Melinda and Bill Gates. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

What are Melinda and Bill Gates talking about?

In recent public statements, one or both of them have said things about their powerful role in education philanthropy that strains credulity.

Through their Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the two have poured far more money into education projects than any other individuals in the world, at least $2 billion over the past few decades. They have used their fortune to leverage public money to support pet projects and worked with the Obama administration to implement standardized-test-based policies.

Yet, in a new interview in the New York Times, Melinda Gates said she and her husband do not — repeat, do not — have “outsize influence” in public education. When reporter David Marchese said “certainly you have more influence than, say, a group of parents,” Gates replied: “Not necessarily.”

That prompted a “jaw-dropping” tweet from author and journalist Anand Giridharadas, whose latest book is “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.” He wrote:

Jaw-dropping.@melindagates says she and her husband, spending vast sums on education, don’t have “outsize influence.” She also doubts that two billionaires seeking to transform education have any more power than a “group of parents.” True privilege is denying you have it.

Now, let’s go back two months, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual letter was published and addressed nine things the couple said surprised them along their philanthropic journey.

This was Surprise #8: “Textbooks are becoming obsolete.”

The two then discuss the issue, not actually proving that textbooks are becoming obsolete — possibly because they aren’t — but instead talking up the virtues of online education. Why would the founder of Microsoft want to tout online education?

The Gates Foundation began its first big effort in this world nearly 20 years ago with what it said was a $650 million investment to break large failing high schools into small schools, on the theory that small schools worked better than large ones. Some do, of course, and some don’t, but in any case, Bill Gates declared in 2009 it hadn’t worked the way he had hoped (with some experts saying the Gateses had ignored fundamental pieces of the project), and the foundation moved on.

Next up: Common Core State Standards. The foundation funded the Core’s development, implementation and promotion with hundreds of millions of dollars and worked with the Obama administration to keep it alive. But the Core was plunged into deep controversy, in part because of the rush to get it into schools and because of what many states said was federal coercion to adopt it.

While pushing the Core, the Gates Foundation also showered three public school systems and four charter management organizations with hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and implement teacher assessment systems that incorporated student standardized test scores.

Assessment experts had repeatedly warned that using student test scores to evaluate teachers was not fair or valid, but Gates and the Obama administration argued otherwise. School systems and charter organizations that took the foundation’s money were required to use public funds on the project, too, and they did.

But then Gates wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2013 saying it hadn’t gone as he had hoped. A 2018 report concluded that the teacher evaluation project had failed to achieve its goal of improving student achievement in any significant way.

In 2016, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, chief executive officer of the foundation, conceded in that year’s annual letter that school overhaul was harder than they thought: “However, we’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make systemwide change.” The Los Angeles Times wrote an editorial: “Gates Foundation failures show philanthropists shouldn’t be setting America’s public school agenda."

To be sure, the foundation has funded worthy efforts in education, but the pattern here is clear: Melinda and Bill Gates had ideas they believed would help improve public schools and leveraged their own money to bring in public dollars to fund their projects. They had enough clout to work with state governments and the federal government. It didn’t matter what experts said.

It’s hard to imagine any other set of parents doing that.

Here’s part of the conversation Melinda Gates had with Marchese in the Times:

To get back to philanthropy: What about the notion that the foundation’s work on an issue like public education is inherently antidemocratic? You’ve spent money in that area in a way that maybe seems like it’s crowding out people’s actual wants in that area. What’s your counter to that criticism? Bill and I always go back to “What is philanthropy’s role?” It is to be catalytic. It’s to try and put new ideas forward and test them and see if they work. If you can convince government to scale up, that is how you have success. But philanthropic dollars are a tiny slice of the United States education budget. Even if we put a billion dollars in the State of California, that’s not going to do that much. So we experiment with things. If we had been successful, David, you’d see a lot more charter schools. I’d love to see 20 percent charter schools in every state. But we haven’t been successful. I’d love to say we had outsize influence. We don’t.

Certainly you have more influence than, say, a group of parents. Not necessarily. I went and met with a group of three dozen parents in Memphis. We thought we had a good idea for them. They were having none of it. So we didn’t move forward. A group of parents, a group of teachers, they can have a very large influence.

