Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Gates Foundation Responds: Poverty Does Matter--But It Is Not Destiny

By Anthony Cody — August 20, 2012 4 min read
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Guest post by Chris Williams of the Gates Foundation.

This guest post is a response to Anthony Cody’s post of a week ago, Can Schools Defeat Poverty by Ignoring It? This is the third topic in a series of five exchanges exploring critical issues in education reform. This post can also be viewed and commented upon at the Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog.

In his latest post in the “Dialogue with the Gates Foundation” series, Anthony Cody addresses the question, “What is the role of education reform in relation to the problem of family poverty? What is the best way to achieve greater equity in education and life prospects for children of poverty?”

Before addressing any of the points and questions he raises in his blog, I think it would be helpful to take a step back and consider the goals and ambitions of the Gates Foundation, the role of philanthropy, and the limits of what both can accomplish. It seems Cody gives the foundation far too much credit in his assessment of its influence, and the problems it could solve by re-directing funding.

When Bill and Melinda Gates started their foundation more than a decade ago, they made addressing the impact of poverty its central philanthropic mission. They looked at what kept people in poverty around the world, and focused on the challenges that were the biggest obstacles to families moving out of poverty, but were not high enough on the global agenda. Today the foundation’s top priorities are a reflection of that approach--vaccines that save children from serious illness and death, more resilient and productive seeds that allow families to feed themselves and earn a living, access to contraception to ensure that women can decide when to have children, and a great teacher who can make a dramatic difference in the life of low income students in the United States.

This philosophy - to focus on where we might have the biggest impact, on issues not prioritized by others - recognizes that while the foundation is remarkably well resourced, the amount of money we have to spend falls far short of what is needed to solve these problems. So we have to make decisions about how to focus our resources, and we have to work with partners and align with donors who are addressing other issues.

In the U.S., we focus on giving teachers the tools they need to be most effective. According to Cody:

In the US, the linchpin for education is not teacher effectiveness or data-driven management systems. It is the effect of poverty and racial isolation on our children.

We agree that poverty and racial isolation are daunting, critical challenges to providing all of our children with a quality education. We also believe there are so many problems with our current system that erecting barriers to educational success, that setting up false choices -i.e., dealing with poverty or helping teachers be most effective is an either/or choice - will only slow down progress for students. We need to address all elements of the problem.

Evidence tells us two things: a good education is one of the best avenues out of poverty and a strong teacher at the head of every classroom is one of the most powerful ways to improve education.

We know there is a lot of work to be done outside the school building as well, but again, we have to focus our resources. Inside the school, no one will have a greater impact on student achievement than the teacher in the classroom. And we intend to do everything we can to help that teacher succeed.

We see great teachers across the nation making a huge difference in the lives of children, fundamentally altering their life opportunities. We are learning from their experience and helping other teachers take advantage of the tools and tactics they have used to excel in the profession.

We do this fully aware that we are one of many actors tackling these many, interconnected issues. Strong partnership between schools and their communities are essential, and are exemplified by the work of organizations such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and Boston’s “Thrive in Five” program. We are also supportive of surrounding teachers who teach in high-poverty schools with the tools and supports they need to ensure progress and success with their students.

What we can’t do, however, is address all of the problems that put or keep families in poverty. We just don’t have the resources to do that. But we are part of a community of donors who are committed to eliminating the causes of poverty. We believe the most effective philanthropic efforts are ones that remain focused on addressing particular problems and are creative about their approach to supporting solutions. That philosophy is based on the data and research of successful philanthropy.

We agree with Anthony Cody that poverty is a central problem; we just don’t think we can ever effectively turn the tide by creating false choices for the daunting series of challenges students in our schools face.

Readers, what do you think of this response?

Chris Williams is the Gates Foundation’s Global Press Secretary, Deputy Director of External Communications and the communications lead for education strategy.

[Editors’ Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation helps support coverage of business and innovation in Education Week.]

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.