Gates Foundation Needs to Avoid Past Blunders in Future Ed Investment

If the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation can avoid the same mistakes it has made in the past, its latest K–12 reform efforts will be more successful than many of its past education projects, according to a policy memo published by the National Education Policy Center. In "Might the New Gates Education Initiative Close Opportunity Gaps?" Kevin Welner, a professor in the School of Education within the University of Colorado Boulder, suggested that the foundation's "Networks for School Improvement" initiative needs to learn from the work done over the past dozen years.

In a speech Bill Gates made last month, he said the foundation would be targeting $1.7 billion toward four primary areas in public education, including support of networks of schools using data and evidence-based interventions to improve student achievement.

The organization expects to support the work of about 30 networks — groups of schools working together to identify "local problems and solutions" and using "data to drive continuous improvement," particularly in student learning, progress and postsecondary success. That will start with high-needs schools and districts in six to eight states. Each network, Gates said, "will be backed by a team of education experts skilled in continuous improvement, coaching, and data collection and analysis."

"These networks have a beneficial potential," said Welner in a prepared statement, "but their benefits will be limited unless past lessons are taken into account." The policy memo offered examples of several mistakes the foundation has made in earlier K-12 efforts:

  • A reliance on approaches that are heavily top-down with "unrealistically high expectations" and without sufficient "capacity building" in the communities where the work is going on;
  • An "excessive faith" in technology and data, especially in aspects of teacher evaluation forged from test data;
  • A similar extreme reliance on choice and markets, particularly where it involves charter school investments that rely on charter management organizations (CMOs); and
  • Insufficient attention to outside-school obstacles to students' opportunities to learn, such as poverty and racism.

Welner recommended that the foundation heed lessons learned from its previous work:

  • To be cautious of being able to accomplish systemic change single-handedly. While an isolated school may be able to "beat the odds and offer rich opportunities to learn," accomplishing the same on a larger scale requires "improving those odds." That will take "unified efforts among people of good will, inside and outside our formal educational institutions."
  • To ground reform in the "authentic voices of parents, organizers, students and teachers" in the affected communities.

"Our educational system is worthy of the new investment, if that investment is wise," wrote Welner. "Human progress is not a straight line. But we can learn from the past and plan for success."

Welner's report is available on the NEPC website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.