August 31, 2011; Source: Washington Post | Does Harvard need a half million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to re-envision its graduate school of education? As Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post comments, what gives with the richest foundation in the world giving the richest university in the world a grant of this type? Strauss makes mild fun of the gift, which is “to re-imagine the Harvard Graduate School of Education for the future,” questioning Harvard’s need for the grant in light of the institution’s $27 million endowment, and the appropriateness of the Gates Foundation’s growing dominance in the field of education reform.

Gates of course isn’t only funding schools but is also funding media and research programs shaping the dialogue. Strauss writes,

Their unprecedented input has strongly influenced the shape of education reform according to their preferences, effectively giving non-elected private people control of policy directions that should properly be reserved to governmental decision-making bodies. Even if they were investing in sound policy initiatives their role would be questionable, but the direction of the investments is based on nothing in research and is more likely to cause harm. About a decade ago, Gates decided that small schools were the answer to the high school dropout problem, so from 2000 to 2009 he poured in about $2 billion to help reform high schools and improve graduation rates of minority  students—with most of the money going to create small schools out of  large drop-out factories. When standardized test scores didn’t go up, Gates pulled out his money and declared the effort pretty much a failure. It wasn’t entirely, but he moved on, now, to teacher assessment as the answer to troubled schools. Teacher assessment systems in many districts are in dire need of reform, but not the kind that is dominated by standardized test scores.

She then asks the question that is always in our minds. “Do we really want experimenting philanthropists to have a role driving education policy?”—Ruth McCambridge