Can Gates Remake K-12 Education?

Yesterday, Nick Anderson offered up a front-page story in The Washington Post on the influence and impact the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is having on education reform in the United States.  For many, this was not new news (particularly since Libby Quaid and the Associated Press did a similar story about two years ago), but the size and scope was bound to attract attention.  When we start to see the number of grants awarded, the total dollars doled out, and the influential individuals who have moved from Gates into either government or practitioner roles, and you start to see the possibility of the Gates Foundation and education improvement.

But Eduflack is struck by the same thinking that has dogged him for years.  Anderson’s well-written piece portrays the current K-12 public education environment and how the Gates Foundation needs to work within the confines of that system.  It continues to be about refurbishing existing homes, not about tearing down and building new.  And if anything was clear from the Anderson article, it is that Gates is in a position to do it its way, and not simply as we have always done.

So it had Eduflack going back into the archives to look at some past writing.  In March of 2009, I opined on this topic as well, riffing off another WaPo piece, that time from Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, on how Bill Gates could repair our schools.  Rather than reinvent the wheel, let’s look at how smart Eduflack appeared nearly a year and a half ago:

“So who says Gates has to play by the rules and the confines of the current system?  After all, this is a man who released a box full of mosquitoes as an international conference so all could feel the possible threat of malaria.  This is a man who built a global corporate giant out of his garage by refusing to abide by mores and by never hearing the word no.  This is a man who is investing significant wealth into American public education, despite so many people telling him it was a lost cause and he was throwing his money into a pit that will never yield a return.

To date, the Gates Foundation is thinking about the right issues.  School structure.  Teacher training and support.  Rigor and relevance of instruction.  Connections between K-12 and the workforce.  Pay structures that reward success.  Student assessments and standards.  Return on educational investment.  The Foundation has tried to implement these issues in a number of ways, trying pilot projects across the nation, looking for promising practice, and hoping to find real solutions that can be adopted at scale across the United States.
The latter is the most important point for reformers.  How do we adopt proven solutions at scale?  To date, we are tinkering around the edges.  We can point to achievement gap solutions in Ohio, early college successes in the JFF network, and virtual options in Texas, for instance.  These issues have come, in large part, from working within the system, as Gates seeks to supplement existing efforts and provide the funding to do more within the current system, essentially layering potential solutions on top of systems that may well be broken at their core.
More than a year ago, Eduflack reflected on this same issue.  How can Gates get more bang for its buck?  How can it move from tinkering to dropping a brand-new engine into our public schools?  How does it move from supplementing what is broken to supplanting?  How does it use its power, vision, and checkbook to literally build that better mousetrap.
In recent months, Bill Gates has laid out his vision for what our schools need to improve.  That vision is reflected in Hiatt’s piece this morning.  Flexibility in structure, evidenced by a greater need for charter schools.  Flexibility in human capital, evidenced by new formulas for training, hiring, and rewarding teachers.  Strong standards by which all students are measured, ensuring all students are embracing both the relevance and rigor of 21st century education.  And an unwavering commitment to success, whereby dropout factories are a thing of the past and dropping out is viable option for no student and no family.
So it has me back to my original thinking.  Forget about supporting existing school districts and trying to layer new programs on top of old, failed efforts.  Now is the time for Gates to be bold and different.  Now is the time for the Gates Foundation to chart a different course.  Now is the time for Gates to reject the status quo, and chart a completely new path for K-12 education in the United States.
It is a simple one.  Gates needs to get in the business of empire building.  Instead of investing in urban school districts and trying to overcome decades of problems that have become ingrained on the schools’ DNA, Gates needs to begin building alternative school districts.  That’s right.  Forget charter schools, we need charter districts.  If the current model is broken, as Gates claims, the answer is not to fix.  The true answer is to create a better one.  Move into an urban center and set up a K-12 charter district.  Determine the most effective, research-proven curriculum.  Train, hire, and support the best teachers.  Reward those teachers properly.  Apply strong standards to every student, accepting no excuses and demanding proficiency and success from all.  Better align our elementary, middle, and secondary school programs.  Engage students early on, so they see the relevance of their academic pursuits.  Offer internships and externships so all students see the career opportunities before them.  Build the buildings, implement the learning structures, acquire the technology and learning materials, and do what is necessary to get us to success.  No boundaries to prevent us from doing what is necessary.  No excuses to fall back on.  
These new school districts can build on the successes of Gates programs to date.  They can take the best of Early College High Schools, of the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative, and of Green Dot Schools.  They can also build on the efforts of KIPP and Teach for America and even from school districts like NYC that are truly thinking outside the box.  They can borrow and steal from the very best in school reform, community engagement, corporate innovation, and some of the news ways of thinking coming from small, nimble not-for-profits.
Then take this new system and provide families the choice.  Those who wish to remain in the traditional school district that has served their family for generations can do so.  Those who are seeking new options, those who are seeking new opportunities, those seeking more choice can opt for the Gates route.  It is about providing options and choice.  If implemented properly, such choices not only offer a strong Gates model, but the competition forces traditional school districts to act differently, improve, and meet the demands of their current customers — the families.  If done well, the rising Gates tide would lift all schools — traditional publics, charters, and privates alike.
I know what many are thinking — what an absolutely ridiculous idea.  Funders don’t do such a thing.  They provide resources to support the current infrastructure. They fund new projects and new ideas.  They supplement, they don’t compete.  Yes, that may have been the way we have traditionally worked, but does it need to be that way?  Do philanthropies need to simply serve as advisors, consultants, and checkbooks, or can they get more active?
When Bill Gates built Microsoft, his mature business model was not to simply advise IBM on the operating software they needed.  He determined the status quo — both in terms of hardware and software — weren’t cutting it.  He tried working as part of that system, and it just didn’t work.  So he turned the industry on its head, positioning software as the driver in the technology industry.  Microsoft became Microsoft because he offered consumers a choice, and he offered them a better one.  After a while, it was no choice at all.  If one wanted to succeed in business, one had to use Microsoft products.
So why can’t we do the same in education?  Why can’t Gates use its investment to build a better school district?  Take all of those great minds that have been assembled at the foundation, and do it differently and do it better.  From the top down and the bottom up, build a school structure that is both student and teacher focused, geared toward real results, and not beholden to the status quo or the ways we used to do it simply because that is how we used to do it.
Could this path be a complete failure?  Absolutely.  The Foundation could get into the middle of it and find that curriculum selection, teacher training, and CBAs are far more difficult than they ever envisioned.  They could discover that managing buildings or dealing with operational issues is not what they want to do.  They could realize that human capital management is simply too difficult a nut to crack, particularly if they are not in charge of the pre-service education that delivers the teachers to their door.  They could even find that the first or second generation of this experiment is a failure, and they have to keep changing and adapting on the fly to meet goals and deliver on their promises to the community.  And, shudder, they could even find themselves lapsing into models and behaviors far too similar to the school districts they are trying to change and offer an alternative to.
Or it could just work.  Gates could pick a four or five cities, invest significantly in those cities and demonstrate how district-wide change can happen at the city, school, classroom, and student level.  They could identify those best practices that can indeed be replicated at scale in districts throughout the nation.  They can find a way to build better pathways and make real opportunities available to more students in need.  They can truly build a better learning environment, particularly for those who have been dealt a bad hand for far too long.
Let’s face it.  If anyone can do it, Gates can do it.  And at this point of the game, not trying is far worse than the risk of failure.  If the EdSec is going to stake a number of school districts with the funds to Race to the Top, why can’t Gates do the same?  We let ED fund internal improvements designed to improve current districts.  Gates funds the construction of new school districts focused on 21st century needs and expectations.  And we see who provides a better education, and a better ROI.  Let the best model win.”

