Gates Foundation Follies (Part 2)

Image result for gates foundation headquarters

A sketch of the $500 million new Gates Foundation headquarters

In Part 1 of this post, I described how the Gates Foundation came to recognize the importance of using political influence to reform the education system rather than focusing on reforming one school at a time in the hopes that school systems would see and replicate successful models.  No private philanthropist has enough money to buy and sustain widespread adoption of an effective approach and the public school system has little incentive to identify and spread effective approaches on their own.

Faced with the unwillingness of the public school system to reproduce successful models (assuming that Gates could even offer one), the Foundation was left with two solutions to encourage innovation: 1) identify the best practices themselves and impose them from the top down, or 2) encourage choice and competition so that schools would have the proper incentive to identify, imitate, and properly implement effective approaches.

The Gates Foundation made the wrong choice.  Their top-down strategy cannot work for the following reasons:

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;

As I’ve explained before, there are many different “best” techniques for different kinds of teachers with different kinds of students in different situations with different available resources.  There are some practices that are universally beneficial in education, but they tend to be pretty obvious and are already well known (e.g. it is bad to beat kids, it is better when teachers know the material they are teaching, it is helpful to break down ideas into their essential components, etc…).

The difficulty of discovering universally beneficial  practices that are not already well-known, especially with the blunt tools available to researchers probably helps explain why the Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) project, on which the Gates Foundation is spending $335 million has yet to produce any meaningful results despite entering its third year of operation.

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;

Despite having nothing to show for the $335 million they are spending on MET, the Gates folks nevertheless claim that it “proves” the harmfulness of teachers engaging in “drill and kill.” The fact that the research showed no such thing did not deter them from telling the NY Times and LA Times that it did.  Even when I pointed out the error, the Gates folks refused to issue a correction (although the LA Times ran one on their own).

Similarly, the Gates-orchestrated effort to push national standards, curricular materials, and assessments is advancing without any scientific evidence of the desirability of these approaches.  Gathering a group of Checker Finn’s friends (er, I mean, “a panel of experts”) to attest that the Common Core standards are better is not science.  It is the false invocation of science to manipulate people into compliance with their agenda.

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;

Opponents of centralized control of education have begun to mobilize against the Gates-orchestrated effort to establish national standards, curricular materials, and assessments.  But the bulk of the political resistance to the Gates strategy will come from the teacher unions.  They don’t want anyone to infringe on their autonomy or place their interests in jeopardy with a nationalized accountability system.  They may play along with Gates for a while and take their money, but when push comes to shove the unions can only tolerate one dictator in education — the unions.  Of course, those of us who don’t want anyone centrally-controlling the nation’s education system will oppose both Gates and the teacher unions.

We already have a taste of the kind of resistance teacher unions will put up against the Gates nationalization effort in the slogans emanating from Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss’ Twitter feed, supported by their Army of Angry Teachers.  Falsely claiming that MET proved that drill and kill is harmful did not mollify these folks at all.

The teacher unions derive far more power and money from the status quo than Gates can ever offer them, unless of course Gates builds a nationalized system and cedes control to the unions, which is not part of the Gates plan.  Nothing in the Gates strategy weakens the unions and would force them to make significant concessions, so in the end the unions will either hijack the Gates strategy for their own benefit or block it.  Even Gates does not have the resources to beat the unions without first diminishing their power.

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; 

Over the last decade the Gates Foundation has roughly doubled its assets but increased its staffing by about 10-fold.  The Foundation is now huge, which is part of why it needs the Education Pentagon pictured above to house everyone.  The Foundation has gotten huge because it is trying to buy political influence as it buys people.  Gates has been snapping up or funding just about every advocacy group, researcher, or education journalist they can find.  Getting all of these people on board for a nationalized education system (or at least mute their dissent) involves paying an enormous number of people and organizations.

Gates can buy a lot of folks, but they can’t buy everyone and they can’t keep the folks they do pay in line for very long.  It’s like herding cats. (I should note that I’ve received Gates Funding in the past).

And the sheer size of their staff and funded allies along with the focus on controlling the political message is so overwhelming that it is significantly hindering their ability to do anything.  People inside the organization have told me that they are suffering from a bureaucratic gridlock with endless meetings, conference calls, and chains of approvals.  Notice that Gates is paying a ton of researchers and yet virtually no research is coming out.  Very curious.

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.

As noted above, the need to advance a particular political message has led Gates to mischaracterize their own research (for example, claiming that MET proves that drill and kill is harmful when the research does not show that).  But the intellectual corruption extends much farther.  I had a highly respected and accomplished researcher employed by Gates tell me that Vicki Phillips’ mischaracterization of the MET results was not so far off because there isn’t a big difference between a low correlation and a negative one.  He also defended comparing the magnitude of a series of pair-wise correlations to determine the relative influence of different variables.  To hear someone who knows better twist the truth to avoid contradicting the education boss at Gates was just sad.

