Big, audacious goals that take on difficult, complicated problems are noble and to be applauded. When a funding organization sets on a mission to improve the world, a key question that comes up is how best to use its financial muscle.
That said, it is beyond dispute that along with the philanthropic privilege of being able to fund your own ideas come some very challenging questions. Do you lift up solutions found “in the trenches,” where the work is done? Or must they come from outside? Is it better to invest in operating organizations and help them develop and spread as they show promise? Or, should a foundation implement its own approaches and drive them, top-down, into wide acceptance?
The Gates Foundation has clearly gone all in on the latter, treating public schools like laboratories for its own ideas and students like human subjects. Over many years, NPQ has followed the ongoing efforts by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve America’s public schools. Guided by the vision that their funds should work to enable “all people—especially those with the fewest resources—[to] have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life,” the Foundation chose a top-down strategy and has launched several large-scale efforts to fundamentally change public education. Over this long span, we have also published newswires wherein Bill Gates apologizes in the foundation’s annual letter and elsewhere for missteps with parents and communities that led to resistance in multiple communities and, on occasion, even nationwide.
One premise the Gates Foundation holds is that improved teaching quality is essential. According to Education Week, Gates invested $700 million in teacher-related programs. One major aspect of this spending focused on changing schools’ approach to teacher evaluations, tying them directly to measured student learning outcomes and using the data to guide in-service training programs and staff retention decisions. Gates developed a framework for this strategy and set about showing that it worked by engaging with three large, traditional public-school districts and four charter-school networks as partners in a large-scale field test that would affect the educational experience of thousands of school children over many years. The Foundation directly invested more than $250 million and convinced their partners, despite tight budgets, to raise matching funds, bringing the project’s total budget to over half a billion dollars.
By the end of the 2014–15 school year…student outcomes were not significantly better than outcomes in similar school sites that did not participate in the initiative. Researchers also found no evidence that low-income and minority students had greater access to effective teachers than their white, more-affluent peers, which had been another stated goal by the Gates Foundation.
The disappointing outcomes didn’t come from implementation failures but as indicators that the underlying idea was flawed. Matt Kraft, a professor at Brown University who has extensively studied teacher evaluation efforts, told ChalkBeat, “The disappointing results in the latest research couldn’t simply be chalked up to a messy rollout. These districts were very well poised to have high-quality implementation. That speaks to the actual package of reforms being limited in its potential.”
The study found that each district took up their complex system, tried the changes that the Gates model called for, and found little benefit for their students. Brian Stecher, a RAND researcher and the lead author of the report, told EdWeek, “The initiative itself tried to pull a bunch of levers to have a big impact on student performance. The sites did in fact modify all of these levers, some more than others, but in the end, there were no big payoffs in terms of improved graduation [rates] or achievement of students in general, and low-income and minority students in particular.”
For the Gates Foundation, failure is just another learning experience. They can step back and reevaluate. Grappling with the aftereffects of their intervention is left for school districts. In a statement, Allan Golston, the Gates Foundation’s president of US programs, says, “We have taken these lessons to heart, and they are reflected in the work that we’re doing moving forward.” It has announced a series of new educational initiatives. To this end, Gates has committed $1.7 billion, with the educational strategies pursued framed, as before, by core principles set by the Gates Foundation.
For those organizations that received funds and participated in the Gates Foundation project, and their students, the impact is more direct. In this case, the students overall did not fall behind their peers in other schools, so the harm is limited to the hundreds of millions of dollars and countless hours of staff and teacher time diverted from other existing programs that might have had more beneficial impacts. We cannot know, of course, how much better the outcomes might have been had scarce resources not been wasted and time not been lost.
No matter how brilliant the thinking is, top-down, externally formed answers to complex system problems often fail. Peter M. Senge, in his The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, captured the dilemma facing large, driven foundations: “I believe benchmarking best practices can open people’s eyes as to what is possible, but it can also do more harm than good…I do not believe great organizations have ever been built by trying to emulate another, any more than individual greatness is achieved by trying to copy another ‘great person.’” In other words, answers need to be invented closer to the ground than any funder can be.
The Gates Foundation should be applauded for its large, ongoing commitment to the education of our children. Its willingness to invest in evaluation, publish results publicly, and change direction is admirable. Yet there remains a nagging question about accountability. Their leadership, responsible only within the structure of the foundation itself, continues to wield the power of great wealth with little external control. Their investments mirror those of venture capital funds, looking for home runs and willing to accept many strikeouts along the way. But, as we can see from their work in education, their failures aren’t felt just by the Gates Foundation—they can deeply affect children, parents, teachers, and the future of our communities.—Martin Levine