Doesn’t seem so foolish after all, now does it?

21 thoughts on “Can Gates Remake K-12 Education?

  1. <<< To date, the Gates Foundation is thinking about the right issues. School structure. Teacher training and support. Rigor and relevance of instruction. Connections between K-12 and the workforce. Pay structures that reward success. Student assessments and standards. Return on educational investment. Ummm, you’re kidding, right? One could make a pretty good case that the failure of ed reform over the last 25 years is because we have been thinking about the WRONG issues, and Gates’ work, alas, seems typical of this. All is structure. To the degree we focus on instruction, we concern ourselves merely with what children should be able to do, not what they should know. The skills that children can employ, however, is a direct function of the knowledge they possess. Focusing on structure and demanding accountabilty makes all the sense in the world when there is clarity on educational goals and how to achieve those goals. In their absence, all of Gate’s billions won’t buy an iota of meaningful change.

  2. Wow. I hadn’t read the original entry before. I’m new to the edblog game. As I was reading you talk about Gates’s power, I thought to myself, “Gates should just build entire districts,” and then Boom, you said the same thing. I wholeheartedly agree. He should create systems. It’s what Barr is doing with Green Dot, but with that much capital, he can do it much faster. Barr has said his goal is to destroy LAUSD so that something new has to be built. Essentially, he wants to have a hostile takeover. Gates could do the same thing. I’m going to write about it on my own blog and I’m sure you’ll see the trackback soon.

  3. Maybe it was a panacea to Bill after that blogger on WaPo wrote that article about Bill Gates taking over and “imposing” his will on education by donating money? Did you catch that one?

  4. Robert, it begs a much larger question.  Should philanthropic endeavors to improve the K12 experience be focused on structure or on content?  I would argue the former, as only such interested third-parties are able to really get at substantive changes in structure and culture.

  5. It is near impossible for anyone, even Bill Gates, to take over K12 public education across the United States.  When we look at the billions and billions of dollars spent every year on K12, it is hard for Gates’ billions to have that “imposing his will” sort of impact.  That’s why focusing on a specific district can be so powerful.  It leverages the money in such a way that others can build on those potential successes, seeing they work.

  6. Interesting post, Patrick, and ideas. How does the district model differ from, say, Harlem Children’s Zone, in which kids flow through a K-12 system of charter schools that share a common philosophy? And how would the options and choice model of the districts prevent the same sort of lottery conditions we saw in the new film of the same name? I agree that we need to be more innovative — and I’m wondering how we can accomplish that without reinforcing our current tiered system of schooling with yet one more tier.

  7. I think it’s possible for Gates to do such a thing because without his persistence, we don’t have Microsoft. But it is not Gates alone; it is still the people who want to make it possible. We must not let our future in the hands of only one person. We should work together. If Gates can’t do it, then who in the world can do it. The answer is “our community”.

  8. I’m glad this board is doing the hard work and gather influencers together for active discussion and advocacy of solutions.I have the same thought about why couldn’t Gates use its investment to build a better school district? I mean didn’t warren Buffett donated billions more in funding? Gates can do anything he wants just to be able to help education advancement.

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