Reforming Gates

In my last post I wrote about the pattern at the Gates Foundation of abusing the idea of “research” and “evidence” to advance its education policy agenda.  Gates has an organizational culture that permits intellectual corruption.  There are good people at Gates doing good work, but there is something rotten about the organization that needs to be changed if they hope to succeed over the long run.

In addition to their abuse of research and evidence, the Gates Foundation suffers from a bloated staff and paralyzing bureaucracy.  As their 990 tax filings show, their assets doubled over the last decade, but their staffing levels increased ten-fold — even more rapidly than the increase in assets as Buffett adds his money to Gates to create a philanthropic Leviathan.  They have so many people that they needed to build the $500 million palace pictured above to hold all of them.

But with huge size, staffing, and wealth comes the huge danger of corruption.  If an organization becomes bloated, inefficient and corrupt in the profit-seeking sector, the possibility of a hostile takeover can help check or eliminate abuses.  But in the non-profit sector there are no corporate raiders.  No outside shareholders can come in to take over the Gates Foundation, sell off its over-priced facilitates, cut staffing, reduce corruption and focus on the core mission.

Instead, non-profits need to check the danger of corruption that comes with wealth and power in the same way that governments do — by creating institutional constraints, dividing power, and pitting ambition against ambition.  In short, non-profits need a Constitution.

Specifically, the Gates Foundation has just become too damn big for its own good.  It’s so big and powerful that just about everyone in the education policy world gets money from them or hopes to.  It’s so big that everyone within the organization is too eager to gain control over it, causing in-fighting and the need for rigid top-down controls.  It’s so big that they can indulge foolish ideas and make irresponsible claims without fear of consequences.

One way Gates could check these problems is to divide its education unit into a Team A and Team B, each of which would operate independently with its own theory of action and reform agenda.  The different Teams within Gates could then compete with each other to develop and pursue the best reform ideas.  They could also help keep each other honest by having an interest to detect, reveal, and stop any intellectual dishonesty in the other.

Many people wrongly believe that organizations function best when they achieve greater scale and are streamlined, but this is incorrect in the peculiar world of government and non-profit organizations.  As Patrick Wolf and James Q. Wilson’s work on bureaucracy shows, redundancy within government can be a desirable arrangement.  Having the FBI, DEA, and ATF all chasing drug dealers is beneficial because they compete with each to do the best job and win a larger share of congressional appropriations.  Redundancy can simulate the choice and competition of the private market.

Similarly the division of power and responsibility between local, state, and federal governments as well as between the different branches of each government helps check abuse and corruption while providing some of the positive effects of choice and competition.  Smart non-profits should likewise develop a policy to split themselves into smaller competing units once they reach a certain size.

Another institutional arrangement that might help right the ship at Gates is to develop an independent internal research department that reports directly to the board and not to the heads of any of its programmatic units.  A research department that does not report to the programmatic unit heads is less likely to feel compelled to verify the wisdom of the paths chosen by the programmatic units.

In addition, non-profits like Gates should develop a policy that prevents them from ever conducting public evaluations of their own projects internally.  The research unit’s responsibilities should be limited to contracting out research to independent third parties and then reporting the results to the board.  One of the real problems with the MET project at Gates is that is was funded and conducted internally by Gates.  That made it very hard for them to report that the project had failed to find what they had hoped.  You shouldn’t be the judge and jury in your own case.

Lastly, changing the organizational culture to one that gives primacy to intellectual integrity requires cleaning house at the leadership level.  Vicki Phillips, the head of the education unit, has to go.  She has repeatedly mis-described the findings of their own research.  I’m not sure whether it is because she does not understand the research or because she doesn’t care about being accurate (and I’m not sure which would be worse), but you can’t effectively lead an organization if you can’t honestly describe your own research.  It might be good for Gates to consider appointing a well-respected scholar to head its education units, just as the Carnegie Foundation did when it selected University of Chicago researcher, Anthony Bryk, as its president.

Tom Kane, who until recently served under Vicki Phillips, brought impressive research credentials to the table but unfortunately has chosen to compromise those credentials.  Kane is an incredibly capable and accomplished researcher, but even the best can be tarnished.  Gates needs to cut all remaining ties with Kane to set the example that accurate and honest reporting of research is of primary value.