And here’s what they said in their 2019 annual letter about textbooks:

Bill: I read more than my share of textbooks. But it’s a pretty limited way to learn something. Even the best text can’t figure out which concepts you understand and which ones you need more help with. It certainly can’t tell your teacher how well you grasped last night’s assigned reading.

But now, thanks to software, the standalone textbook is becoming a thing of the past. Suppose you’re taking high school algebra. Instead of just reading a chapter on solving equations, you can look at the text online, watch a super-engaging video that shows you how it’s done, and play a game that reinforces the concepts. Then you solve a few problems online, and the software creates new quiz questions to zero in on the ideas you’re not quite getting.

All of this is a complement to what teachers do, not a replacement. Your teacher gets a rich report showing what you read and watched, which problems you got right and wrong, and the areas where you need more help. When you come to class the next day, she is equipped with a ton of specific information and suggestions to help her make the most of her time with you.

When I told you about this type of software in previous letters, it was mostly speculative. But now I can report that these tools have been adopted in thousands of U.S. classrooms from kindergarten through high school. Zearn, i-Ready, and LearnZillion are examples of digital curricula used by students and teachers throughout the U.S. More than 3,000 schools are teaching a free digital course that I fund called Big History, which uses software to give students immediate feedback on their writing assignments.

What’s next? The same basic cycle you go through for all software: Get lots of feedback on the existing products, collect data on what works, and make them better. This cycle is picking up steam as more states and districts gain confidence about using digital curricula in their schools. I hope this growing momentum will inspire more of the big textbook publishers, which have been slow to offer these kinds of tools.

In the meantime, I haven’t heard from anyone who misses their heavy, expensive textbooks.

Melinda: In addition to adapting to what students know, these online tools also facilitate a new approach to teaching and learning that adapts to who these students are.

In 2019, the typical college student is no longer the stereotypical student who lives in a dorm and graduates in four years after a few spring breaks somewhere warm. Almost half of today’s college students are 25 or older; well over half have a job; more than a quarter have kids of their own.

These “nontraditional” students often don’t have the time or resources to effectively navigate an inefficient, inflexible learning environment designed to meet other people’s needs. That’s a big reason why two out of every five students who enroll in higher education will either withdraw for a while or drop out altogether.

Digital learning tools can help students meet these challenges—by making college more affordable, more convenient, and more effective.

One study found that using open courseware saved students an average of $66 to $121 per course. (Over an academic year, that can add up to $1,000, which can be the difference between staying in school or having to drop out.) Another found that students who used digital learning tools for introductory classes got better grades than students who learned in the traditional way. And, of course, those students had a lot more flexibility. Not having to show up to a physical classroom at a specific time makes a big difference to students who are balancing school with working and raising a family.

Put it all together, and you have students spending less for more convenient classes in which they perform better. In short, we now have the tools to redesign higher education so that it meets the needs of today’s students.

But textbooks aren’t becoming obsolete, as much as teachers, students and owners of online education products hope. As this 2018 story published on the Conversation website reported:

The textbook has been declared dead many times over. Progressive educator John Dewey decried the “text-book fetish” back in the 1890s. Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wished out loud for textbooks to become obsolete. Articles on the demise of textbooks regularly appear with each new school year. They describe these books as only so much content, as an indifferent information dump, as dead tree versions of information that would be better presented interactively, via multiple media.

This Census Bureau table on the health of the textbook industry shows quite clearly textbooks don’t seem to be in danger of becoming obsolete. It’s still close to an $11 billion business in this country, up from $8.6 billion in 2014.


(Statista)

In a 2018 piece on the Conversation website, Norm Friesen, a Boise State University professor, listed five reasons textbooks aren’t going away any time soon. Along with the vast amounts of money they make for publishers, the tomes are interactive in ways that even digital books can’t be, Friesen wrote. And he noted this truism: The education world is not easily disrupted. He wrote:

Like oil and water, educational practice and the latest technologies don’t easily mix. This has been called education’s “technology deficit”. When technologies are actually adopted -- like smart boards or laptops -- they fit in with the larger patterns of the classroom, rather than “disrupting” them. The reason for this is that education, unlike, say, pop music or gas-guzzling cars, isn’t just another “industry” ripe for disruption. It doesn’t produce commodities for consumers, but is about sustaining equilibrium between diverse stakeholders: students, employers, accreditation bodies, the larger community and others.