You won’t believe what Bill and Melinda Gates are saying makes them “skeptical.”

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.

Now, in the newly released 2020 annual letter of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates says that lack of success is no reason to “give up,” and then, she says this:

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. Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers, and community leaders.

She seems to be attempting to make a distinction between a billionaire personally “designing classroom innovations or setting education policy” and a billionaire pouring so much money into existing ideas and projects they like that it has the effect of shaping public policy. The couple’s investments in public projects are so huge that public money invariably follows, and, thus, their pet projects get implemented.

But such a distinction is lost on, say, a teacher who is evaluated through a badly flawed assessment system that exists because the Gateses funded it. That teacher doesn’t care whether Bill and Melinda Gates sat down and designed it themselves or, rather, chose to ignore the advice of assessment experts who had warned against it.

In their 2020 annual letter, the two take turns talking about their unprecedented philanthropy in health projects around the world and education reform in the United States. They are among the most generous philanthropists on the planet, spending more on global health than many countries do and more on U.S. education reform by far than any of the other wealthy people who are making K-12 a cause.

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?

In education, the Gateses have spent several billion dollars on pet projects — for example, the Common Core State Standards, evaluating teachers by standardized test scores among other things, and small schools — and in the process have leveraged public money in support of their efforts. But, the Gateses have admitted that school reform is harder than they thought, and none of their efforts have worked as they had hoped. Critics go further, charging that some of their projects have harmed public schools because they were unworkable from the start and consumed resources that could have been better spent.

In their letter, the Gateses discuss the difficulty in implementing widespread school reform. Melinda Gates said:

The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though. Just the opposite. We believe the risk of not doing everything we can to help students reach their full potential is much, much greater.

She doesn’t acknowledge that there are big disagreements over how to help students reach their full potential, a national debate in which they have played a starring role for years.

The Gates Foundation began its first big effort in education reform two decades 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, and some don’t, but Bill Gates declared in 2009 that it hadn’t worked the way he had expected (with some experts saying the Gateses had ignored fundamental pieces of the project).

The next project for the foundation was funding the development, implementation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards initiative, which was supported by the Obama administration. It originally had bipartisan support but the Core became controversial, in part because of the rush to get it into schools and because of what many states said was federal coercion to adopt it.

The administration had also pushed states to evaluate teachers by student standardized test scores, despite warnings by assessment experts that using that method for high-stakes decision was not fair or valid.

But the Obama administration ignored the warnings.. Meanwhile, Gates, while pushing the Core, 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. School systems and charter organizations that took the foundation’s money were required to use public funds on the project, too.

By 2013, Bill Gates conceded that the Core initiative had not succeeded as he had expected, and a 2018 report concluded that the teacher evaluation project had failed to achieve its goal of improving student achievement in any significant way.

In the foundation’s 2020 letter, Bill Gates acknowledges that there are no single education reform solutions that will work in every school. He said:

Rather than focus on one-size-fits-all solutions, our foundation wants to create opportunities for schools to learn from each other. What worked at North-Grand won’t work everywhere. That’s why it’s important that other schools in other networks share their success stories, too.

In a New York Times interview last year, Melinda Gates said that she and her husband 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.” Yes, she said that their fortune and ability to fund anything they want doesn’t give them “outsize influence.”

In the 2020 letter, the Gateses said some of their education initiatives have worked well, including the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which provided full college scholarships to 20,000 students of color. Melinda Gates said:

Although these scholarships made a huge difference in the lives of those 20,000 students, the reality is that tens of millions of other students passed through U.S. public schools during the 16 years we granted scholarships. That means we reached only a tiny percentage of them. Our goal is to help make a huge difference for all U.S. students, so we’ve pivoted most of our work from scholarships to areas that can have more impact for more students.

CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly conflated the Common Core with a teacher evaluation system. The initiatives were separate.

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This is in the opening of the annual letter, which says in part:

For the last 20 years, our foundation has focused on improving health around the world and strengthening the public education system in the United States because we believe that health and education are key to a healthier, better, and more equal world. Disease is both a symptom and a cause of inequality, while public education is a driver of equality.
We know that philanthropy can never — and should never — take the place of governments or the private sector. We do believe it has a unique role to play in driving progress, though.
At its best, philanthropy takes risks that governments can’t and corporations won’t. Governments need to focus most of their resources on scaling proven solutions.

And there was this in a section about education:

