After Years of Failed Initiatives, Gates Foundation Keeps on Trying to Fix the Schools

You might imagine that Bill and Melinda Gates, with all their money, a large staff, and access to research would have developed a more nuanced and helpful strategy for school reform.  But you’d be wrong.  In their 2020 Gates Foundation Annual Letter, Bill and Melinda Gates continue to assume that academic outcomes as measured by standardized test scores and college matriculation rates can be raised by fixing the public schools.

Melinda Gates expresses humility about the capacity of mega-philanthropy to solve what she and Bill understand are complex issues challenging public schools and their students: “We certainly understand why many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy.  Frankly, we are, too.”  But she doesn’t give up on the Foundation’s mission to keep on experimenting: “Our goal is to help make a huge difference for all U.S. students, so we’ve pivoted most of our work… to areas where we can have more impact for more students.”

Here are examples of some of the Gates’ best known education experiments. Unfortunately, while these Gates projects affected millions of students across the United States, the effect has been harmful.

In her incisive 2011 analysis of the role of venture philanthropy in education policy, Joanne Barkan reminds us of the 2007 Gates funded report, The Turnaround Challenge—thought to be the secret for turning around so-called “failing” schools: “Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called it ‘the bible’ for school restructuring. He’s incorporated it into federal policy, and reformers around the country use it. Mass Insight Education, the consulting company that produced it, claims the document has been downloaded 200,000 times since 2007. Meanwhile, Gates also invested $90 million in one of the largest implementations of the turnaround strategy—Chicago’s Renaissance 2010.  Ren 2010 gave Chicago public schools CEO Arne Duncan a national name and ticket to Washington; he took along the reform strategy.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarizes more recent projects leveraged by the Gates Foundation into government policy. First there was the small schools effort, begun two decades ago with a $650 million investment: “Bill Gates declared in 2009 that it hadn’t worked the way he expected.” The Gates Foundation gave up on that so-called reform.  But school districts which had accepted Gates money to try it, were left to figure out how to reconfigure their high schools back into comprehensive high schools, which require fewer administrators and work more flexibly for teachers and students alike.

Then, in 2009, Gates paid for the development of the Common Core—conveniently because it meshed with Arne Duncan’s federal Race to the Top grants, which required that, even to qualify to apply for Race to the Top, states must adopt uniform standards.  Although the federal government is not permitted to mandate curriculum, Duncan’s grant applications required the adoption of standards, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation stepped in to create the standards—which states were then free to adopt. After states adopted the Common Core and the standardized tests with which the Common Core was paired, the effort slowly fizzled.  Outcomes did not improve, and states continue to drop the Common Core.

Then there was the Gates initiative to evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores and reward the highest scoring teachers with incentives. The American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association both rejected the validity and reliability of the Value Added Measures that were used, Gates abandoned this effort in 2018, but the pilot school districts, which had themselves been required to invest millions of school district dollars into the experiment which involved performance bonuses for the best teachers were left holding the bag. In Hillsborough County, Florida, Gates even withheld a promised $20 million after deciding the Foundation did not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses.

In their 2020 Annual Foundation Letter, Melinda Gates admits that the Foundation has not found the answers: “If you’d asked us 20 years ago, we would have guessed that global health would be our foundation’s riskiest work, and our U.S. education work would be our surest bet.  In fact it has turned out just the opposite.” Melinda Gates also  denies that their foundation has an inflated influence on education: “We know that philanthropy can never—and should never—take the place of governments or the private sector.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss warns readers about Melinda’s mock humility. The Gates Foundation has exerted outsized influence on projects like the turnaround challenge, small high schools, the Common Core, and the experiment with teacher evaluation: “For years, they have spent a fortune trying to shape public education policy, successfully leveraging public funding to support their projects, but never having the kind of academic success they had hoped for. That never stopped them from continuing to fund pet projects… Yet over the years, while they have certainly funded worthwhile projects, questions have been raised about the power they have to dictate social policy because of their enormous investments, as well as whether the targets of some of their philanthropy are the most deserving of attention.  Why should unelected private individuals, critics ask, have a say about public policy just because they are rich?

Joanne Barkan’s 2011 warning  continues to describe the power of venture philanthropy, epitomized by the Gates Foundation: “The cost of K-12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year.  So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum.  Decisive influence, it turns out.  A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels. In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck.”

Bill and Melinda Gates have not given up on experimentation to fix the schools. Currently they are funding regional networks of high schools to collaborate on reforms the participating schools choose. Fixing the schools remains the focus despite that decades of research has shown that the primary challenge for children and their schools is concentrated family and neighborhood poverty. I wonder why the Gates Foundation seems not to take seriously decades of research demonstrating that students’ challenges at school correlate not with the quality of the school but instead with the concentration poverty.

The most recent research on this topic comes from Stanford University education sociologist Sean Reardon, who confirms In a massive, new, data-based study, Is Separate Still Unequal, that concentrated neighborhood and family poverty is the greatest challenge for students and for their schools:  “Once we account for racial differences in school poverty…, however, racial composition differences among schools are no longer positively and significantly associated with the grade 3 achievement gap … or gap growth…. Differences in exposure to school poverty, however, are strongly associated with gaps in grade 3 and modestly associated with gap growth….”  “Racial segregation matters, therefore, because it concentrates black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools, not because of the racial composition of their schools, per se.” “By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… Differences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”