Of course, none of this can or will happen unless Bill Gates wants it to.  Perhaps Gates himself is the source of the problem.  If that’s true, then no organizational or staffing change will improve the situation.  But I suspect that Gates does not want to see his wealth squandered.  He doesn’t want to be the next Walter Annenberg, whose $500 million “Challenge” ultimately “had little impact on school improvement and student outcomes…”

The MET project is already almost $400 million that Gates has spent with little to show for it.  I don’t think Gates wants to keep doing that.  And even if his internal research declares success and others are too timid to publicly question that claim, over the long run (especially when the money stops flowing in this direction) people will think of Gates as they think of Annenberg — as someone who failed to use his enormous wealth for positive effect in education.

In the end, this is all up to Bill Gates.  He can choose to make a giant bonfire of his fortune by squandering it on palatial buildings, excessive staffing, and foolish enterprises whose failure is only temporarily disguised by dishonesty.  Or he can choose to make the organizational and staffing changes necessary to get the Gates Foundation back on track.

(edited for some typos)

18 Responses to Reforming Gates

  1. George Mitchell says:

    Jay’s critiques don’t mince words. Nor do they lack for examples offered in support of his thesis. If Jay is correct, Gates and the recipients of its $ will undermine rather than advance reform. It would be interesting to read a rebuttal. One wonders if Gates himself is apprised of such criticism.

    • allen says:

      I don’t share Jay’s concerns about the Gates Foundation.

      Not that I don’t think the Gates Foundation hasn’t been captured by the educational status quo but because the forces already in play to advance reform are clearly beyond even the substantial resources of the Gates Foundation to stop.

      What surprises me is that Gates hasn’t brought the Gates Foundation to heel. Given Gates interest in Khan Academy I would have thought the failure of various status quo-approved ideas would have caused Gates to rethink the foundation’s positions. The more so since Gates has never come across as a man with a great deal of patience for failure among his subordinates.

      So I’m not very concerned with the Gates Foundation impeding reform although I think the foundation could accelerate reform. Support for Khan Academy suggests that’s still a possibility.

  2. Vicki Phillips is a good person to put the focus on. The fact that she and Michael Barber paired up while he was Tony Blair’s ed advisor and pushing the UK to be the poster child for UNESCO’s worldwide vision of transforming education and they wrote a paper on “Irreversible Change” still gives me the creeps. Education advisors determined to use education as a tool for irreversible political, social and economic transformation must have George Counts smiling somewhere.

    In the ATC21S worldwide digital/skills movement partnered by Microsoft, Cisco, and Intel in partnership with OECD and UNESCO, you get Cisco and Intel execs thanking Phillips and Barber for their help in official documents touting the global 21st century skills movement. They leave out the part about the rejection of free markets and individualism that are the real cores.

    With her former work with the National Center for Education and the Economy you get Americas Choice and Mark Tucker’s agenda. And now you have Gates billions in a nonprofit that funds initiatives that benefit the funders of the corpus.

    And you have the Obama Administration announcing we are going to an Industrial Policy economy with guess who benefiting? And we are reorganizing the US economy around Sustainability with the tech companies collecting the needed data and crunching the supercomputers needed to supposedly make central planning viable this time.

    Bureaucracies are easy to corrupt and this foundation is a leviathan. But it is riddled with conflicts of interest between what it is mandating since it is the primary funder of curriculum even if it went offshore to avoid prying eyes.

    But the actual intentions, regardless of the leviathan, appear to be about creating John Dewey’s reimagined America.

    Which really does take the mentality of an idealogue or a profound ignorance of history to still be chasing 100 years later. It has created nightmares anywhere it was ever put in place. The idea that imposing it on an already industrialized economy will be the crucial distinction that makes it all work is self-interested nonsense.

    But there’s a lot of that in American and global education these days. Cashing in on the Common Core hoax before the klieg lights demonstrate its real purpose and those taxpayer and foundation dollars vanish

  3. Gates has a moral foundation rooted in EUGENICS. Why would anyone expect anything GOOD to come from him?

  4. Corporations and foundations have no business telling us what to do in our public schools. Gates should just ride off into the sunset and enjoy his billions and leave our kids the heck alone.

  5. Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:

    “To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data” — W. Edwards Deming

    Jay Greene on Vicky Phillips:
    “You can’t effectively lead an organization if you can’t honestly describe your own research.” Ms. Phillips has shown herself to be incapable of “figuring out what research shows”.

