Gates Foundation Follies (Part 1)

A sketch of the $500 million new Gates Foundation headquarters

Jason Riley’s interview with Bill Gates in the Wall Street Journal was not as great as Riley’s interview with me last week (shameless plug for my new mini-book), but it was still very illuminating.  In particular, the Gates interview confirmed two things about the Foundation’s education efforts: 1) they’ve realized that the focus of their efforts has to be on the political control of schools and 2) they are uninterested in using that political influence to advance market forces in education. Instead, the basic strategy of the Gates Foundation is to use science (or, more accurately, the appearance of science) to identify the “best” educational practices and then use political influence to create a system of national standards, curricular materials, and testing to impose those “best practices” on schools nationwide.

The Gates Foundation came to understand the necessity of political influence over schools with the failure of their previous small schools strategy.  Under that strategy they tried to achieve reform by paying school districts to break-up larger high schools into smaller ones.  The problem with that strategy is that even the Gates Foundation does not have nearly enough money to buy systemic reform one school at a time.

School districts currently spend over $600 billion per year and the Gates Foundation only has $34 billion in total assets.  With the practice of spending only about 5% of assets each year and given the large (and effective) efforts the Foundation makes in developing country health-care, Gates only spends a couple hundred million dollars on education reform each year. Given the small share of total education spending Gates could offer, most public districts refused to entertain the Gates strategy of smaller schools, others took the money but failed to implement it properly, and others reversef the reform once the Gates subsidies ended.

The way I described the situation in my chapter “Buckets into the Sea” in the 2005 book, With the Best of Intentions, edited by Rick Hess is:

Philanthropists simply don’t have enough resource to reshape the education system on their own; all their giving put together amounts to only a tiny fraction of total education spending, so their dollars alone can’t make a significant difference.  In order to make a real difference, philanthropists must support programs that redirect how future public education dollars are spent.

And in 2008 I repeated this claim, saying: “total private giving to public education is a tiny portion of total spending on schools.  All giving, from the bake sale to the Gates Foundation, makes up less than one-third of 1% of total spending.  It’s basically rounding error.”

I don’t know whether the Gates Foundation was influence by my writing or whether they arrived at the same conclusions independently, but they are now articulating those same conclusions, often with the same exact words:

“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 understanding of just how little influence seemingly large donations can have has led the foundation to rethink its focus in recent years. Instead of trying to buy systemic reform with school-level investments, a new goal is to leverage private money in a way that redirects how public education dollars are spent.

While the focus of the Gates Foundation on influencing education policy is sensible, the particular political approach they have chosen is doomed to fail and attempting it is likely to be counter-productive.  In Part 2 of this post I will explain how the new strategy Gates has decided to pursue is flawed.

To give you a taste of what is coming in Part 2, the arguments can be summarized as: 1) Education does not lend itself to a single “best” approach, so the Gates effort to use science to discover best practices is unable to yield much productive fruit; 2) As a result, the Gates folks have mostly been falsely invoking science to advance practices and policies they prefer for which they have no scientific support; 3) Attempting to impose particular practices on the nation’s education system is generating more political resistance than even the Gates Foundation can overcome, despite their focus on political influence and their devotion of significant resources to that effort; 4) The scale of the political effort required by the Gates strategy of imposing “best” practices is forcing Gates to expand its staffing to levels where it is being paralyzed by its own administrative bloat; and 5) The false invocation of science as a political tool to advance policies and practices not actually supported by scientific evidence is producing intellectual corruption among the staff and researchers associated with Gates, which will undermine their long-term credibility and influence.

Tune in for Part 2.


UPDATE — For my suggestions of what the Gates Foundation could do instead, see this post.

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6 Responses to Gates Foundation Follies (Part 1)

  1. Ann in L.A. says:

    6) Best practices today, may be idiotic tomorrow. Times change, A top down system is too ossified to respond to changing needs.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    “Look at the size of that thing.”

    “Cut the chatter, Red Two!”

  3. [...] be successful in pushing the agenda. In fact, contrary to some of the arguments Jay P. Greene posits today on his eponymous blog, the Gates Foundation, along with other donors, have actually been [...]

  4. [...] approach is doomed to fail, responds Jay Greene. While trying to influence education policy is sensible, “education does [...]

  5. ex0du5 says:

    Why does the cost of a reformed system have to be equivalent to the current system? How is that a valid argument?

    For instance, I think there is great evidence that the best way to deliver good education to all students is to take it out of the classroom and put it online. Then the education can be tailored to the individual students’ needs, and the students may take the time they need to learn a particular topic, instead of forcing all kids to the pace of the mean (slowing quick students who may lose interest and going faster than some students can handle). The cost of such a system would be far cheaper than the modern system, as you do not need to pay millions of mediocre-to-poor teachers, only a few hundred great teachers (at better competitive rates), the design and implementation of the central site (task size about that of a medium-to-large software house), and then you pay for child care rather than teachers for geographical distribution, a much lower pay rate.

    There are many radical ideas supported by science that can be accomplished for less funds. And yes, I said science. Even this post claims there is no one-fits-all solution, supported by research, and an engineering solution to that dilemma is presented in the previous paragraph. The lack of a single strategy does not invalidate science.

  6. Defenders of the education status quo see a corporatist bogeyman behind not only teacher quality reform,but the entire North American school reform movement. Some common front teacher organizations see conspiracies everywhere and even suggest that “plutocrats” are gaining control of the public education system. Such fantasies have even found their way onto education blogs.

    Such a notion is truly laughable here in Canada where corporate influence is negligible. The Fraser Institute and AIMS, for example, are run on a virtual shoestring. School board joint ventures and public-private partnerships, like the Toronto Learning Partnership, mimmick the CEA and simply pour more money into existing publicly-funded programs.

    You have captured the U.S. situation with deadly accuracy. The Gates Foundation has invested $5B over the past decade in various school reform initiatives, including small school advocacy and teacher quality reform. That sounds like a tremendous investment until you realize that U.S. school districts spend $600 billion a year.

    Public spending on education, in the U.S. and in Canada, drives the system. The Gates Foundation learned, the hard way, that institutional inertia can effectively stymie projects like the Small School initiative. All private philanthropy can do is to either fund “lighthouse” reforms or to try to influence future directions. The odds are still stacked against Gates and the champions of system reform.

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