After spending several billion dollars attempting to reform public education over nearly 20 years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is saying that, oops, the job is harder than its leaders had thought.
Sue Desmond-Hellmann, foundation chief executive officer, wrote this in a newly released annual letter:
We are firm believers that education is a bridge to opportunity in America. My colleague, Allan Golston, spoke passionately about this at a gathering of education experts last year. However, we’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make system-wide change.
And she wrote this about the foundation’s investment in creating, implementing and promoting the Common Core State Standards:
Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards. We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators – particularly teachers – but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.
This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.
That may be news only to the Gates Foundation. As this new biting editorial in the Los Angeles Times — with the headline, “Gates Foundation failures show philanthropists shouldn’t be setting America’s public school agenda” — says:
It was a remarkable admission for a foundation that had often acted as though it did have all the answers. Today, the Gates Foundation is clearly rethinking its bust-the-walls-down strategy on education — as it should. And so should the politicians and policymakers, from the federal level to the local, who have given the educational wishes of Bill and Melinda Gates and other well-meaning philanthropists and foundations too much sway in recent years over how schools are run.
The Gates foundation has actually been at the “oops” stage before. It entered the education reform world nearly 20 years ago with what the foundation has said was a $650 million investment to break up large failing high schools into small schools, on the theory that small schools worked better than large ones. The foundation, however, did not approach the task in a way that some educators said was important, and after nine years of pushing the project, Bill Gates, in his 2009 annual foundation letter, said it hadn’t worked and it was time to move on to new K-12 education issues. The 2009 letter said:
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.
Then the foundation poured several hundred million dollars to develop, implement 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. That assessment experts said using student test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation wasn’t reliable or valid wasn’t an issue for the foundation — until, apparently, it was. In 2013, Gates, after bankrolling a rush to evaluate teachers by standardized test scores, decided that it wasn’t going as he had planned. He wrote in an 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.
Then, in the fall of 2014, he gave a nearly hour-long interview at Harvard University in which he said, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.”
They wouldn’t know for a decade? The foundation was essentially using its vast resources to experiment in education — and when it found that one experiment didn’t work, it went on to another.
This takes us back to Desmond-Hellmann’s new open letter, where she is, once again, saying that the foundation made mistakes and is learning from them. Admitting mistakes and taking away real lessons is, of course, part of the stuff of life. If that is what the foundation is doing, fine. But it keeps jumping into education projects and driving education policy — whether or not it makes sense to educators — simply because it seems like it makes sense to the foundation. Inevitably, it doesn’t work out as planned, and we hear somebody from the foundation confessing the work was harder than they thought.
How long will the foundation keep this cycle going?