    Any reader of John Hattie’s “Visible Learning” and “Visible Learning for Teachers” will realize the reforms advocated by the Gates Foundation for Education are extremely misguided.

    The GF was the prime mover behind the Common Core State Standards and 45 states were all far to willing to hop on that expensive misguided train. If the goal was really to improve public school education in the USA by improving student’s academic results, then the starting place is a careful review of what is known to work to bring academic improvement at the student and classroom level. The Hyper Expensive CCSS and accompanying testing barrage, would not even make the top 10 on the “needs to be done list”.

    Phillips needs to be jettisoned. Phillips can not even accurately describe GF research findings … So what are the chances she can describe the research findings of other organizations and studies?

    “To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data” — W. Edwards Deming

  6. It’s hard to live here in the Puget Sound region with its many billionaires, chief among them Bill Gates. Many fear to speak out for fear of offending him even though he is clearly wrong on many things especially around education. Mr. Greene is correct about the power the Gates Foundation has because of the money they can throw out there. It does limit the conversation.

    That Gates has chosen person after person who have not served hiim well in education (Van der Ark and Phillips come to mine) seems to show that he and his team exist in an echo chamber where naturally all they hear are their own voices.

    There is so much more that could be done and done more cheaply.

    Now we are engaged in a very big fight in Washington State over charter schools. We are one of only 9 states that do not have them and virtually the only state to vote them down…three times. And yet here’s another initiative that Mr Gates practically paid to get on the ballot (at $6 per signature, almost a record). And now he has engaged Paul Allen and an heiress of the WalMart fortune in Arkansas, and the head of Netflicks in LA to support this effort.

    Why do all these outsiders want to tell Washington parents how to educate their children?

    Mr. Gates and his cronies will be spending millions but, as the head of the No on 1240 campaign, I believe he will, again, lose. Why? Because charters don’t work and this initiative is vague and lacks focus or accountability.

    Gates just doesn’t get it but, someday, he may listen to his fellow Washingtonians or maybe even Diane Ravitch.

  7. allen says:

    As a resident of one of those forty-one states that have enacted charter school law I can tell you they work just fine and for less money then district schools get.

    It is nice to know that Gates, in his personal capacity, is bucking the status quo even if his foundation seems bent on supporting every half-baked idea supporters of district schools can dream up.

    Maybe Gates will notice the discontinuity in his support of charters and Khan Academy and the actions of his foundation and crack the whip or maybe there’s something about big foundations I’m unaware of that prevents him from doing so.

  8. Bob Dean says:

    There is nothing more dangerous than a billionaire with too much time on his hands. Bill Gates admits he knows nothing about teaching but that hasn’t stopped him from causing havoc in our nation’s schools.

    It started out with his small school initiative. He was convinced that kids in smaller schools could learn better than those in our “so called” monstrous high schools of 2000 students or more. No matter that every college or university that has a population of less than 4000 stresses their advantage of a small and intimate campus. Unfortunately, when a billionaire talks people listen; even worse they think he knows what he is talking about. That is far from the truth.

    Gates infused millions into his small school initiative but in less than a year he admitted he was wrong and went off in new directions. That didn’t stop what he had already put in motion however. Schools all over the country spent millions on redesigning facilities around the small school initiative that has now been abandoned. This waste and misdirection has been extremely harmful but Gates has moved on to new experiments.

    Most people don’t know that it has been Bill Gates’ money that has been the prime mover behind the Common Core standards. His money has given legs to the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of State School Officers (CCSSO) and he has even given funds to the Fordham Institute that did an evaluation of the Common Core standards. Let me see, he supplied money to help get the CCSS developed and he supplied money to the organization that evaluated them. Can you spell conflict of interest? Almost all of the states have jumped on the CCSS band wagon. Even Massachusetts, who had some of the top rated standards in the nation, discarded all of their success in favor of the experimental Common Core Standards. When Bill Gates talks, people listen: Even when it doesn’t make any sense.

    Now one of his big pushes is merit pay for teachers. Teachers would be paid more if their students performed better on standardized tests and be evaluated poorly or maybe even fired if their students did not perform well on these often defectively designed exams. In Gate’s cutthroat monetary thinking mind this would cause teachers to perform better: Wrong! This would cause a huge divide between teachers and their students.

