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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 04/22/2010

Bill Gates's college tour

By Valerie Strauss

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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By Valerie Strauss  | 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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But he's like EF Hutton.

Posted by: edlharris | April 22, 2010 8:11 AM | Report abuse

The mega bucks of Bill Gates would be better spent on REAL stuff, like newer microscopes in school labs, lab specimens such as the bigger (more expensive) of the pig fetuses so that students can actually see what they are supposed to see, test tubes, art supplies, sponsoring field trips to museums, etc. He obviously is oblivious to how thin the rubber is on the tires on the wheels of education IN the classroom. Okay, so Obama, Duncan, and Gates are all oblivious!!!!!

Posted by: shadwell1 | April 22, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

1)I think education reform of president Obama and Duncan are going in right direction. After receiving connection salary of teachers with results of standardized exams of their students (first step) Duncan (I hope) will make computerized standardized exams with credible results. The principals need to hire and pay more for excellent results of the teachers and education systems will work correctly.
2) Bill Gates and government support only non-profit education agency's and don't help individuals and profit agency's in the innovations.
3) In my opinion the main idea of future education is a computerized education without teachers. I tried to make first step in this.I created game and site for free "'.Many people use this game,but i don't have any help to create more games and to cover all curriculum's of math.
4) I was one of the best teacher in Russia. I have a title of the best teacher.

Posted by: raykhmist | April 22, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse


Well, you are missing the idea that the American schools double as daycare for working parents.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 22, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Why is it that with so much evidence that standardized tests are poor measures of student achievement Obama, Duncan and Gates are promoting them?

Posted by: resc | April 22, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

Along with daycare it would not bad to teach something, especially math.Perhaps, Curriculum is failing, not the schools. Closing schools is an absurd.

Posted by: raykhmist | April 24, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

The problem with Gates is that he is very aggresive and determined to get his own way. He is a bull in a china shop.

Posted by: aby1 | April 25, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

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