Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Admits Mistakes in Education Reform Endeavors

Last week, the CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Sue Desmond-Hellman, released a letter detailing the Foundation’s progress in three major areas that the Foundation has been focused on in the last year – tobacco control, sleeping sickness and U.S. education reform. Following inspiring updates on the successful reduction of tobacco use in the Philippines and the dramatic reduction in the number of reported cases of sleeping sickness disease in Uganda, the Foundation reported that tackling reform of the public education system back home in the U.S. has been more difficult than anticipated.

The Gates Foundation has been a longtime supporter and advocate for adoption of the Common Core, which is an initiative that seeks to make school districts’ curriculum uniform across the nation in math and English with standards set for each grade from K-12 designed to ensure that high school graduates are prepared for post-secondary education or for entry into the workforce. The Foundation first noted that some real progress has been seen in college readiness for high school students. For example, in Kentucky—which was the first state to implement Common Core—the percentage of high school students ready for college as measured by four ACT benchmarks improved from 27 percent to 33 percent. However, the Foundation acknowledged that it made some significant errors in not adequately engaging teachers as well as parents and communities prior to adoption of the new system, and not supporting the implementation with more resources—both of which would have made the transition to Common Core a lot smoother for districts and students. The letter makes it clear that these missteps have been a learning opportunity for the Foundation and that although the Foundation does not have all the answers in education reform, it refuses to give up working on the issue. As Desmond-Hellman wrote:

Our learning journey in U.S. education is far from over, but we are in it for the long haul. I’m optimistic that the lessons we learn from our partners – and, crucially, from educators – will help the American school system once again become the powerful engine of equity we all believe it should be.

Although many applaud the Foundation’s honesty about its shortcomings in how it tackled system-wide educational reform, the Los Angeles Times editorial board did not. In a scathing editorial dated June 1, 2016, entitled “Gates Foundation failures show philanthropists shouldn’t be setting America’s public school agenda” the Foundation’s efforts to reform the U.S. public school system were analyzed and critiqued going back as far as 1999. The editorial stated that the Gates Foundation’s decision to push smaller school sizes in order to boost student performance was an utter failure that ended up leaving school districts holding the bag with the smaller schools, which were more expensive to run, when the Foundation moved on to try something new. Next up was a new form of incentive-based teacher compensation in Florida that ballooned in cost and was quickly abandoned by the Foundation when it was proven that least-experienced teachers still ended up at the lower income schools despite incentive pay. Again the school district was left with the tab for paying the promised teacher bonuses, when the Foundation abandoned the program.

In the end, the editorial makes the point that there are no silver bullets in solving the issues facing the nation’s public schools and that the Gates Foundation has taken on an “unhealthy amount of power in the setting of education policy.” Whether or not this opinion has merit, one thing is for sure: the Foundation, which prides itself on evolving and course correcting in response to evidence of what works and what does not, has had ample opportunity to learn from its foray into setting the policy agenda for reforming America’s public schools.

To read more about the Common Core State Standards Initiative, click here.

To access the LA Times editorial “Gates Foundation failures show philanthropists shouldn’t be setting America’s public school agenda,” click here.

To read Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellman’s 2016 letter, including the section entitled “Lessons in US Education,” click here.

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