Unfortunately, too many advocates, researchers, and others are being similarly corrupted.  In most cases the Gates folks don’t have to exert any explicit pressure on people to keep them in line; they just anticipate what they think would serve the Gates strategy.  But I am aware of at least one case in which a researcher’s findings were at odds with the desired outcome and that person suffered for it.

I’ve heard another story from someone involved in the MET project that the delay in releasing any results from the analyses of classroom videos even as the project enters its third year is explained by their inability to find any meaningful results.  Perhaps another year of data will make something turn up that they can finally tout for their $335 million investment.  The fact that the initial MET report with basically no useful findings was released on a Friday just before Christmas suggests that the Gates folks are working hard to shape their message.

The national standards, curriculum, and testing campaign is rife with intellectual corruption.  For example, people are twisting themselves into knots to explain how the effort is purely voluntary on the part of states when it is manifestly not, given federal financial “incentives,” offers of selective exemptions to NCLB requirements for states that comply, and the threat of future mandates.  There is so much spin around Gates that it makes one dizzy.


Let me be clear, most of the folks affiliated with Gates are good and smart people.  The problem is that when your reform strategy requires a top-down approach, these good and smart people are put under a lot of stress to have a unified vision of the “best” that will be imposed from the top.  And whenever an organization starts sprinkling millions of dollars on researchers and advocacy groups unaccustomed to that kind of money, there are temptations that are hard for the most virtuous to resist.

But the good and smart people at Gates can stop the counter-productive strategy that the Foundation is pursuing.  The Foundation changed course once before and it can do it again.


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

31 Responses to Gates Foundation Follies (Part 2)

  1. Douglas Storm says:

    I hope you will bear with me as I want very much to understand your primary intentions and the methods by which you want them to be achieved. Some things came to mind as I read that I hope you can elaborate on in response or point me to specific details that you have posted elsewhere in your blog or in some other outlet.

    Certain things seem most clear and seem to be the operating ideas in this post:
    1. “centralized” seems to mean all governing authority–seems to be a blanket term.
    2. “unions” are bad.
    3. A confusion of what educational studies and the “science” of managed learning yields–not so much your confusion but the fact that the research is all over the map.

    So, questions:
    1. can you more clearly define your opposition to “centralized” control. I know you advocate “choice” in education, but all schools are in effect “centralized” by their very organization as systems. At the very least their is an organizational principle. What kind of organizational principle will/can be used in your schema to create the kind of educational systems and practices you seek?

    2. Unions as organizations often are measures of the times we live in like any other organization. The people that manage them reflect the “management” strategies of the times. The idea that informs unionization is one that protects workers against destabilizing factors in their lives. It’s well-researched that “destabilization” is one of many “levers” of control used by management to make workers fearful of loss of employment. Unions are designed to protect against that. Are you against that idea? If you are, why? If you are, what ways can communities and citizens protect themselves against the other powerful systems that buffet their living?

    3. What is the “right” science of educational evaluation of learning outcomes? What are the research studies you would promote as speaking empirical truths that might serve as a baseline for “reform”.

    Thanks for considering these issues.

  2. GGW says:

    I want to see part 3. What would you do if asked by Gates how to better donate his (and Warren Buffett’s) billions?

  3. Douglas — A blog post comment section is not the appropriate forum for me to explain and justify my entire worldview. If you want to understand my thinking better, I suggest that you read my writings on this blog as well as my articles and books.

    If you are seeking to explain and justify your entire world view, I suggest that you start your own blog and write articles, books, etc…

  4. GGW — That’s an interesting suggestion! Let me think about it.

  5. Douglas Storm says:

    I think you’ve just described the very real problem with blogs. I will of course agree that this is your choice to manage content and manage the knowledge of your actual position or intent.

    However, you are, I assume, intending to win friends and influence people in some bloggy way. Why not an “information” page then that lays out your philosophy? Detail your objections to our current way of living: to our educational system; our government; our tax system; etc. Whatever that you feel needs overhauling. I think it’s fair to propose that this page will always be “in flux” as I assume, as you promote science here, that you believe that your knowledge now will at some point be superseded by further understanding. There’s no shame in changing one’s mind as one grows less ignorant of the full spectrum of life’s possibilities.

    If, as I can glean so far, you are strictly a “free market” ideologue that philosophy would be easy to post.

    However, life is ultimately consequential, and that ideology applied will reveal its “heart” so to speak.

