Bill Gates expands influence — and money — into higher education

Bill Gates (Ben Stansall/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Bill Gates (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

For years, Bill Gates has exercised extraordinary influence in shaping modern K-12 school reform to his liking, leveraging cash from his vast Microsoft fortune to drive the public agenda — and taxpayer funds –  toward standardized test-based accountability.

Now, the Chronicle of Higher Education has exposed how he is doing the same thing in higher education: spending his own money to remake the system.

In a package of stories, the Chronicle makes clear how Gates has used his money to change higher education into one that is focused on getting more students degrees faster through technology and what is called “competency-based learning,” which in part rewards students for what they know rather than for how many credits they take in college. His vision includes ways to measure everything, largely through testing.

Critics say this vision of higher education is aimed at getting students ready for jobs rather than giving them a broad education; that it, along with other reform efforts he has funded, are not based in research but rather in his corporate-based idea of how schools should run; and that Gates has been so dominant in the reform debate that opponents have had difficulty getting their voices heard.

One story titled “The Gates Effect” reports that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent $472 million on higher education since 2006 — with the vast majority since 2008 — on this agenda, including money to media organizations “to keep its reform goals on the national agenda.” It notes that the Gates foundation “hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon; it has worked to build that bandwagon, in ways that are not always obvious.”

Another story titled “How Gates Shapes State Higher-Education Policy,” by Katherine Mangan, starts this way:

Over the past several years, lawmakers in dozens of states have passed laws restricting remedial college courses and tying appropriations to graduation rates. The changes have been advanced by an unusual alliance of private foundations and state policy makers who are shaping higher-education strategies in profound ways.

 

At the center of that effort, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has financed studies that argue for broad-scale changes aimed at pushing more students, more quickly, toward graduation. Working alongside the Lumina Foundation through intermediaries like Complete College America and another nonprofit, Jobs for the Future, the Gates foundation has helped influence higher-education policy at the state level to a degree that may be unprecedented for a private foundation …

 

Read the whole story here. Other stories in the package include one about how the foundation supported media to get out their reform narrative (noting that Gates has given money to the Chronicle). This story  is titled, “‘Next Generation’ Grant Program Reveals Hands-on, Corporate Approach.” The latter story makes clear that the Gates investments in higher education are not intended to support higher education “for its own sake.” It says:

… observers say Gates treats grantees like contractors and is less interested in supporting innovation at the campus level than in investing in intermediary organizations like Complete College America, state systems of higher education, or upstart off-campus innovators like the Khan Academy. They note that on its Web site, Gates tells postsecondary-education grant seekers not to submit unsolicited proposals.

There are a number of billionaires who have invested big sums of money to change education in their own vision, including the Waltons and the Broads, but Gates is the elephant in the donors’ room. His unique position was clear in 2011, when NBC debuted its Education Nation coverage and anchor Brian Williams talked about the philanthropy of Bill and Melinda Gates, saying,

We’re also going to be joined by Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates Foundation, one of the sponsors of this event, and the largest single funder of education anywhere in the world. It’s their facts that we’re going to be referring to often to help along our conversation. [my emphasis]

Then when Williams introduced Melinda Gates, he said:

You could refer to our guest as the top funder of education in the world. A partner and sponsor of this year’s gathering. Also spending half a billion dollars to devise a way figure out what makes a great teacher, what makes them most effective. The estimates are the Gates Foundation has already spent, obviously a record for any education spending, spent or committed to spending five to seven billion dollars.

Gates’ school reform efforts began in 2000 when he started spending what would be a total of some $2 billion to break up big high schools and create small ones because he thought they were the answer to the high school dropout problem. It would help advance student achievement. When standardized test scores didn’t rise, he pulled out his money, writing in the foundation’s 2009 annual letter (excerpts of which were published in The Washington Post ) that “many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” In fact there are many small schools that are successful but they have to have adequate resources, which many of the Gates-funded schools didn’t have.

Then Gates, believing in the power of “data” to drive instruction and the notion that everything is measurable, plowed hundreds of million of dollars into  experiments to develop controversial teacher assessment systems that link jobs and pay to test scores. He also put money into a project to videotape teachers to help them see how they do their job, spent at least $150 million to help the Common Core State Standards initiative, and provided $100 million to build a controversial student database.

Of course people who agree with his reforms are delighted with his philanthropy. But plenty of others are very concerned that a private citizen can wield so much influence on public policy because he was talented and lucky enough to become impossibly rich.

Correction: An earlier version said that Gates had funded a project to videotape every teacher to help them see watch their own performance. The Gates Foundation says that the plan was never to videotape every teacher in every classroom. This version reflects this change.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · July 15, 2013