount the history of Gates’ experimentation in education:

  • “The Gates Foundation’s first significant foray into education reform, in 1999, revolved around Bill Gates’ conviction that the big problem with high schools was their size… The foundation funded the creation of smaller schools, until its own study found that the size of the school didn’t make much difference in student performance. When the foundation moved on, school districts were left with costlier-to-run small schools.”
  • “Then the foundation set its sights on improving teaching, specifically through evaluating and rewarding good teaching… In 2009, it pledged a gift of up to $100 million to the Hillsborough County, Fla., schools to fund bonuses for high-performing teachers, to revamp teacher evaluations and to fire the lowest-performing 5%…  (T)he Gates Foundation changed its mind about the value of bonuses and stopped short of giving the last $20 million; costs ballooned beyond expectations, the schools were left with too big a tab and the least-experienced teachers still ended up at low-income schools.  The program, evaluation system and all, was dumped.”
  • More recently the foundation has been investing in the development and implementationof the Common Core Standards, the subject of last week’s sober explanation of problems in what Desmond-Hellmann says was the roll out.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board concludes: “(T)he Gates Foundation has spent so much money—more than $3 billion since 1999—that it took on an unhealthy amount of power in the setting of education policy… Philanthropists are not generally education experts, and even if they hire scholars and experts, public officials shouldn’t be allowing them to set the policy agenda for the nation’s public schools.  The Gates experience teaches once again that educational silver bullets are in short supply and that some educational trends live only a little longer than mayflies.”

In a recent column on the impact of Gates’ investment in the promotion of charter schools in the state of Washington, Joanne Barkan reflects further: “Gates, who has no training as an educator or researcher, easily dismisses the work of professionals in the field, but it’s never been clear how well, or even if, he knows their work.  He appears continually in the media promoting his chosen policies, but he doesn’t engage in depth—at least not publicly—with experienced educators or scholars who disagree with him.  His entree into policy-making is money, not expertise.”

And Diane Ravitch, who identified the work of the Billionaire Boys in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (which is just being republished in a revised edition), defines the problem of large-scale, money-driven experimentation on America’s school districts and 50 million children: “There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions.  These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be.  They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state.” (pp. 200-201)

Joanne Barkan quotes Bill Gates from an interview in May 2015, when he discussed the challenges democracy poses for his foundation: “It’s not easy. School boards have a lot of power, so they have to be convinced. Unions have a lot of power, so teachers need to see the models that are working.” “We’re not making as much progress as I’d like. In fact of all the foundation areas we work in, I’d say this has proven to be the most difficult.” “It’s a very big system… very resistant to change. The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of the school system. So you have one executive, and the school board isn’t as powerful.”

2 thoughts on “Gates Foundation’s Mega Philanthropy Keeps on Colliding with Democracy

  1. The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of the school system. So you have one executive, and the school board isn’t as powerful.??????? This comes a quite a surprise to those of us who live in Chicago!

  2. While the folks at Gates offer that the problem they didn’t identify and resolve was the need for greater engagement of the stakeholders in their initiative, I would suggest that this admission points to a larger issue for Gates and others seeking to influence the direction of education. It appears in their analysis that, rather than investing in a deep and more root-cause based approach, they began with an acceptance of the wisdom of a standards-based solution.

    What followed was a pattern of trying to doing this right, rather than exploring the question of whether or not it was the right thing. The Gates folks are a part of a growing list of reformers who, whether through laziness, fear of complexity, or other less charitable motives, have failed to explore deeper questions that might lead to a better definition of the “right thing”.

    In a time of unprecedented change, 24/7 access to all kinds of information and knowledge, and growing sentiment that our graduates are lacking in critical areas (rarely relating to the beauty of the quadratic equation), why wouldn’t we begin our explorations with (a) an analysis of the purpose of education, (b) the differences between schooling and the design and access to engaging learning experiences?

    Clark Aldrich in his book, Unschooling Rules, suggests that the purpose of education should be (a) to help students learn how to learn, (b) to help student learn how to do, and (c) to help students learn how to be. This should be accomplished through the design and delivery of intentional learning experiences.

    As the “apology” from the Gates Foundation illustrates we have focused and continue to focus only on one subset of this purpose. When such apologies reflect a commitment to looking beyond the obvious and actually exploring ideas such as those offered by Aldrich deeply and with a genuine understanding of the complexity they involve, we will be better able to respond to the responsibility we have to our children.

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