    For example, since you are deeply involved in talking about educational choice, why would you want to be very clear on some of your positions?

    In other words, reading your blog posts will simply create more questions as most of our words require further clarification to avoid misinterpretation (as far as possible).

    I fear you are unable to do as I suggested and prefer to simply talk out of an ideological mouth in order to encourage “destruction” of systems you find objectionable for more personal reasons.

  6. Douglas Storm says:

    I see you have a “broadside” that should suffice (and that’s a lovely group of texts Encounter has gathered to push a far right ideology), but as I continue to search I don’t think I’ll have to work too hard to understand your motivations.

  7. Greg Forster says:

    Douglas, Jay has actually just released a short and really excellent minibook on school choice that IMHO serves exactly the function you’re asking for. You can also follow the links Jay has provided above to some of his earlier posts.

    I think you make a great point, though, that when bloggers are unable to devote the time to writing lengthy responses in the comment threads (I’ve often struggled over the question of how much time to give that activity) it’s a good idea to select a standard “this is my worldview” resource and respond to deeper inquiries by pointing people to that. My personal practice is to have roughly a half-dozen posts that I use as standard references, and I respond to inquiries by pointing to those posts.

    On another subject, I can’t resist this comment. You write:

    “Unions as organizations often are measures of the times we live in like any other organization.”

    No, they’re measures of the times we used to live in. They’re already gone in all but a few corners of society and in the few places they remain they’re on their way out.

  8. Douglas Storm says:

    What is irresistible about that? “Out with the old, in with the new,” is not exactly the best maxim to live by.

    Besides my point, and I’m sorry if it wasn’t clear, was that the social and governing ideologies are “management” or “business” ideologies and these infect all organizations in some ways. Thus the original idea of unionization is still valid and necessary, more than ever, as a protection against the manipulations of wealth and power.

    You point out the dwindling, and as you’re on this blog I assume you approve of such, as if it is somehow going to lead to some kind of prosperous future that has been “held back” due to the evils of cooperation and the integrity and dignity of communities of workers.

    The Broadsides are clear in their intent as pieces of agitprop to serve the masters of wealth–your masters I assume. They will step on you too in the end, I fear, and you will have been complicit in every action.

  9. […] Greene’s part 2 on the Gates Foundation is here. […]

  10. Jenni White says:

    Interestingly, while I feel a spirit of egalitarianism in Mr. Storm’s posting which makes my brain bleed (interpreting from your comments about workers), I do actually see the brilliance of his last sentence with singular clarity.

    “They will step on you too in the end, I fear, and you will have been complicit in every action.”

    School Choice is NOT the answer to our current “we have big schools, spend lots of money, build huge bureaucracies all while teaching kids virtually nothing” education crisis. School choice is a ruse. School choice is the avenue for more federalized control over education through vouchers and tax credits, both of which will eventually render inert the only REAL choices in education right now – home schooling and private schooling.

    Yes, it is true and even Coulson at CATO is beginning to sound the alarm over vouchers ( My inherent distrust of all things federal government (I’m a firm believer in Reagan’s thoughts on the issue – “I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help you”) make me keenly aware that ANY avenue utilized to propel school choice is ostensibly to find avenues for the tentacles of the federal government through it’s entrenched programming – such as the American’s with Disabilities Act – into the lives of families and children who simply want nothing more than to have an UNREGULATED ‘choice’.

    That this idea is embraced by ‘Republicans’ or Conservatives – or whatever they’re termed (opposite liberals, progressives or Democrats) makes them in fact complicit as Storm suggests – at least in jumping the conservative principles of ‘personal freedom’ and ‘free market’ for the ‘trendy’, ‘shiny’ education ‘reform’ ideas covering the dark chocolaty center of statism.

    As an example; Jeb Bush jumped headlong into the education crisis fray with his Foundation for Excellence in Education ( Since he is a Republican and his dad and brother were Republican presidents of these United States he MUST know much more about education than any of us, so Republicans and conservative education policy wonks follow him into this foray head first.

    The Chiefs for Change portion of this organization has published their manifesto of what they want seen in the re-authorization of the ESEA ( Please note how it is nearly exclusively dictating MORE federal control. A Republican dictating MORE federal control? In a down economy? When government has spent itself into oblivion? Isn’t this statist – which is NOT Republican? I’m confused.

    Maybe we should also point out that Jeb’s dad signed America up for the UNESCO World Declaration on Education for All, globalizing education in America – also very Republican (

    To this we could add that his brother G.W., took Clinton’s ESEA re-authorization, “Improving America’s Schools Act”, amped up the AYP nonsense and simply re-labeled it “No Child Left Behind” – now arguably one of the greatest failures in education ‘reform’. From Democrat president to Republican president, education ‘reform’ became ‘reform’ in fact because the name was changed.

