Nonprofit Newswire | Is Gates Foundation Approach to Education Evidence Based?

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July 25, 2010; Source: The Oregonian | Following an incisive analysis in Bloomberg Businessweek of the foundation’s education programs, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has encountered some measure of pushback about how much it really knows about educational reform versus its influence all the way up to the Obama White House.  The question raised by the spate of articles about Gates and education is, how much do the facts affect what Gates wants to do?

In Portland, Ore. a relatively small city school district had dropout rates comparable to big city counterparts, and the dropouts were hardly just low-income minorities.  Enter Gates with funding for smaller privately run schools as alternatives to large institutional high schools.  Funny thing, but five years into the Gates-funded anti-dropout experiment , and still no results.

Potential dropouts instead are moving to the academies (with the help of the No Child Left Behind law which allows kids to transfer out of “failing” schools), not necessarily graduating. The emphasis at these small academies is on getting kids to show up, not on getting them to graduate. The data on small schools around the nation actually says that small schools do not outperform larger schools.

The headline of a column in the July 23rd Education Week on the Gates approach says it all, “Hard Data Won’t Change Educational Beliefs.”  Reading the lengthy Businessweek article, the EW columnist concludes, “What emerges from the reportage is that Bill Gates does not like to be confused by evidence.”

What is Portland doing?  It has eschewed the Gates small school approach, closing underperforming small academies, and creating “fewer, larger neighborhood high schools—the opposite of the Gates approach—[that] will allow each one to guarantee more catch-up opportunities for struggling students, plus an array of fine arts, music, college prep and world languages now lacking in some high-poverty Portland high schools.”  In the nonprofit sector (outside of foundations), we’ve long known that data doesn’t convince decision-makers to start or implement a policy, but shouldn’t data convince decision-makers not to pursue courses of action that clearly don’t work?—Rick Cohen