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How much Bill Gates’s disappointing small-schools effort really cost

Melinda Gates, with husband Bill and father-in-law William Sr., speaks during a  tour of the visitor center at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation $500 million campus in Seattle in 2012. (Anthony Bolante/Reuters)

For five years  it has been said that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spent more than $2 billion to fund an initiative to create small high schools in an effort to increase student achievement and graduation rates, all based on the premise that smaller schools were more conducive to learning and retention than larger ones. The reason the $2 billion has been cited is that it was mentioned in the January 2009 annual letter (see below) issued by the foundation and signed by Bill Gates as the co-chair of his foundation. It said in part:

Nine years ago, the foundation decided to invest in helping to create better high schools, and we have made over $2 billion in grants. The goal was to give schools extra money for a period of time to make changes in the way they were organized (including reducing their size), in how the teachers worked, and in the curriculum. The hope was that after a few years they would operate at the same cost per student as before, but they would have become much more effective.

It then went on to describe the effort and explain that the foundation was going to switch its funding focus in K-12 education to teacher effectiveness and the dissemination of best teaching practices because the small-school effort “fell short” of expectations.

Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way. These tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum. We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school. Even so, many schools had higher attendance and graduation rates than their peers. While we were pleased with these improvements, we are trying to raise college-ready graduation rates, and in most cases, we fell short.
But a few of the schools that we funded achieved something amazing. They replaced schools with low expectations and low results with ones that have high expectations and high results. These schools are not selective in whom they admit, and they are overwhelmingly serving kids in poor areas, most of whose parents did not go to college. Almost all of these schools are charter schools that have significantly longer school days than other schools.
I have had a chance to spend time at a number of these schools, including High Tech High in San Diego and the Knowledge Is Power Program, or “KIPP,” in Houston. There is a wonderful new book out about KIPP called Work Hard. Be Nice., by the education reporter Jay Mathews. It’s an inspiring look at how KIPP has accomplished these amazing results and the barriers they faced.
It is invigorating and inspirational to meet with the students and teachers in these schools and hear about their aspirations. They talk about how the schools they were in before did not challenge them and how their new school engages all of their abilities. These schools aim to have all of their kids enter four-year colleges, and many of them achieve that goal with 90 percent to 100 percent of their students. Every visit energizes me to work to get most high schools to be like this.
These successes and failures have underscored the need to aim high and embrace change in America’s schools. Our goal as a nation should be to ensure that 80 percent of our students graduate from high school fully ready to attend college by 2025. This goal will probably be more difficult to achieve than anything else the foundation works on, because change comes so slowly and is so hard to measure.
Unlike scientists developing a vaccine, it is hard to test with scientific certainty what works in schools. If one school’s students do better than another school’s, how do you determine the exact cause? But the difficulty of the problem does not make it any less important to solve. And as the successes show, some schools are making real progress.
Based on what the foundation has learned so far, we have refined our strategy. We will continue to invest in replicating the school models that worked the best. Almost all of these schools are charter schools. Many states have limits on charter schools, including giving them less funding than other schools. Educational innovation and overall improvement will go a lot faster if the charter school limits and funding rules are changed.
One of the key things these schools have done is help their teachers be more effective in the classroom. It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one. Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.
Whenever I talk to teachers, it is clear that they want to be great, but they need better tools so they can measure their progress and keep improving. So our new strategy focuses on learning why some teachers are so much more effective than others and how best practices can be spread throughout the education system so that the average quality goes up. We will work with some of the best teachers to put their lectures online as a model for other teachers and as a resource for students.

That’s when the foundation began to pour hundreds of millions into designing teacher evaluation systems that became controversial because they link those assessments — and often pay and job status — to student standardized test scores in a process that assessment experts say should not be used in high-stakes ways.

The letter does not mention the Common Core State Standards, which the foundation funded with hundreds of millions of dollars starting in 2009. A new story in The Washington Post by my colleague Lyndsey Layton explains how Gates was persuaded  in 2008 by  Gene Wilhoit, then director of the Council for Chief State School Officers, and David Coleman, at the time an educational consultant  and now president of the College Board,  to use his foundation’s vast fortune to fund the creation and marketing of what became the Common Core. The story also shows how Gates money was spread around to various organizations to help the marketing of the initiative.

In that story, Layton uses a figure of $650 million for the cost of the small schools initiative, a figure provided to her by the Gates foundation. I asked about the discrepancy. This is what Chris Williams, the foundation spokesman, said in an e-mail:

The $2 billion is an overall spend number for K-12 grantmaking that includes more than small schools.

That isn’t what the 2009 letter says. Williams said in another e-mail:

Perhaps it could have been worded more clearly, but the letter talks about better high schools, not just small high schools. Prior to 2008, the foundation’s funding was never exclusively focused on small schools, as the letter states. Grants also focused on policy issues, teachers, curriculum (including STEM), standards.

Layton reports that the total foundation education funding is now above $3 billion.

Here’s the annual letter I mentioned earlier:

2009 Bill Gates Annual Letter[1]