Note to B. Gates - Education is NOT a Business

In a classic "aw shucks, we tried and keep in mind, education, if run like a business would do a lot better" interview, Bill Gates spoke with the Wall Street Journal

He somewhat humbly says, "It's been about a decade of learning."  Kind of true but it's also been a decade of experimenting with other people's children.  (But I think Bill, like a writer at Forbes who had written about yet-another Gates ed initiative said, he wouldn't want it for his own child but sure, why not try it somewhere.)

He also claims that the smaller high school initiative saw "maybe 10%" more kids go to college.  Well, that's news to me because I never heard that figure before anywhere.

In typical Wall Street Journal fashion, here's the problem for public education in urban districts:

The reality is that the Gates Foundation met the same resistance that other sizeable philanthropic efforts have encountered while trying to transform dysfunctional urban school systems run by powerful labor unions and a top-down government monopoly provider. 

Gates tries to pile on (and mislead) by saying:

"It's worth remembering that $600 billion a year is spent by various government entities on education, and all the philanthropy that's ever been spent on this space is not going to add up to $10 billion. So it's truly a rounding error."

This is funny because that $600B a year is in service to education benefiting the majority of children in the United States.  He makes it worse by saying:

"I bring a bias to this," says Mr. Gates. "I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts." Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research.

So he complains that $600B is being spent on education (apparently to no good end) AND no one in the public sector is using the money to do ed research.  I can only say that many universities - both public and private - have been and are doing education research as well as many non-profits.  

He then says:

"That's partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don't think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research."

His words betray him.  "Who thinks of it as their business" might have been better stated as "Who thinks of it as their responsibility?" but Bill is nothing if not a business guy.

There's then a lot of blah, blah about teacher effectiveness and that tired canard about teachers who can take the "toughest students and they'll teach them two-and-a half years of math in a single year."  I still am waiting to see where this has happened in large and measurable numbers. 

There is also a telling story about him watching the film, To Sir with Love, that is about a great teacher in a tough school.  Gates says, "I can't create a personnel system where I say, 'Go watch this movie and be like him.'"  That statement is interesting on two levels.

 One, because the point of the film is that it is about relationships and modeling for students even more than teaching.  Two, because no one is paying or has appointed/hired Gates to create ANY personnel system.  What makes him think that if he builds it, districts are going to use it?

He also goes right along with the standard ed reform jargon saying that teachers unions can be counted on "to stick up for the status quo."  I'm still waiting to find that one public education teacher - in the entire U.S. - who will stand up and say everything is fine in public education and it needs no changes.

I give him credit - he does say that there seems to be little correlation to how well a state's public education system performance based on unions.  I'm glad he realizes that any criticism on that basis will not work.

And, of course, he is on the Common Core bandwagon.  I guess my question is, where was he, and all these other people, when NCLB was created?  Because the whole premise there was that we could have 50 different tests and figure out how the country was doing as a whole.  I didn't hear him complaining (or fighting back) at that time. 

He also talks of how much better (and cheaply) KIPP is than the "dropout factory down the road."  It's almost laughable if anyone knows the data and understands how ridiculous that comparison is.

Here's a surprising thing:

He praises the private school model for its efficiency vis-à-vis traditional public schools, noting that the "parochial school system, per dollar spent, is an excellent school system." But the politics, he says, are just too tough right now. "We haven't chosen to get behind [vouchers] in a big way, as we have with personnel systems or charters, because the negativity about them is very, very high."

I have never heard him advocate vouchers before.  Very dangerous and very troubling.

As for the "efficiency" of private schools?  Well, Lakeside (the top private school in our area) would not be a model of efficiency considering how much it costs per student.  And the parochial system likely does NOT service ELL students, Sped students, advanced learners or its teachers as well as the public school system. 

Again, it's about serving ALL students, not some kids.

There was this jaw-dropping line which serves to show that neither Gates nor the WSJ writer understand what has been happening as a result of Gates' efforts:

It's a response that in some ways encapsulates the Gates Foundation's approach to education reform—more evolution, less disruption. It attempts to do as much good as possible without upsetting too many players.

The article ends with the usual "he's a good guy with money" phrasing:

You can quibble with Mr. Gates about that strategy. You can second-guess him. You can even offer free advice. Or you can shake his hand, thank him for his time and remember that it's his money.

No, I won't "quibble" with Gates and I would likely decline to shake his hand.

 It is his time and his money but it's OUR public school system and our students.  


Greg said…
What I don't understand is how I can agree with Bill Gates so much on the description of the problem, but then we come to such different conclusions on the solution.

I agree with him when he says, "education isn't only a civil-rights issue but also an equity issue and an economic issue ... there's such a high correlation in terms of educational quality and success."

I also agree with him when he says, "I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts."

But then he comes out in support of charter schools. All the data, all the basic facts, say that charter schools yield no improvement and may even cause more harm than good.

It seems like Bill Gates wants the right things, but then he has a solution in mind, and ignores all evidence to the contrary. If charter schools worked, that might be a solution, but the research says they don't.

