The new Gates strategy: Evolution, not revolution (for better and for worse)

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It’s understandable that my friend Rick Hess would tell the Washington Post that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s approach to K–12 education has been all over the map, that “it feels like they have pivoted through a number of strategies over the last decade or two.” At first blush, he’s right. Once it was small schools, then Common Core, and now “school networks” are the Next Big Thing.

But that take on Gates is not quite right, or fair, because it misses what hasn’t changed, which is as important as what has. Namely, the conviction of Bill and Melinda Gates, as well as Warren Buffett, that education is still a sturdy path to opportunity for poor and minority children. In their words, “a great K–12 education and a college degree or job-training credential is a bridge to opportunity like no other when it comes to good jobs and career paths, and personal growth and fulfillment.”

This might sound banal, or even clichéd, but if you’ve been paying attention you know that these sentiments are no longer taken for granted. The populist uprising that is destabilizing democracies throughout the West is driven by a fear—on both left and right—that “opportunity” is a mirage. The game is fixed; the elites are hoarding opportunity; systemic racism is keeping the power structure in place; the immigrants, or the robots, are taking all of the jobs. Such dystopian views have gone mainstream. Yet in the face of that, and to their great credit, Bill and Melinda and Warren declare: We are still optimistic. We still believe in opportunity. And education remains the key to a better life.

This is important. And in this light they can be viewed as focused, even resolute.

There’s another way that the Gates approach hasn’t changed—but this is for worse instead of for better. It’s their belief that what ails American schools isn’t a dearth of motivation to improve but not enough knowhow. While some think public education doesn’t operate under the right incentives and is too captured by vested interests, the Gates approach seems to assume that it mostly lacks capacity. This, I would argue, is where their optimism goes overboard.

Their focus on capacity-building isn’t new, however. The Common Core project, for Gates, was an effort to help inform classroom practice with the best evidence about what kids need to learn to be successful. The Measures of Effective Teaching initiative was meant to identify great teachers and help improve teaching techniques. Their support for “next generation learning” models was an attempt to help teachers differentiate instruction. And so it goes with their future investment plans: networks to help schools identify and implement evidence-based practices; collaboratives to help improve teacher preparation programs; stronger curricula aligned to college-and-career ready standards; support for “pathways” to postsecondary success, including high-quality CTE; research on personalized learning.

This is all well and good. I’m particularly enthusiastic about a big bet on curriculum, which, as my colleague Robert Pondiscio points out, is finally having its time in the sun.

But all of this assumes that what our schools most need is help. Better tools, better data, more support. What if help is necessary but not sufficient? What if what many of our schools really need is a swift kick in the ass?

What if lots of school board members and superintendents and central office staff and principals and teachers don’t really want to change? I mean, sure, they want to improve as much as the next guy or gal, but not if it means dealing with conflict, telling someone they are bad at their job, canceling a textbook contract, or heaven forbid denying a teacher tenure. What if the reason that teacher evaluation reform was so disappointing—with 98 percent of teachers still rated effective—was because we misdiagnosed the problem? It isn’t a technocratic issue—principals not having the training or tools to provide good feedback to teachers. It’s a political problem—principals don’t want to give negative feedback to teachers they have to live with because they can’t get rid of them.

Those sorts of barriers to better schooling for kids are the rai·son d'ê·tre of much of what we call education reform. It’s why so many of us believe that we can’t just leave “the system” to its own devices or plow more money or knowhow into it and expect better results. It’s why so many of us still support school choice—yes, partly to empower parents and allow schools to innovate and differentiate, but also to create market incentives that drive schools of all stripes to get better. And it’s why many of us have supported “top down” accountability efforts over the past twenty years—to put pressure on school systems to put the needs of kids first and to make the tough decisions they might otherwise avoid.

Of course we can and should seek every possible opportunity to help schools improve, by identifying evidence-based interventions and promoting standards-aligned curricula and creating personalized learning platforms and all the rest. And that can do a lot of good for school districts and charter management organizations that are already committed to getting better.

But in most of America we also need to keep up the pressure on the system. Competition from charters and other schools of choice is one proven way to do that, so continuing to grow alternatives to traditional public schools should remain at the top of our priority list. The same goes for combining the sunshine from state accountability reports with some heat and thunder from grassroots parent organizations to force systems to change, as reformers in the Bay Area are trying.

Those strategies are controversial, though. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, surely tired of being unfairly called haters of public schools, now want to be known as helpers instead. Fine. Mostly I’m glad they haven’t given up on the American dream and education’s essential role in helping more young people achieve it. And I look forward to working with them on important endeavors like improving the curricula used in schools nationwide. But the rest of us need to remain committed to pushing the system—which is the only way, I believe, that the Gates’s capacity-building initiatives have a shot at paying off.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.