Good Intentions: Making High-Profile Education Donations Better – Part 2

This is the next installment of a paper I wrote this fall. It’s 20 pages long so I’m posting it in pieces for anyone who would like to read it (though credit this site if you find it compelling and want to use it). The introduction is here. Part 1 is here. Below you’ll find part 2.

Bill and Melinda Gates have operated differently from Zuckerberg, over a much longer period, and on a larger scale. Among numerous other grants, the Gates Foundation made two particularly notable reform efforts. The first of these two high-profile donations, the Small Schools Initiative, is generally seen as a $2 billion failure, although there are contrasting opinions on this. The concept of creating smaller schools is not a bad idea, just as some of the reforms pushed in Newark were admirable in intent if not execution. Nevertheless, Gates himself acknowledges disappointment.

In the Gates Foundation’s 2009 annual letter, Gates admits, “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way” (Gates, 2009, p. 11). It is unusual for successful individuals to acknowledge what seems like failure, but the letter is written in a way that shifts the blame to an interesting place. The letter continues:

These tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum. We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school. Even so, many schools had higher attendance and graduation rates than their peers. While we were pleased with these improvements, we are trying to raise college-ready graduation rates, and in most cases, we fell short.

But a few of the schools that we funded achieved something amazing. They replaced schools with low expectations and low results with ones that have high expectations and high results. These schools are not selective in whom they admit, and they are overwhelmingly serving kids in poor areas, most of whose parents did not go to college. Almost all of these schools are charter schools that have significantly longer school days than other schools. (Gates, 2009, p. 11)

Here we can see similar themes to what transpired a few years later in Newark. The Gates Foundation attempted to take admittedly “radical” steps to change existing public schools, and when they were met with resistance, they created new charter schools under their control and were able to improve student outcomes.

The only real difference between Zuckerberg and Gates here is that Zuckerberg had state leaders on hand to force a significant change in district teachers’ contracts and buy out underperforming teachers, but the process was quite similar: decide to save a community’s public school students without seeking leadership from within said community; watch as community resists reform; create new charter schools and point to relatively positive results therein while district schools continue to falter. Gates goes on to write, “I have had a chance to spend time at a number of these schools, including High Tech High in San Diego and the Knowledge Is Power Program, or ‘KIPP,’ in Houston. There is a wonderful new book out about KIPP called Work Hard. Be Nice., by the education reporter Jay Mathews. It’s an inspiring look at how KIPP has accomplished these amazing results and the barriers they faced” (Gates, 2009, p. 11). KIPP’s results are indeed very positive, but as a particularly prominent member of the education-industrial complex (Picciano & Spring, 2013), it is fair to wonder if the true beneficiaries of KIPP’s success are the students or the corporate entities involved.

Gates’s letter suggests he was surprised that his interventions were not welcomed with open arms. I can only speculate as to how authentic this surprise is, but perhaps transcendent corporate success does not adqueately prepare someone for educational leadership. No matter how smart these men are, they seem to lack the foresight to anticipate that their prior and concurrent success is not an automatically transferable skill for instructional leadership. A cynical part of me wonders if these individuals not only expect but want the resistance they receive from these communities so they can give up and move onto their real plan of proliferating charters, but I continue to insist upon believing in the goodwill of these high-profile donors, for if they are focused solely on profit, the recommendations that will conclude this essay will be for nought, and so will much of our work.

A second notable Gates Foundation reform effort was the $215 million dollars they gave to three separate school districts, in Hillsborough County, FL, Memphis, TN, and Pittsburgh, PA. Their goal with this initiative was to measure teacher effectiveness through test scores and peer evaluation. More specifically, they sought out to uplift what they referred to as “low-income minority (LIM)” students, as they considered these to be the most vulnerable groups. As the Washington Post noted, “Four charter management organizations also were involved: Alliance College-Ready Public Schools; Aspire Public Schools; Green Dot Public Schools; and Partnerships to Uplift Communities Schools” (Strauss, 2018). Again, not all charters are damaging, but charter management organizations subsist on the expansion of their school networks (Picciano & Spring, 2013), and it is reasonable to speculate on whether their true goal is enriching themselves or their students. Nevertheless, their marketing is dependent on actual student achievement, and if their results were positive, they would be hard to dispute.

According to a RAND corporation report, however, the results were, like those in Newark, neutral at best.

Overall, the initiative did not achieve its stated goals for students, particularly LIM [low-income minority] students. By the end of 2014-2015, student outcomes were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not participate in the IP [Intensive Partnerships] initiative. Furthermore, in the sites where these analyses could be conducted, we did not find improvement in the effectiveness of newly hired teachers relative to experienced teachers; we found very few instances of improvement in the effectiveness of the teaching force overall; we found no evidence that LIM students had greater access than non-LIM students to effective teaching; and we found no increase in the retention of effective teachers, although we did find declines in the retention of ineffective teachers in most sites. (Rand Corporation, 2018)

The lengthy report chronicles a series of interventions and innovations that did little to improve the prospects of the very students the Gates Foundation was targeting. And these reforms cost more in aggregate than those in Newark, with the $215 million supplemented by $360 million in matching funds from outside groups. Unlike Zuckerberg, the Gates Foundation would not be able to say they were novice education philanthropists, yet their results were hardly more impressive. And yes, the Gates Foundation has made plenty of other small- and large-scale investments in education – these represent just a few examples – but it is clear to me that, despite their relative experience and expertise, they made many of the same mistakes that Zuckerberg did.

These megadonors based their intervention on an unproven theory – that students would be unequivocally better off in new situations – and relied on external stakeholders whose interests may have been compromised, or even at odds with their own. I continue to believe, perhaps against my better judgment, that Gates and Zuckerberg really did and do want to help these children. And I believe that the best marketing tool for such donations would be marked and sustained improvement in student and family outcomes, which has yet to occur. In my view, the problem remains that they continue to approach these issues from the wrong direction: they try to save the children and families of these districts by shielding them from their own environments rather than helping those environments grow and thrive. As we read about more of these donations and their success or lack thereof, I suspect this theme will recur.