“Disappointing” Education Reform Mega-grants We Have Known: Add another $100 Million to the $2 Billion

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April 26, 2014; New York Times

On the occasion of the failure of the very well funded (by Gates and Carnegie) and the very unpopular (with parents) inBloom, we’d like to take a short jaunt down Memory Lane.

Here is what Bill Gates said only five short years ago in 2009, at the end of a decade-long $2 billion initiative aimed at increasing graduation rates, where most of the money spent went to breaking large schools up into smaller ones.

“In the first four years of our work with new, small schools, most of the schools had achievement scores below district averages on reading and math assessments. In one set of schools we supported, graduation rates were no better than the statewide average, and reading and math scores were consistently below the average. The percentage of students attending college the year after graduating high school was up only 2.5 percentage points after five years. Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for.

He also said,

“Money is tight. We need to spend it wisely. We’re now spending $8 billion a year for teachers with master’s degrees, even though the evidence suggests that master’s degrees do not improve student achievement. We’re spending billions on a seniority system, even though the evidence says that seniority, after the first five years, may not improve student achievement. We’ve spent billions to reduce class size, even though there is no strong evidence that spending money to reduce class size in high school is the most impactful way to improve student performance. And the last thing we can afford—whether the economy is good or bad—is to pay teachers who can’t do the job. As [then] President-elect Obama and others have pointed out: We need to give all teachers the benefit of clear standards, sound curriculum, good training, and top instructional tools. But if their students still keep falling behind, they’re in the wrong line of work, and they need to find another job.”

And what happens if a billionaire philanthropist fails to get results? Does he find another job? Because Bill Gates has just seen another failure in the death of inBloom, an organization funded to the tune of $100 million to collect lots of data on students. This was not an idea embraced by parents, who have no good reason to trust that the information will not be used against their children’s best interests.

Writing for the New York Times, Natasha Singer observed, “Indeed, inBloom’s implosion is a cautionary tale for the nearly $8 billion business of prekindergarten-through-12th-grade education technology software. Some education veterans told me that inBloom’s demise indicated that the industry had been rushing to sell data-driven concepts before establishing evidence that automated data-mining of students improved their success in school.”

Ken Mitchell, the superintendent of the South Orangetown Central School District wondered, “If this is still an ‘emerging concept,’ why are we implementing it?” Good question.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Benjamin Shute

    Re: the breaking up of large schools into smaller ones – At least they called it off and admitted the failure publicly. I don’t agree with many of his approaches/prescriptions, but we need to encourage both risk-taking and admissions of failure in philanthropy. A failed attempt in philanthropy, if conducted with thoughtfulness and care, isn’t “money wasted” as long as the lessons learned are public.

  • Phyllis Albritton

    As a parent of two high schoolers in Jefferson County Colorado who has been a healthcare IT executive director committed to interoperability of healthcare information and was embroiled in the inBloom controversy, there are a few observations from this experience that may assist education gurus in the future. No matter how passionately any one person may be to try and improve our education system, ignoring the role and expectations of parents is a deadly game. While much was invested in the technical aspects of inBloom, little was done to help parents understand what the educational system at large is going through today. What many better off parents who are engaged in their children’s learning see is the dumbing down and the rigidity of rules from above and this is concerning to them.

    Teachers are struggling to keep up with latest idea/structure/rubric/shiny penny that is meant to magically improve education and feel attacked by the data efforts since they don’t get to use the data anyway. It mostly appears too late to be actionable.

    inBloom could have helped with this. But fear of Bill Gates’ motives and the infusion of Rupert Murdoch rumors with a touch of NSA privacy invasion concerns trumped any ability of a relatively small nonprofit technology organization to offer help to education. Without an up-front discussion with those who believe they are the MOST vested in the outcomes (the parents) such improvements will continue to be thwarted.

  • Irene

    Gee, Ruth, do you think that increasing childhood poverty in the US could have anything to do with Gates’ outcomes?