Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

October 19, 2017; Washington Post and Education Week

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Bill Gates might have muttered these words to himself as he took the podium last Thursday to address the Council of Great City Schools. Since 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested heavily in the search for a way to make sure “all children in America…get a great education.” They have used immense resources to push new educational strategies into our children’s schools, found they did not work or could not be scaled up, abandoned them, and moved blithely on to the next experiment. Now, it’s time to move on again.

Valerie Strauss described the Foundation’s approach in a recent Washington Post column: “Gates is an innovator, and innovators like to try things and move on if something doesn’t work. In business, that can work well, but it is hard to negotiate in education, where children are the focus and experimentation can be difficult and result in unintended consequences that can be harmful.” Previous efforts have included “small schools,” new data-driven teacher evaluation systems, the Common Core curriculum, and charter schools.

Gates describes this new effort, which involves a five-year commitment to put $1.7 billion into public schools, as growing from the lessons learned from 17 years of experimenting with American education, both successes and failures.

“Over time,” Gates says, “we realized that what made the most successful schools successful—large or small—was their teachers, their relationships with students, and their high expectations of student achievement.”

Based on this finding, the foundation’s new strategy will look for improvement coming from “locally-driven solutions identified by networks of schools.” The Gates Foundation’s resources will “support their efforts to use data-driven continuous learning and evidence-based interventions to improve student achievement…about 60 percent of this will eventually support the development of new curricula and networks of schools that work together to identify local problems and solutions…and use data to drive continuous improvement.”

In an important shift of emphasis, all but 15 percent of this new investment will be targeted toward traditional public schools.

This leads Strauss to wonder what new “medicine (or poison) he is offering.”

He said most of the new money—about 60 percent—will be used to develop new curriculums and “networks of schools” that work together to identify local problems and solutions, using data to drive “continuous improvement.” He said that over the next several years, about 30 such networks would be supported, though he didn’t describe exactly what they are. The first grants will go to high-needs schools and districts in six to eight states, which went unnamed.

Though there wasn’t a lot of detail on exactly how the money would be spent, Gates, a believer in using big data to solve problems, repeatedly said foundation grants given to schools as part of this new effort would be driven by data. “Each [school] network will be backed by a team of education experts skilled in continuous improvement, coaching and data collection and analysis,” he said, an emphasis that is bound to worry critics already concerned about the amount of student data already collected and the way it is used for high-stakes decisions.

Diane Ravitch asks, “What is he up to? Big data? Common Core? Data mining?” This, as we know, is not at all a stretch. The death within one year of birth of the Gates-funded inBloom, a hundred-million-dollar student data-mining initiative against which parents rebelled and organized, remains a source of wonder for those of us who value the on-the-ground potential of that kind of money.

A major critique of the Foundation’s previous educational initiatives is that they were top-down, imposing the Foundation’s view on schools and ignoring the voices of those closest to the ground. Not all share Ravitch’s view, however. Megan Tompkins-Stange, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan, told Education Week “she was somewhat surprised that Gates said the foundation should serve more as a “catalyst of good ideas than an inventor of ideas.”

To me, it says that he and the Gates Foundation leadership has perhaps listened to some of the criticism of their more top-down, outside expert-driven approach to philanthropy in education. I could not have predicted the new approach they would take would heighten the focus on communities having more autonomy.

While the Foundation may have learned it needs to work more collaboratively with communities and their schools, it’s not clear whether they have learned other lessons that are just as important. First, will they be ready to help their school partners when new programs don’t work out so well? Their business model has been to develop a strategy, fund its beginnings, and then, if it does not meet expectations, cut their losses and move on. But public schools do not move on; they remain responsible for educating the children of their community, and they must be able to recover from those failed efforts.

Partnering with the Gates Foundation isn’t free, either. New educational approaches change the culture of schools. Matching funds are often necessary, and to keep efforts ongoing, sources of continued funding must be found to meet costs after the Foundation’s grant ends. Changes might be needed to state and local laws, too.

What if the educational outcomes are not successful? Will the Gates Foundation stay for the long haul, helping their partners recover so their students are not left to pay the ongoing cost of failure? Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, described his doubts in comments to EdWeek: “Especially in high-need communities, it takes a lot of money and people to sustain change. I continue to hope these are not investments in just one single strand, that if it doesn’t pan out, they move on. Hopefully, they are learning from past efforts to more smartly leverage change.”

It is also not clear whether the Foundation has come to recognize that educational improvement cannot come from changing only what happens inside schools. Poverty and chaotic communities are critical factors in determining how children learn and the futures they will face as adults. In his remarks announcing their new direction, Gates recognizes our schools’ racial disparities.

When disaggregated by race, we see two Americas. One where white students perform along the lines of the best in the world—with achievement comparable to countries like Finland and Korea. And another America, where Black and Latino students perform comparably to the students in the lowest performing OECD countries, such as Chile and Greece.

But there’s no certainty that he connects these outcomes to the persistent, growing economic inequity that is not the result of struggling schools, but one of its causes.

The power of the Gates Foundation is great because our schools are not adequately funded, particularly in those communities facing the greatest challenges. With this power should come a level of responsibility and accountability that has been missing.—Martin Levine