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That surprising thing Bill Gates said

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, participates in an interview session March 24, 2014, at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ inaugural Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

Bill Gates is an indisputable king of philanthropy, so much so that his private money has the power to draw public funding along with it. Whether it is because the amounts he donates are so large or because people assume his brilliance in technology bleeds into all other areas — or a combination of both — he has had an unprecedented influence on the areas of health and education around the world. That’s why it is important to pay attention to what  he has to say about how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s initiatives are working.

Late last month, the Seattle Times published a story that recounted a speech that Gates gave last fall about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s extraordinary “Grand Challenges” project, in which billions of research dollar have been awarded in at least 80 countries to research improve health and development to the neediest. The story says that rather than giving a boastful speech, Gates, used the word “naive” four times in describing the expectations he and his foundation had for the initiative. It says in part:

The Microsoft co-founder seemed humbled that, despite an investment of $1 billion, none of the projects funded under the Gates Foundation’s “Grand Challenges” banner has yet made a significant contribution to saving lives and improving health in the developing world.

What happened?

For one thing, Gates said, he was “pretty naive about how long that process would take.”  Success wasn’t coming as fast as he had calculated, a result in part by a miscalculation about how the projects he funded would work on the ground.  A news Web site called had written about the speech earlier and and noted that critics of the project, while acknowledging the enormity and good intentions of Gates’ philanthropy, have said that many of these projects have relied on solving problems rooted in poverty and disease with technology rather than addressing relevant social and political issues. The story says in part:

The foundation’s metrics for assessing success or failure within the Grand Challenges program have not been made public. But after a decade and nearly a billion dollars spent on more than 1500 projects aimed at solving the philanthropy’s select Grand Challenges, not a single project has been judged a Grand Slam, or even a home run.
“We were naive about how specific we had to be about costs and ease of delivery,” Gates said. One of the biggest ‘learnings’ (another word, or not, he likes to use) is that just funding scientists and innovators to explore far-fetched but promising ideas is not sufficient, he said. Going forward, Gates told the crowd, they will be requiring most innovators requesting a grant to partner with manufacturers, biomedical companies or others with expertise in product development before they’ll fund a project.
“We vastly underestimated how important that is,” Gates said.

These are not minor admissions.

After health, his second biggest grant-making target is education. Here, too, he has made some important admissions about his expectations for success and the actual track record, after pumping billions of dollars for well over a decade into projects that he thought would make important improvements to K-12 and higher education.

In his foundation’s January 2009 annual letter, Gates 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.

(A foundation spokesman said last year that the $2 billion figure was actually an “overall spend number for K-12 grantmaking that includes more than small schools.”)

The 2009 letter then explained 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.

Gates then poured hundreds of millions of dollars into helping develop and promote the Common Core State Standards, as well as hundreds of millions more in creating and implementing educator assessment systems that incorporated student standardized test scores into individual teacher’s evaluations. The fact that assessment experts repeatedly warned against using student test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation because the method isn’t reliable or valid did not stop the foundation from making these grants. He and his foundation just thought it would work — sort of like his advice to policymakers in this 2011 oped in The Washington Post, he wrote:

U.S. schools have almost twice as many teachers per student as they did in 1960, yet achievement is roughly the same. What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students.

That would be a genius suggestion if it would actually work, but, aside from the problems with “identifying the top 25 percent of teachers,” class size matters, a lot, even for the most gifted teachers.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan also liked the idea of using test scores to evaluate teachers, and through Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers to states, he put public money behind it. Bill Gates and Arne Duncan. Arne Duncan and Bill Gates. The connection seemed so strong that in January 2014, Duncan was asked directly about it and distanced himself from Gates in a Q & A with Education Department teaching ambassador fellows. Here’s some of the dialogue:

Lisa Clarke:
When individual philanthropists like Bill Gates or Eli Broad give donations do they earn a seat at the table making decisions with you?
Arne Duncan:
I have tremendous respect for them and am thrilled that they have given — lots of other places they could choose to put their dollars. The fact that they are trying to help education is a very positive thing. But no, it doesn’t give them a seat at the table. You guys are at the table. But again, having people who have been successful come back and give back and be part of the solution is really important.
Lisa Clarke:
I know that organizations like the Gates Foundation are funding teacher and teacher leadership, so it’s complicated….


By 2013, Gates himself was expressing concern about the rush to test every subject in order to evaluate teachers — a rush that he had helped create. He wrote in this op-ed in The Washington Post:

As states and districts rush to implement new teacher development and evaluation systems, there is a risk they’ll use hastily contrived, unproven measures. One glaring example is the rush to develop new assessments in grades and subjects not currently covered by state tests. Some states and districts are talking about developing tests for all subjects, including choir and gym, just so they have something to measure.

By last February, the foundation was showing some restraint in its support for “value added measurement” or VAM, a mathematical method by which student test scores are used to supposedly isolate a teacher’s “value” against all of the other factors in a student’s life (hunger, sickness, poverty, text anxiety, etc.) that can affect academic achievement. Vicky Phillips, the Gates Foundation’s K-12 education director, wrote in this post that the foundation opposed the public release of individual teacher VAM data because, she wrote, “there is no evidence to suggest it will lead to improvement in teacher performance.”

Last fall, he was making another education admission. On Sept. 21, in a nearly hour-long interview he gave at Harvard University, he said, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.”

Gates’ admissions and new uncertainty are not unwelcome. But there are big questions about just how smart it is for a country to allow private philanthropists to drive public policy. Time after time, Gates has acknowledged that his approach wasn’t quite right. There’s nothing wrong in admitting mistakes, of course, but there are dangers when philanthropists adopt pet projects they “think” will work and influence the public agenda without any input from the public — and when they continue to look for technological solutions that don’t address the root causes of academic failure. School reformers who continue to ignore the conditions in which children live and who believe that only what happens in school matters will continue to be frustrated — and children will continue to be the big losers.

The New York Times wrote last year in this story that wealthy philanthropists were also privatizing science. It says in part:

American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise.
In Washington, budget cuts have left the nation’s research complex reeling. Labs are closing. Scientists are being laid off. Projects are being put on the shelf, especially in the risky, freewheeling realm of basic research. Yet from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, science philanthropy is hot, as many of the richest Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research. The result is a new calculus of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with a mix of gratitude and trepidation.
“For better or worse,” said Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.”

There is indeed a big place for philanthropy in American society, but there are consequences for replacing public policy with the dreams of the super-rich, not the least of which is that public institutions become testing grounds for philanthropic experimentation. Given that there are methods and approaches that have been proven to work already in education areas such as teacher evaluation, class size, etc., the public might want to start to ask why it allows itself to be used as a guinea pig.