    Students would no longer be children who teachers attempted to help no matter what their circumstances were, but they would become a commodity that made the difference in how a teacher was paid and evaluated. How do you think teachers would respond if their very livelihood was threatened by working with poor and unwilling students? I will tell you. They would do everything they could to not work with that type of student and when that type of student was put in their class they would do everything they could to get rid of them.

    It appears that Bill Gates wants to craft the US education system into his image. What do you think that would look like? If I taught my classes the way Bill Gates built his business then this is what I would do. First, all students would enter my classes under probation. Anyone who couldn’t cut the mustard would be history. Then, I would outsource. I would go get the best students from India and China to be in my classes. Every chance I got I would be out speaking and promoting my classes and my methods. I would also do everything I could to make my competitors (other schools) look bad. I would end up being the ”king” of merit pay. I would make lots of money and everyone would think I knew everything about everything. In the meanwhile, all the struggling kids and our education system would continue to suffer.

    Teachers in the top performing countries are treated with a lot more respect than what they are getting in the United States these days. But even more importantly, students are held accountable and take personal responsibility for what they accomplish or don’t accomplish in school. Parents don’t blame teachers for their child’s failures, they make sure their child is doing all of their work and get them extra help if they need it.

    Fifty percent of new teachers leave the education field within the first five years. The Gates plan is going to make sure that increases to a new high. Bill Gates has already done substantial damage to the education system in the United States. We would all be a lot better off if he stuck to the things that he knows something about.

  9. If you want links regarding Gates, go to or google Seattle Education and scroll down to Bill Gates. You’ll have a field day.


  10. Anthony Cody says:

    Those interested in the Gates Foundation might want to take a look at the current exchange that they have been having with me through our blogs.

    My most recent post: Can Schools Defeat Poverty by Ignoring It?:

    Vicki Phillips’ post: How do We Consider Evidence of Learning in Teacher Evaluations?

    My response:

  11. Zara Kublin says:

    From a guest column in the Seattle Times by philanthropy scholar Pablo Eisenberg. I don’t think he’s been hard enough in general on the BMGF, but this excerpt states nicely the serious problem addressed in the article:

    “The defensive posture taken by Bill Gates on the few times he has been seriously questioned publicly reflects a person too insulated from the give and take of real discussion and debate. That is not likely to come from staff, carefully selected advisory committees, consultant experts, occasional trips or nonprofits seeking money. What the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation needs is interaction with independent observers, critics of the foundation and nonprofits and their constituencies not begging for grants … people willing to level with them.

    Though Warren Buffett is nominally a trustee, the Gates Foundation board is essentially Bill and Melinda. They claim their decisions are informed by consultants and advisers. Weighing advice from outsiders, however, is not the same thing as having outsiders on the board making decisions with the founders. The decision-making process requires broad perspectives, a wealth of experience and interests beyond family concerns — something Bill and Melinda cannot bring by themselves.”


  12. […] Reforming Gates Gates Foundation Headquarters in Seattle In my last post I wrote about the pattern at the Gates Foundation of abusing the idea of “research” and “evidence” to advance its education policy agenda.  Gates has an organizational culture that permits intellectual corruption.  There are good people at Gates doing good work, but there is something rotten about the organization that needs to be changed if they hope to succeed over the long run. […]

  13. Anonymous says:

    Here are a few suggestions for rethinking the education work of the foundation. Create the policy that doing your own project work should be outlawed. The lack of accountability in doing work you pay for yourself is impossible to avoid. I wouldn’t state that the BMGF is corrupt as Jay does, but unaccountable seems more accurate. Once you throw out project work, the only thing the foundation can do is to fund other people to do work. This is where you need to be clear on your theory of action. The foundation started with theories around small schools, then moved to the concept that drilling through the structure of public education to teachers and improving their performance could change everything. As I’m sure they’ve experienced by now, it’s not possible to work with teachers without working with the system. What the foundation has not yet chosen to take on is the structure of public education from elected school boards, to unions, to lack of incentives for student performance. No doubt this feels a lot grungier than the work BMGF does to cure disease where they have to contend more with possibly corrupt but disorganized systems instead of well-organized opposition to change. Luckily, delving into the world of structural reform is much easier now than when they started their work many years ago, because there are so many organizations doing good work on this problem from Stand for Children and Students First to charter school systems like KIPP and others. I really do hope that BMGF can turn itself around and focus on the real problems in education, it would have even more impact than their work in health. I’m rooting for them and the 13m kids in the US getting a terrible education would be the winners.

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