The Gates Foundation and the Rise of the Cool Kids

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jay and Greg have been carrying on an important discussion concerning the Gates Foundation and education reform. I wanted to add a few thoughts.

Rick Hess and others have noted the “philanthropist as royalty” phenomenon in the past. Any philanthropist runs the danger of only hearing what they want to hear from their supplicants, and Gates as the largest private foundation runs the biggest risk. The criticism of the Gates Foundation I had seen in the past emanated from the K-12 reactionary fever swamp, hardly qualifying as constructive.

The challenge faced by philanthropists: how do you challenge your own assumptions and evaluate your own efforts honestly? Do you hire formidable Devil’s advocates to level their most skeptical case against your efforts?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, just that if I were Bill Gates I would be terrified of everyone telling me how right my thinking is because they want my money. This is however the best sort of problem to have…

Jay’s central critique of the Gates Foundation strategy seems to be that they have put too much faith in a centralized command and control strategy. They would be wise to entertain this thought. If command and control alone were the solution, then we wouldn’t have education problems-district, state and federal governance have all failed to prevent widespread academic failure for decades.

The Gates strategy does however embrace decentralization. Over the years they have supported charter schools, and fiercely opposed the worst one-size fits all policy of all: salary schedules and automatic/irrevocable tenure. Riley’s WSJ article makes clear that Gates understands the benefits of private school choice, but that he falls for the Jay Mathews fallacy of thinking it is just too politically difficult.

Sigh…perhaps next year Greg can make a dinner bet with Bill.

Gates is also the primary backer of Khan Academy. This new article on Sal Khan in Wired magazine makes clear that Khan understands the danger of being swallowed by school systems and that he is not going to allow it to happen. Khan academy is both radically decentralized and is in the early stages of being used by people within the centralized school system to improve outcomes.

Whatever the mistakes to date, the Gates Foundation has in my mind has succeeded in serving as a counter-weight to the NEA, mostly through funding the efforts of a myriad network of reform organizations collectively known as the Cool Kids. Today, there is a struggle for power going on within the Democratic Party over K-12 policy and the Gates Foundation deserves some credit in my mind for supporting  the ideas behind the “Democrat Spring” on education policy. This spring is following more of the Syrian than the Egyptian model thus far, but it is happening, and it is very important.

Does that mean that they are the “good guys” and Jay should lay off of them? Of course not-reasoned critiques of large philanthropists are in short supply for all of the factors cited above. Jason Riley wished that Gates were bolder in embracing decentralization reforms, but noted that in the end that it was the Gates rather than the Riley Foundation. This is absolutely true, but it doesn’t make the royalty problem go away, and leaves a continuous question of how the emperor gets feedback on his new clothes.

I don’t agree with the Cool Kids about everything. The next time I hear someone ask a question about having Common Core replace NAEP (the very pinnacle of naive folly) for instance I may pull out entire tufts of my graying, thinning hair in utter exasperation. Reformers of all stripes need to be on guard against the ship-wheel conceit, which is to imagine that if only my strong hands steered the ship, we’d sail through the rocky shoals of ed reform without a hitch.

The East Germans ran a much better economy than the North Koreans, much to the benefit of Germans and to the detriment of Koreans. This is real and important in human terms- I do not make this point glibly. I never heard about an East German famine decimating the population, but food shortages have even soldiers starving to death in North Korea (pity the women and children). Better quality management is good and desirable, but…it will only take you so far. Today, Chinese apparatchiks are noisily crediting themselves for the tremendous economic progress in China without the slightest hint of irony. Without the market forces Deng introduced and with more apparatchiks, China would revert back to a starving backwater. With fewer apparatchiks, her progress would almost certainly accelerate.

As Sara Mead correctly noted in this guest post at Eduwonk, today’s education debate largely involves a mixture of technocratic and market-based reforms (neo-liberals) on one side and a group of reactionaries lacking realistic solutions on the other. A third of our 4th graders can’t read and have been shoved into the dropout pipeline. We need both technocratic and market based reforms, and we need stronger reforms of both sorts than those fielded to date.

Jay’s critique concerns the right mix of reforms within the bounds of the neo-liberal consensus. This of course is a matter of debate, and debate is the path to deeper understanding. The sheer size of the Gates Foundation has the potential to stifle such debate as it relates to their efforts, even passively, and reformers should recognize the danger in allowing it to do so. This isn’t about them so much as it is about us.

6 Responses to The Gates Foundation and the Rise of the Cool Kids

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Thanks for this, Matt. Lots of great points here. Your last sentence is especially welcome.

    You refer to “the neo-liberal consensus” but there is less and less consensus. The technocrats and the competitors (let’s drop the word “markets,” it creates too much misunderstanding) are more and more coming into conflict with one another. The success or failure of education reform may well hinge on whether these tensions can be managed.

    We don’t have to work together or even like each other (e.g. Klaus and Havel). Rather, we need to understand our boundaries. Technocrats need to learn that you can’t just identify something that works and ram it down everyone’s throat. And the sooner they learn it, the better.

    What do we competitors need to learn? I’ll stand back and let the technocrats tell me.

    • matthewladner says:


      I don’t think there are many people who fall strictly into either the competitor or technocrat camp to the complete exclusion of the other. Most technocrats are at least supportive of charter schools, for instance, and competitors like you and Jay and I all support academic testing in some form. I can think of a few people who fall entirely in one camp or the other, but not many.

      Nevertheless, you are correct that tensions exist. I think that my fellow competitor tribesmen are somewhat prone to apocalyptic thinking, but it will take me an entire post to explain why. I’ll try to write it up next week.

  2. These are all excellent points, Matt. I didn’t mean to suggest that Gates has not been doing anything right. But the overall direction of their strategy risks severely undermining even the good things they are doing and have done in the past.

    And I guess my most serious criticism of the Gates Foundation has to do with the intellectual corruption it is fostering. I know that I am not the only person to have concerns about the direction of the Gates strategy, but almost everyone out there is too afraid to say it out loud. This Emperor’s New Clothes problem is very real. And I agree with you that the problem is mostly with the research and advocacy communities being overly fearful.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    Looking forward to it! If my theory in post I about truth and power is correct, the closer you are on the continuum to valuing truth rather than power, the more you would be susceptible to panic and paranoia about power (which is what I take you to mean by “apocalyptic thinking”). I would expect orientation to truth rather than power to be highly correlated with being oriented toward competition rather than technocracy, so that may be a contributing factor.

  4. George mitchell says:

    Jay’s observation about people being afraid to publicly challenge Gates speaks to a much broader condition, and problem, in the Ed Reform world. It’s a big challenge for those with $ and those who represent them.

    • I should clarify that the Unions and the Army of Angry Teachers are not shy about attacking Gates at all. I meant that among those with a desire to change the status quo dominance of the unions, virtually everyone is afraid to criticize Gates.

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