We should try something else. Of the things that have been tried so far, what works are programs like Harlem Children's Zone. Most of their success seems to come from extending the school day and year, which accounts for most of the achievement gap. We should extend the school day and year. It costs more money, but that is what the research says works.

I would love to see the Gates Foundation put money behind things the research says work. They should fund extended school days and years at schools. They should fund free food and clinics. They should fund experiments with changing textbooks and materials. But they should stop pushing on charters. The research says they don't work.
Charlie Mas said…
Greg, you may share Mr. Gates' disappointment with the outcomes, but I doubt you agree with his diagnosis of the problem.

Mr. Gates, like nearly all Education Reformers, have a baseless belief that the problem with public education is a "teacher quality" problem. That's just not the case. Not at all. Moreover, there is absolutely no data to support that conclusion. So how did they reach it?

I suspect the answer comes from thinking that "To Sir With Love" actually had anything to say about how teachers should be.
Greg said…
That is another good example, Charlie.

There is a broader question here about whether Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation can be a force for good. Are they merely ideologues? Do they believe, regardless of evidence, that the solution is charters, vouchers, crushing unions, and cutting taxes, and they will continue pushing those regardless of the impact on educational outcomes? Or are they seeking to improve education, discover what works to improve education, and do more of what works?

So far, the Gates Foundation seems to be infected by at least some ideologues that are pushing policies that have repeatedly yielded poor results. Is it foolish to think they might be able to be convinced? Is it possible the Gates Foundation might start pushing on policies that actually do work (such as extending the school day and year) even if they cost more money and require higher taxes?
Greg, given their record, they are not going on what any real, peer-reviewed research tells us about education. They continue on their own way, no matter the lack of real outcomes. They certainly seem to exist in some echo chamber.

I haven't really seen the Gates Foundation push for things that (1) would raise taxes and (2) don't make money for someone down the line.

I wish it were different. I wish Gates would step outside his echo chamber and consider how much more traction he would get - than say -what appears to be buying off the Seattle Times - if he actually got something real and sustainable and scalable done.
Anonymous said…
I think every Washingtonian should be particularly sensitive to the missive that "it's his money" and he's entitled to do what he wants with it. If I didn't pay my taxes and instead used the money to pay for my own pet project, the IRS would not shrug and say it was my money. The calculation is that Microsoft has dodged over $4 billion in Washington State taxes alone by registering its software through a small office in Nevada:


That's one big loophole the Legislature could close in this session!

Anonymous said…
Melissa wrote:
"Greg, given their record, they are not going on what any real, peer-reviewed research tells us about education. They continue on their own way, no matter the lack of real outcomes. They certainly seem to exist in some echo chamber.

I haven't really seen the Gates Foundation push for things that (1) would raise taxes and (2) don't make money for someone down the line. "

W. Edwards Deming wrote that at most 14% of a system's lack of performance could be attributed to "problems with employees". The major source of problems are system problems. {inadequate salaries or poor working conditions etc. may lead to the hiring of employees ill equipped to do the job (that is a system problem)}.

In 2008 WA State adopted new Math Standards and in 2010 the MATH MSP began testing those standards. {The Common Core State Standards are not better than the WA Math Standards but CCSS was pushed by Gates.

Here are the Percent of students scoring at level 1 for two separate cohorts of Washington Students.
----------Reading -- Math ---
gr3 2010 10.7 --- 16.0
gr4 2011 8.9 --- 26.6
gr5 2012 9.0 --- 19.1
gr6 2013 8.5 --- 21.4

gr5 2010 9.7 --- 23.6
gr6 2011 7.3 --- 21.7
gr7 2012 7.5 --- 21.0
gr8 2013 13.7 --- 25.7

Did better standards result in better test results?

Will a change to CCSS improve learning?

Does "Differentiated Instruction" improve the skill level of low performing students?

Will the move to Gates backed "CCSS" and online testing via SBAC and PARC result in massive technology purchases? You Betcha. As Melissa wrote: "make money for someone down the line."

It sure looks like education is Big Business for Vendors ... and CCSS aids Business but not students.

So what is being done to improve student effort and student behavior at low performing schools?

Massive grade inflation is evident in many schools.. Why would students improve effort when better work is not needed to get acceptable grades?

Ed Schools manufacture recommendations but few of these recommendations are based on actual valid research. The Common Core State Standards & testing are an expensive hurry up shot in the dark. {Courtesy of Gates}

-- Dan Dempsey
n said…
Vouchers - little pieces of paper that will create Targets and Walmarts dispensing education to the poorest of kids. And since the middle class is slowly disappearing, I guess that will be most of us eventually.

Americans never learn.
n said…
An added note: perhaps Bill should scholarship several poor kids to Lakeside every year. That would probably help more than anything else. And it would be a rather nice experiment to see what Lakeside could accomplish with small classes and lots of money.
Anonymous said…
Curious - the WSJ article you linked to is from 2011 - nearly 3 years ago. Why are you just now targeting it? I'm guessing, (though I don't know one way or the other) that even Mr. Gates changes his thinking over time.

Anonymous said…
He who pays the piper...

“…the new grants will also be devoted to covering topics such as education…” (more)


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