Gates 2.0

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation summoned 130 or so education heavies (many of them grantees) to Seattle this week to attend the foundation's gala unveiling of its long-awaited education strategy, the culmination of an intense rethinking process spearheaded by new education director Vicki Phillips. Bill and Melinda took part themselves--and graciously treated attendees to a well-fed evening at their fabulous home.

There's much to like in the new plan, beginning with the foundation's confession that version 1.0, focused on creation of small high schools, didn't turn out very well, save for several networks of high-performance charters such as KIPP,  Yes-Prep, and Achievement First.

Version 2.0 continues the Gates emphasis on successful high-school completion and college-readiness for disadvantaged young people and adds a parallel thrust toward college completion. It features laudable--and measurable--targets for both. It includes welcome attention to developing national standards and tests, markedly strengthening education data (stay tuned for Fordham's own contribution on that front next week), enhancing research into "what works," accelerating the development and use of education technology, and strengthening teachers across multiple fronts. Incorporated therein is piloting of performance-related pay and tenure systems.

Two cheers are surely deserved. It's too early to know, however, whether a third is warranted. For what was emphasized in Seattle, and in the materials released so far, is mostly an educator's (and student's) version of education reform, not a parent's, taxpayer's, or policymaker's version. Indeed, the word "parent" scarcely appears, nor "choice," "charter," or "governance," nor much by way of politics, policy, or finance. Though Version 2.0 includes a few controversial items--national standards and performance pay foremost among them--it's generally non-confrontational and educator-pleasing, even teacher-centric. (It seemed particularly odd, given the praise lavished on KIPP et al., to find no mention in the documents of building more high-quality charter networks or the policy surroundings and human-capital arrangements in which these can flourish.)

True, not even mega-bucks Gates can attend to everything that aches in the K-12 (and now also postsecondary) sphere, and focus is a good thing. Yet surely the Foundation could move more swiftly toward its ambitious goals if it also paid close attention to the political and policy environments within which they are plausible--and if it made shrewd use of public pressure, competitive forces, alternative delivery systems, and its own financial clout. Why not, for example, stipulate that future grants will only be made in states that permit student results to be linked to teacher evaluations--now barred by New York and California, among others--and that give kids the right to exit dreadful schools for better ones? Why not insist on longitudinal data systems and the embrace of common standards and tests before anybody gets another Gates penny? You want our money; you create the policy conditions within which we believe success is likely. 

Any such hard-ball moves would lead to grousing--and it's the rare philanthropist who doesn't prefer to be thanked than denounced--but deploying a few sticks along with the carrots produces faster and more durable results. American K-12 education has an infinite capacity to absorb money, even to go through the motions of doing what the donor wants--so long as the outside money lasts. Building lasting change into the system, however, is a very different proposition. It only happens when laws, policies, and ingrained practices change. Unlike other foundations, Gates is spending enough in this area--several top staffers will have grant budgets in the hundreds of millions--to induce policy shifts if it's forceful with requirements; yet not even Gates has enough money to bring about large and lasting changes just by being generous.

That's one lesson to be drawn from the Annenberg precedent and from parts of Gates 1.0 itself. There were signs, though, that Foundation leaders may be drawing a more questionable conclusion from their earlier experience.

Bill Gates said this on Tuesday: "To be successful, a redesign requires changing the roles and responsibilities of adults, and changing the school's culture. It's clear that you can't dramatically increase college readiness by changing only the size and structure of the school."

He was, of course, admitting that the Foundation's high-profile "small schools" initiative hadn't paid off in terms of changed outcomes--and he and his team deserve plaudits for acknowledging this. But if that realization is leading his team to shun "structural" reforms in favor of classroom-level changes only--reconstructing "the learning partnership between teacher and student" as their new materials put it--they're apt to end up disappointed once again. It's true that "changing only the size and structure of the school" (my emphasis) doesn't get the job done. But neither does changing only what teachers do. The "partnership" that Gates wants to alter operates within a dense, tight net of rules, laws, contracts, bureaucratic structures, habits, licensure requirements, training regimens, HR systems, and a hundred other factors best described as policy and structure. The new Gates strategy seems to presuppose that they'll continue working on that stuff, too. But they don't say how--or how much money or elbow grease it will get. And I wonder if they're prepared for the conflict and pushback that invariably accompany any effort to disrupt the established regime.

The teacher union chieftains were polite in Seattle but they won't stay that way if the Foundation does battle with their interests. Neither, for that matter, will affluent parents and others well-served by the present system. Does Gates have the intestinal fortitude for such conflict?

Yes, the strategy contains an "advocacy" strand (and some very able people in charge of it), and it was said from the podium that "we will continue to support structural change." But you'll find scant mention of this in their documents and it appears that their internal budget allocations will treat the "helpers" more generously than the "disrupters."

Disruption per se isn't the point, of course. Durable change in outcomes is the point. Achieving "transformational results for students" is the Foundation's stated and thoroughly laudable goal. But Gates seems to be wagering most of its domestic K-12 billions on improving the teacher-student "learning partnership." That's a mighty risky road to transformation, a slippery, muddy cliff-side passage that is prone to rockslides and earthquakes and that vehicles slide right off unless the engineering is very smart and the guardrails very sturdy. Nobody should doubt the smarts of those leading the Gates education program. But you may want to withhold your third cheer for their new strategy until it becomes clear whether the policy guardrails are strong enough this time to keep them from tumbling down.  

A version of this piece appeared this morning on Forbes.com.

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