Education Opinion

Bill Gates Reflects on His Philanthropy

By Walt Gardner — July 25, 2011 2 min read
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It’s always news when Bill Gates opines about education. After all, giving some $5 billion for education grants and scholarships since 2000 warrants attention. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I was a bit surprised to read what Gates said in an interview published in The Wall Street Journal on Jul. 23 (“Was the $5 Billion Worth It?”).

In a wide-ranging exchange with Jason L. Riley, a member of the Journal’s editorial board, Gates admitted that his belief in the power of small high schools “didn’t move the needle much.” He also acknowledged that in low-income inner-city communities “there’s such a high correlation in terms of educational quality and success.”

But if Gates got these two things right, he also got too many things wrong. He said that “the educational achievement of K-12 students is not at all predicted by how strong the union rules are.” Yet in states where teachers are heavily unionized, like Massachusetts and Minnesota, students post the highest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card. Conversely, in states such as Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, where virtually no union contracts exist, students have the lowest NAEP scores.

Gates also errs in maintaining that “schools of education are not about research.” But any Internet search contradicts his statement. At the UCLA Graduate School of Education, for example, professors produce an impressive number of studies. In fact, the founding editor of the American Educational Research Association’s quarterly journal was W. James Popham, professor emeritus of the school and former president of AERA. Gates then compounds his error by claiming that even if more money were spent on educational research “who would do it.” I can name a dozen researchers from across the country who would leap at the chance.

Gates makes no bones that he is a huge fan of KIPP. I won’t repeat the rebuttals about the success of KIPP that by now are well known to anyone who has followed the story. But his assertion that KIPP spends “less money than the dropout factory down the road” is naive. When a school can enroll anyone it wants and push out anyone who does not measure up for one reason or another, the cost will always be lower than the cost at a school that has to admit everyone who shows up at the door and cannot expel except for the most egregious behavior.

Finally, Gates places high hopes on a five-year, $335-million project to determine if effective teaching can be measured. The foundation has collected videos of more than 13,000 lessons taught by 3,000 elementary school teachers in seven urban school districts. By analyzing them and speaking to the children in the classes, Gates’s researchers hope to create a model that can be replicated. But the principles of effective instruction have been known for decades. As a result, it’s hard to understand what the latest approach will uncover.

In closing his column, Riley did make one point worth pondering. “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.” Actually, it’s the money shareholders invested in Microsoft that is responsible for the creation of the Gates Foundation, and shareholders have seen the value of their shares plummet since 2000.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.