The Gates Foundation and the Rise of the Cool Kids

July 28, 2011

(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.


Odds and Ends

March 23, 2011

WordPress was down most of yesterday, preventing me from posting.  Here are some of the topics I was considering for a post:

  • I finally saw The Social Network.  As always, I enjoyed Aaron Sorkin’s clever, rapid-fire dialog, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how creepy it was to write a fictionalized and unflattering account of real, living people.  There is no evidence that Mark Zuckerberg is the status and girl-craving jerk that Sorkin made him out to be, but there is plenty of evidence that Sorkin behaves that way.  I guess the film is really a fictionalized autobiography of Aaron Sorkin, except that Sorkin didn’t create a multi-billion dollar enterprise that tens of millions enjoy using and that has helped topple despots in the Middle East.
  • I saw that my fellow Manhattan Institute-refugee, Walter Olson, has a new book out on how law schools perpetuate a political ideology that gives more power to lawyers and government. Schools of Misrule sounds like it has a fascinating thesis except I suspect that the same argument could be made about almost every department at universities.  I can assure you that the social sciences are filled with people who sit around in their offices dreaming about how the rest of the world should be structured if only the world would listen to them.  I guess the difference is that law school grads are actually more likely to have to power to put their dreams into action.
  • Jim Stergios has a great post over at Pioneer comparing Bill Gates and Steve Jobs on their visions for education.  He writes:

So Bill Gates lets us all know what he really has in mind on standards and the liberal arts. In a speech to the National Governors Association in late February, he suggests that higher education spending be devoted largely to job-producing disciplines.

In his view we should drop funding at the higher ed level for the liberal arts, because there is not much economic impact/job creation impact from the liberal arts.

Compare that to Steve Jobs, who during his release of the iPad 2 (admittedly not the most successful launch I’ve seen of an Apple product), trumpeted the liberal arts.

Be sure to read the full thing because the quotations from Gates and Jobs are illuminating.


Bill Gates on Teacher Pensions

July 15, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Interesting article from John Fund from the Aspen Ideas Conference.


Why President Obama is an Outlier

March 5, 2009
(Guest Post by Dan Lips)

In his new book, Outliers, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell examines why some people become extraordinarily successful and others do not.

Challenging the conventional notion of the self-made man, Gladwell argues that most great success stories spring from unique advantages and opportunities that enable remarkable achievement.

Consider Bill Gates. Most people know how, as a young computer whiz, he dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft and revolutionize the software industry and the American economy in the process. But often overlooked in this simple tale are the events in Gates’ life that put him on the path to greatness.

Gladwell explains that, as a teenager, Gates attended a private school that offered a computer club. At a time when few colleges were offering students hands-on computer experience, Gates was practicing real-time computer programming in the eighth grade. This early experience led Gates to capitalize on other unique opportunities, including working part-time testing code for a local tech company and sneaking into the University of Washington at night to steal time computer programming.

These unique opportunities made Bill Gates an outlier, as he admits: “I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events.”

Or consider perhaps the greatest outlier of our time: President Barack Obama. Part of what captures the public’s imagination about our new president is that his is the quintessential tale of the self-made man.

You know the story. The son of an absent African father, the young Obama was raised by his mother and grandparents in middle-class America. He went on to earn degrees from Columbia and Harvard University, where he became the first black president of the law review. This historic achievement earned the young lawyer a book deal from a top publisher and a grip on a career ladder that he climbed to the top of Illinois politics and, finally, to the White House.

Perhaps the most important door to open in young Obama’s life came in 1971, when, at age 10, he received a scholarship to enroll in the private Punahoa school in Hawaii.

He spent the next eight years learning aside the children of the elite in the state’s most prestigious school, where he came to thrive in academics, athletics and extracurricular activities.

After being elected to the Senate in 2004, Obama returned to the school and spoke about its importance in his life: “There was something about this school that embraced me, gave me support and encouragement, and allowed me to grow and prosper. I am extraordinarily grateful.”

In the cases of both Gates and Obama, it takes a special person to take advantage of their opportunities. But it’s fair to conclude that Gates likely wouldn’t have founded Microsoft had he not joined a computer club in 1967, and that Obama wouldn’t have become president had he not attended the Punahoa school.

In the latter case, one wonders what might have become of Obama had he not received his scholarship. Would he have even graduated from college (let alone Columbia and Harvard) if he attended one of Hawaii’s generally mediocre public schools instead of Punahoa? The America’s Promise Alliance reports that the high-school graduation rate in Honolulu’s public schools is just 64 percent. In 2007, only 20 percent of Hawaii’s eighth-grade students scored “proficient” in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The point of Gladwell’s book isn’t to explain away our greatest successes, but to challenge us to create a society where one doesn’t have to be an outlier to be a success. “To build a better world,” he writes, “we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that determine success with a society that provides opportunities to all.”

One way to level the playing field would be to give all children access to educational opportunities similar to those enjoyed by Gates and Obama. The new president could help make that a reality in the US by supporting the principle that all families — regardless of background — should have the power to choose the best school for their children and by challenging lawmakers across the country to make that promise a reality.

President Obama knows the benefit of that opportunity — he’s passing it along to his daughters by enrolling them in an elite private school in Washington. As president, he could fight to give more children in the District and beyond the same opportunity.

Every child deserves a chance to become the next Bill Gates or Barack Obama, not just the outliers.

Dan Lips is a Senior Policy Analyst for education at the Heritage Foundation.