American business magnate Bill Gates and wife Melinda Gates spoke about their efforts to improve K-12 public schools on Wednesday, promising further investment in the Common Core standards, teacher quality and personalized learning. (Pearl Gabel/Reuters)

Bill Gates, whose foundation has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into K-12 education and influenced state and federal policy to embrace charter schools, teacher evaluation and the Common Core academic standards, said Thursday that trying to improve education is harder than work on global health.

“When we come up with a new malaria vaccine, nobody votes to undo our malaria vaccine,” Gates said in a speech at his foundation’s Seattle headquarters. “So it’s pretty
steady progress. Every year is better than the last.”

But when you’re dealing with 100,000 public schools, politics makes changes to K-12 education much less predictable, he said.

“Because of its complexity, the relationship to management, how labor is one, you can introduce a system ... and people say, ‘No, we’d rather have no system at all, completely leave us alone,’ ” he said. “That’s a real possibility, if you don’t nurture these systems and get it so there’s critical mass. That’s a level of uncertainty that we don’t have in most areas we work in.”

Gates and his wife, Melinda, who co-chair the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, reflected on the past 15 years and spoke about their plans for the future. They pledged to continue pumping resources into the Common Core State Standards in K-12 math and reading as well as efforts to improve teacher quality and personalize instruction.

Both Bill and Melinda spoke, and then answered questions from moderator Gwen Ifill of the PBS NewsHour.

The Gates Foundation has spent more than $200 million in a campaign to create the Common Core State Standards and get them adopted by 42 states as well as the District of Columbia. The Common Core State Standards spell out the skills and knowledge every student should possess by the end of each grade. They were designed to inject some consistency into the country’s public schools, where education has traditionally varied wildly across state borders.

Bill Gates said he never anticipated the political pushback to the Common Core from tea party conservatives on the right and progressives on the left. The standards got entangled in national debates over the role of the federal government in public schools, standardized testing and the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, he said.

“The early days almost went too well for us,” Gates said. “There was adoption, everything seemed to be on track. ...We didn’t realize the issue would be confounded with what is the appropriate role of the federal and state government, we didn’t think it would be confounded with questions about are there too many tests, confounded with if you’re raising the bar, what is the right set of things to help teachers be ready for that?

“All of those things came together, so did the Internet myths, that the math of the Common Core is some mysterious strange thing that no parent could ever help a child with,” he added. “The fact that some of it really is off the rails, in terms of some of the facts, that’s a little disappointing.”

Gates defended the use of student test scores to measure teacher performance, saying it is one indicator among several — such as classroom observations and student surveys — that schools should use to help teachers improve.

“Test scores, of all the evaluation elements, is perhaps the most controversial,” Gates said. “I personally believe they are a critical element of these systems. But they are not what tells you what skills you need to improve. They are simply numbers. “

Too many school systems are using teacher evaluations as merely a tool for personnel decisions, not helping teachers get better, Gates said. “Many systems today are about hiring and firing, not a tool for learning.”

The danger is that teachers will reject evaluations altogether, he said. “If we don’t get this right ... (there are) cases where teachers prefer to get no feedback at all, which is what they had a decade ago.”

The handful of states that have opted out of the Common Core and vowed to come up with homegrown standards have ended up with benchmarks that look suspiciously like the Common Core, Melinda Gates said.

“The few states that have rolled it back, if you look at what they’ve actually done, the standards are 95 percent of the Common Core standards,” she said.

Bill and Melinda Gates both said that the aggressive push to implement new standards and new assessments, as well as teacher evaluations based in part on test scores, might have fueled the backlash.

Bill Gate said he was issuing “a mea culpa in some cases, where our foundation and maybe some others were naive about those roll-outs,” he said.

“In a few states, they went too quickly, rolling out the standards and the assessments went too fast and parents rightfully said, ‘Oh my gosh, a new test,’ ” Melinda Gates said.

As states using the Common Core show improvements in student achievement, it will help solidify support for the new standards, Gates said.

“The key is states like Kentucky, which was the first adopter, have stayed the course, they got their teachers to learn it and they got good results,” he said. “The results will speak for themselves. It’s not like someone has some great alternative (to the Common Core) to the benefit of students. It’s more like ‘We’ll assert our autonomy.’ ”

He said the Gates Foundation will continue its support for charter schools, which are privately funded but publicly run and usually not unionized.

Bill and Melinda Gates both lavished praise on the District of Columbia and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, noting that fourth-graders in D.C. have shown more growth on federal tests than their peers anywhere in the country, although the school system still ranks toward the bottom in terms of academic achievement.

“The Washington, D.C., example I think is fantastic,” Bill Gates said. “It had by many metrics some of the worst results of any school district in the country, and the improvement there has been very substantial. I don’t think we can assume we can’t get an enlightened superintendent like Kaya into every district in the nation.”