Bill Gates's college tour
Bill Gates spent the last three days on what he calls his “College Tour” of 2010, traveling to talk to students about how our best minds can work to fix the world’s biggest problems, including education.
He started at the University of California at Berkeley and then went to Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and, Wednesday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, from which he famously dropped out before founding Microsoft. He might have called this his “Elite College Tour”; only schools wth single-digit acceptance rates were on this visit.
Gates urged students to set their sights on solving the world's most difficult problems, including reducing poverty around the world and fixing urban education in the United States.
He told Berkeley students when he kicked off the tour: "How possible is it that we could be having this same intense conversation about how to make a teacher better [instead of talking about politics or March Madness]? Are the brightest minds working on the hardest problems? I think the answer is probably not."
But even our smartest minds can lead us down the wrong path, as Gates has with education reform.
For the record, Bill Gates has committed billions of dollars through the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to help reform public education, selecting initiatives that he thinks have the best chance of success. [Disclosure: Melinda French Gates is a member of the Board of Directors of The Washington Post Co.]
The foundation has funded a long list of projects, some of which have been useful. But some of the biggest investments were wasted.
His foundation, for example, donated $2 billion from 2000 to 2009 to reform high schools and improve graduation rates of minority students. Most of the money was used to create small schools out of large institutions on the theory that kids would perform better in more intimate settings where they could receive more teacher attention.
Small schools were the silver bullet Gates thought would transform secondary education.
In fact, he declared traditional high schools "obsolete."
He was wrong. Gates, who retired as the chief of Microsoft in 2008, and who now runs the Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropy, later conceded as much, saying that most of the money did not come close to accomplishing its goals, and much was wasted.
“Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way,” he wrote in his 2009 annual report about the foundation's workings, excerpts of which were published in the Washington Post.
He said, further, that schools that did not succeed were not bold enough in their reforms. He didn't say that perhaps the theory that small schools were the answer to the problems in city schools was flawed.
Now Gates is aligning himself with reform initiatives championed by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. In fact, Gates helped out their $4 billion Race to the Top competition, which asks states to vie for federal education dollars by submitting proposals that include reforms Duncan favors. The foundation gave as much as $250,000 to each of 15 states so they could hire consultants to write their applications.
The initiatives that Duncan favors include the expansion of charter schools and judging teachers in part by how their students do on standardized tests. Much of the research on charter schools shows that they do no better than regular public schools with student achievement, and there is no evidence at all that linking teacher pay to test scores helps teachers improve.
Gates has recently made major investments in areas that are important to Duncan: How to evaluate teacher effectiveness, how teachers should be paid, teacher tenure systems and training and mentoring. Late last year the foundation awarded $335 million to three school systems and some charter schools to experiment with these issues.
Once again, it sounds like Gates is looking for a silver bullet. He apparently hasn't learned that there isn't one to find. Education is more complicated than that. By throwing money at initiatives that are the currency of the day but aren't based in substantive research or experience, Gates helps push reform down the wrong path. Again.
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| April 22, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Tags: Bill Gates, Bill Gates and college tour, gates foundation, gates foundation and education reform
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