Melinda: Bill and I always knew that our foundation’s U.S. work would focus mostly on K-12 and postsecondary education. Success in America is a complex equation with too many variables to count — race, gender, your ZIP code, your parents’ income levels — but education is an incredibly important part of that equation.
Both of us had the chance to attend excellent schools, and we know how many doors that opened for us. We also know that millions of Americans, especially low-income students and students of color, don’t have that same opportunity.
Experts, of course, have a much more rigorous vocabulary to describe this situation. In 2001, I met an educator named Deborah Meier who had a big impact on me. Her book The Power of Their Ideas helped me understand why public schools are not only an important equalizer but the engine of a thriving democracy. A democracy requires equal participation from everyone, she writes. That means when our public schools fail to prepare students to fully participate in public life, they fail our country, too.
I think about that a lot. It really helps drive home the stakes of this work for me.
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.
In global health, there’s a lot of evidence that the world is on the right path — like the dramatic decline in childhood deaths, for example. When it comes to U.S. education, though, we’re not yet seeing the kind of bottom-line impact we expected. The status quo is still failing American students.
Consider this: The average American primary school classroom has 21 students. Currently, 18 of those 21 complete high school with a diploma or an equivalent credential (which is a significant improvement since 2000), but only 13 start any kind of postsecondary program within a year of graduating. Only seven will earn a degree from a four-year-program within six years.
It gets worse when you disaggregate by race. If every student in our classroom is Latinx, only six will finish their four-year degree program within six years. For a classroom of Black students, the number is just four.
The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though. Just the opposite. We believe the risk of not doing everything we can to help students reach their full potential is much, much greater.
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. Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers, and community leaders.
But one thing that makes improving education tricky is that even among people who work on the issue, there isn’t much agreement on what works and what doesn’t.
In global health, we know that if children receive the measles vaccine, they will be protected against the disease, which means they’re more likely to survive. But there’s no consensus on cause and effect in education. Are charter schools good or bad? Should the school day be shorter or longer? Is this lesson plan for fractions better than that one? Educators haven’t been able to answer those questions with enough certainty to establish clear best practices.
It’s also hard to isolate any single intervention and say it made all the difference. Getting a child through high school requires at least 13 years of instruction enabled by hundreds of teachers, administrators, and local, state, and national policymakers. The process is so cumulative that changing the ultimate outcome requires intervention at many different stages.
Even so, we have seen some signs of progress. Among other things, we’ve helped support some improvements in curriculum, gotten smarter about keeping kids from dropping out, and deepened our understanding of what makes a great teacher great and can make a good teacher better. (Bill goes into even more reasons to be optimistic below.)
We’re also proud of our Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which provided full college scholarships to 20,000 students of color. We’ve had the chance to meet some of these scholars, and it’s always a very moving experience. One, Kaira Kelly, told me she “had never really dreamed of going to college” before becoming a Gates Millennium Scholar. When I met her, she was getting a master’s degree in education and brimming with plans about how to pay forward the investment made in her.
Although these scholarships made a huge difference in the lives of those 20,000 students, the reality is that tens of millions of other students passed through U.S. public schools during the 16 years we granted scholarships. That means we reached only a tiny percentage of them. Our goal is to help make a huge difference for all U.S. students, so we’ve pivoted most of our work from scholarships to areas that can have more impact for more students.
It’s an incredible thing to watch a young woman like Kaira — or the three Gates Millennium Scholars profiled below—tap into their potential. And it reinforces our commitment to supporting a public-school system that will ensure every student has the same opportunity they did.
Bill: So how exactly can we equip students with the tools they need to learn and thrive? We found out early on in our work that students need clear and consistent standards in order to master what they’re learning from year to year.
We bet big on a set of standards called the Common Core. Nearly every state adopted them within two years of their release. But it quickly became clear that adoption alone wasn’t enough — something we should’ve anticipated. We thought that if states raised the standards the market would respond and develop new instructional materials that aligned with those standards. That didn’t happen, so we looked for ways to encourage the market.
After teachers told us they had no way of knowing whether a textbook met the new standards, our foundation backed a nonprofit organization called EdReports, which acts like a Consumer Reports for instructional materials. Now, any teacher can look up a textbook to see if it is high-quality and aligned with the standards. Schools have started purchasing more of the materials that best serve their students based on these reviews—and manufacturers, in turn, have begun creating more and better textbook options.
Beyond textbooks, we knew we needed to find other ways to better support teachers and students. For example, many teachers didn’t have access to the resources they needed to meet the new expectations. So, we looked for ways to provide more training and help them adjust their practice.
But if there’s one lesson we’ve learned about education after 20 years, it’s that scaling solutions is difficult. Much of our early work in education seemed to hit a ceiling. Once projects expanded to reach hundreds of thousands of students, we stopped seeing the results we hoped for.
It became clear to us that scaling in education doesn’t mean getting the same solution out to everyone. Our work needed to be tailored to the specific needs of teachers and students in the places we were trying to reach.
We’ve shifted our primary focus in K-12 to locally driven solutions identified by networks of schools. Our hope is that these Networks for School Improvement will increase the number of Black, Latinx, and low-income students who graduate from high school and pursue postsecondary opportunities.
So far, we’ve awarded $240 million across 30 networks. Many, but not all, are grouped by region. Each network includes eight to 20 schools and is focused on a goal of its choosing— for example, helping freshmen who aren’t “on track” to graduate get themselves on the right path.
The first year of high school is a critical moment. A freshman who fails no more than one course is four times more likely to graduate than one who fails two or more. Being “on track” in this way is more predictive of whether that student will graduate than race, wealth, or even test scores.
In 2018, I visited North-Grand High School in Chicago. The school serves students from neighborhoods that struggle with violence, hunger, and other challenges. It used to be ranked among the worst schools in the city.
Then, North-Grand joined the Network for College Success. Armed with data and lessons learned from the other schools in the network, the school changed the way it serves its ninth graders.
If you’re a freshman, your first day now starts with a teacher who helps you with organizational skills, college planning, and how to use your school laptop for assignments. An online portal lets you check your grades every day. Every five weeks, you sit down with a counselor to understand how you’re doing and where to go for help if you need it.
The school’s approach worked. Last year, 95 percent of North-Grand freshmen were on track for graduation — and the school was ranked one of the best in the city. Many of the other schools in the network have adopted similar programs and experienced similar progress.
Rather than focus on one-size-fits-all solutions, our foundation wants to create opportunities for schools to learn from each other. What worked at North-Grand won’t work everywhere. That’s why it’s important that other schools in other networks share their success stories, too.
Melinda: The last 20 years have only deepened our commitment to advancing progress on global health and public education. But we’ve also developed a major sense of urgency around two other issues. For Bill, it’s addressing climate change. For me, it’s gender equality.
As we look ahead to the next 20 years, we will be swinging for the fences on these, too.