Bill and Melinda Gates look toward each other and smile while being interviewed in Kirkland in February 2019. The couple, whose foundation has the largest endowment in the world, are pushing back against a new wave of criticism about whether billionaire philanthropy is a force for good. They said they’re not fazed by recent blowback against wealthy giving, including viral moments at the World Economic Forum and the shifting political conversation about taxes and socialism. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Bill and Melinda Gates look toward each other and smile while being interviewed in Kirkland in February 2019. The couple, whose foundation has the largest endowment in the world, are pushing back against a new wave of criticism about whether billionaire philanthropy is a force for good. They said they’re not fazed by recent blowback against wealthy giving, including viral moments at the World Economic Forum and the shifting political conversation about taxes and socialism. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Viewpoints: Has the Gateses’ money made difference in schools?

Bill and Melinda Gates are skeptical of philanthropists’ classroom reforms; just not of their money.

By Valerie Strauss / The Washington Post

You won’t believe what Bill and Melinda Gates are saying makes them “skeptical.”

For years, they have spent a fortune trying to shape public education policy, successfully leveraging public funding to support their projects, but never having the kind of academic success they had hoped for. That never stopped them from continuing to fund pet projects.

Now, in the newly released 2020 annual letter of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates says that lack of success is no reason to “give up,” and then, she says this:

“We certainly understand why many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy. Frankly, we are, too. Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers and community leaders.”

She seems to be attempting to make a distinction between a billionaire personally “designing classroom innovations or setting education policy,” and a billionaire pouring so much money into existing ideas and projects they like that it has the effect of shaping public policy. The couple’s investments in public projects are so huge that public money invariably follows, and, thus, it is that their pet projects get implemented.

But such a distinction is lost on, say, a teacher who is evaluated through a badly flawed assessment system that exists because the Gateses funded it. That teacher doesn’t care if Bill and Melinda Gates sat down and designed it themselves or, rather, chose to ignore the advice of assessment experts who had warned against it.

In their 2020 annual letter, the two take turns talking about their unprecedented philanthropy in health projects around the world and education reform in the United States. They are among the most generous philanthropists on the planet, spending more on global health than many countries, and more on U.S. education reform by far than any of the other wealthy people who are making K-12 a cause.

Yet over the years, while they have certainly funded worthwhile projects, questions have been raised about the power they have to dictate social policy because of their enormous investments, as well as whether the targets of some of their philanthropy are the most deserving of attention. Why should unelected private individuals, critics ask, have a say about public policy just because they are rich?

In education, the Gateses have spent several billion dollars on pet projects — for example, the Common Core State Standards, which evaluated teachers by standardized test scores among other things, and small schools — and in the process, have leveraged public money in support of their efforts. But, the Gateses have admitted that school reform is harder than they thought, and none of their efforts have worked as they had hoped. Critics go further, charging that some of their projects have harmed public schools because they were unworkable from the start and consumed resources that could have been better spent.

In their letter, the Gateses discuss the difficulty in implementing widespread school reform. Melinda Gates said:

“The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though. Just the opposite. We believe the risk of not doing everything we can to help students reach their full potential is much, much greater.”

She doesn’t acknowledge the big disagreements over how to help students reach their full potential, a national debate in which they have played a starring role for years.

The Gates Foundation began its first big effort in education reform two decades ago with what it said was a $650 million investment to break large failing high schools into small schools, on the theory that small schools worked better than large ones. Some do, and some don’t, but Bill Gates declared in 2009 that it hadn’t worked the way he had expected (with some experts saying the Gateses had ignored fundamental pieces of the project).

The next project for the foundation was funding the development, implementation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards, which were supported by the Obama administration. One piece of that was evaluating teachers by student test scores, which assessment experts had repeatedly warned against. Gates and the Obama administration pursued it anyway. By 2013, Bill Gates conceded that it hadn’t gone as he had expected, and a 2018 report concluded that the teacher evaluation project had failed to achieve its goal of improving student achievement in any significant way.

In the 2020 letter, Bill Gates acknowledges that there are no single education reform solutions that will work in every school. He said:

“Rather than focus on one-size-fits-all solutions, our foundation wants to create opportunities for schools to learn from each other. What worked at North-Grand won’t work everywhere. That’s why it’s important that other schools in other networks share their success stories, too.”

In a New York Times interview last year, Melinda Gates actually said that she and her husband do not have “outsize influence” in public education. When reporter David Marchese said, “certainly you have more influence than, say, a group of parents,” Gates replied, “Not necessarily.” Yes, she said that their fortune and ability to fund anything they want doesn’t give them “outsize influence.”

In the 2020 letter, the Gateses said some of their education initiatives have worked well, including the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which provided full college scholarships to 20,000 students of color. Melinda Gates said:

“Although these scholarships made a huge difference in the lives of those 20,000 students, the reality is that tens of millions of other students passed through U.S. public schools during the 16 years we granted scholarships. That means we reached only a tiny percentage of them. Our goal is to help make a huge difference for all U.S. students, so we’ve pivoted most of our work from scholarships to areas that can have more impact for more students.”

Valerie Strauss is an education writer who writes The Post’s Answer Sheet blog. She came to The Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. She also previously worked at UPI and the L.A. Times.

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