    Additionally, the younger Bush’s Foundation for Excellence is embracing wholeheartedly the idea of 21st Century Skills. If you go to the website (Partnership for 21st Century Skills) you can download a ‘white paper’ there that details their mission and framework for their program ( In it, you will find that p21 principles rest solely on the backs of Dewey, Vygotsky and Piaget – 3 of the most openly Socialist/Marxist members of education ‘reform’ at the turn of the last century. VERY Republican, yet no conservative/Republican seems to be very offended by this fact and in fact, many openly welcome this in the name of ‘education reform’.

    The Foundation for Excellence also embraces nearly every portion of the Core Curriculum State Standards initiative (including the onerous and very 1984 idea of collecting lots and lots of data on school children all in the name of getting them to graduate high school) excepting that of school choice.

    I fear that those on the ‘right’ of the spectrum are most DEFINITELY being led into the category of useful idiots by those on the ‘left’ of the political spectrum who have controlled educational framework, access and rhetoric since before even Dewey. It appears that we are falling blind to what has been growing slowly before our eyes for nearly a century and even those who wish to be labeled ‘education reformers’ are now nothing more than accomplices.

  11. Karen W says:

    Speakers at the Iowa Ed Summit made a point of saying the Common Core standards are not national standards and that they are just as good as the former Mass. standards.

    At least we got to hear from Matthew Ladner in person.

  12. Douglas Storm says:

    Ah, this is Jay Greene! Makes sense now…interestingly using the “inside” of a Public university to make anti-public education declarations. You are clearly a compromised individual and ideologue. Perhaps a better title: “The WalMart Professor of Corporate Obfuscation and Malfeasance.”

    • Mike McShane says:

      Dr. Greene, thanks for taking time out of your busy day of Corporate Obfuscation and Malfeasance to teach me the weakness of ad hominem arguments, otherwise I’d think Mr. Storm here was onto something….

  13. Douglas Storm says:

    you guys are funny–nothing ad hominem about ol’ Doc Greene’s record. Apologies though if I offended your sensibilities by engaging in name calling. If you have the time you might read the link and then we can chat.

    • Mike McShane says:

      Oh no worries man, ad hominem arguments don’t offend my sensibilities, they’re just weak and lack the ability to convince me of anything. And by the way, linking to a different, longer ad hominem argument doesn’t help either. HOLLER!!

  14. Douglas Storm says:

    true or false: Dr. Jay P. Greene has devoted his career to promoting vouchers and other measures aimed to weaken or dismantle public schools. The Manhattan Institute, where he has worked for the past five years, is a far-right think tank funded by a handful of right-wing foundations and dedicated to eliminating the public schools

  15. Douglas Storm says:

    I’m not sure how to proceed if you won’t engage so I should be done, yes?

  16. […] And for another side of the story, take a look at Professor Jay Greene’s analysis, entitled the Gates Foundation Follies. Greene is a conservative school reform advocate and the endowed professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. He writes from his aptly named Jay P Greene’s Blog.  Part one of the Gates Foundation Follies is here.  Part two can be accessed here. […]

  17. […] a similar headline we also found this: In Part 1 of this post, I described how the Gates Foundation came to recognize the importance of […]

  18. […] over research or aid priorities. Some advocates have criticized what they call a traditionally top-down approach to education reforms. And people on both sides of the political aisle have questioned the […]

  19. […] over research or aid priorities. Some advocates have criticized what they call a traditionally top-down approach to education reforms. And people on both sides of the political aisle have questioned the […]

  20. Bill and Melinda Gates take on tough questions about their giving - says:

    […] over research or aid priorities. Some advocates have criticized what they call a traditionally top-down approach to education reforms. And people on both sides of the political aisle have questioned the […]

  21. […] over research or aid priorities. Some advocates have criticized what they call a traditionally top-down approach to education overhauls. And people on both sides of the political aisle have questioned […]

  22. […] criticized the Gateses’ support for the Common Core State Standards as well as what they say is a top-down approach to school reform, questioning the results of initiatives that have seen billions poured […]

  23. […] criticized the Gateses’ support for the Common Core State Standards as well as what they say is a top-down approach to school reform, questioning the results of initiatives that have seen billions poured […]

  24. […] Data Quality Campaign was started in 2005 by key boosters of major failures in public education, including technocratic and useless school “report cards,” rigged student testing, the low-quality […]

  25. […] Data Quality Campaign was started in 2005 by key boosters of major failures in public education, including technocratic and useless school “report cards,” rigged student testing, the low-quality and […]

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