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Educational Epiphany of Bill Gates

Educational experimenters rejoiced when multibillionaire Bill Gates’ foundation bankrolled some of their favorite education schemes, but these private sector philanthropists quickly learned what public officials are loathe to admit: social planning will not yield literacy.

“At the Gates Foundation, early grants went to utopian and communitarian movements but we moved away from that because it does not work,” foundation spokesman David Ferrero said late last month. Ferrero spoke at a conference on high school reform sponsored by the Center for Education at the National Academies of Science.

The conference was cosponsored by the Education Sector and the National Education Knowledge Industry Association. In a paper presented at the conference, Craig Jerald, of Break the Curve Consulting, laid out the Gates Foundation’s record.

“The findings were mixed,” Jerald writes of studies of Gates foundation grantees. “On the positive side, English teachers in new high schools gave students assignments that were much more demanding and more relevant than assignments given by their peers in traditional high schools.”

“But math teachers in new schools were no more likely than those in conventional schools to assign intellectually demanding class work. Indeed, fully half of the math assignments collected from both types of schools exhibited ‘little or no’ rigor.”

Jerald formerly worked as a senior editor at Education Week. The Gates Foundation invested $1 billion in 1,500 “small learning communities” of fewer than 400 students each.

“I visited 100 grant schools and made the observation that they were all small, autonomous, and assumed that was the path to school improvement,” Tom Vander Ark, of the Gates Foundation says. “It turns out giving a failing school autonomy is a bad idea.”

Vander Ark is executive director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s education initiatives. In that position, he got to experience the education bureaucracy at its most inert.

“With many of our early grants, I encouraged people to fix the architecture,” Vander Ark says. “Several years later, many of those same folks are stuck in architectural arguments and never got to the heart of the issue—teaching and learning.”

“Overall the evaluators concluded that ‘the quality of student work in all of the schools we studied is alarmingly low’,” Jerald reports. “It’s not surprising, then, that except for a slightly more positive trend in reading scores, test-results in most Gates-funded schools generally are no better than in traditional schools, at least so far.”

“The early structural changes in the foundation-sponsored schools were supposed to lay the groundwork for changes in teaching and learning, but that hasn’t happened in many places.”

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.