The ROI on $5B

Over at The Wall Street Journal this weekend, Jason L. Riley provides an interesting write-up of his interview with Bill Gates.  The lead question was whether the $5 billion spent to date by the Gates Foundation on education reform in the United States was worth it.

In the piece, Gates reflects on how little influence such donations can have on our education culture, while touting the Foundation’s commitment to innovation and to new looks at human capital (some of its current investments).  He spoke of the need to better engage teachers in the process and of the Common Core key to both excellence and equity in public education.
Yes, the piece provides a decent snapshot of the Foundation’s successes to date (as well as some of its missteps), but it still doesn’t answer that $5 billion question — was it worth it?
About three and a half years ago, Eduflack wrote a blog post on how we effectively fix the American high school.  Within that February 2008 musing, I asked if Gates might be better served by scrapping its plans to invest in this and that along the edges, and instead go all in in a few places, essentially building Gates school districts that could start from scratch, build a better mousetrap, and not be wedded to the issues that have dogged struggling districts for decades.  I wrote:

Instead of renovating our existing high schools, what if Gates were to build an entirely new model?  Over the past five years, Gates has learned a great deal about how, and how not, to run an effective high school.  They understand the curriculum and the need for multiple academic pathways.  They understand school structure.  They are starting to get into the HR game, focusing on the teachers that are needed to lead such classrooms.  They are quickly assembling all of the pieces.  Now we move to that bold and audacious act.

What if the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were to take its money and build new high schools in our top 25 urban districts?  State-of-the-art buildings. Technology.  Rigorous and relevant curriculum.  Public-private partnerships.  Relevant professional development for the teachers.  Common educational standards measured across all Gates schools.  Open enrollment for all those seeking a better high school experience.  And the power of the Gates Foundation behind it.

And let’s get even bolder.  A system of public high schools managed by the Gates Foundation.  All in major cities across the nation.  All with high standards for its teachers.  All working from a common school design, a common curriculum, and common assessment that, over time, could be replicated in district after district across the nation.

So as Bill Gates, the Foundation, and the Wall Street Journal ponders the ROI to date and whether it is $5B well spent, I again raise the question.  What if the Gates Foundation were to build a system of public high schools, based on the principles Gates is trying to spread through its current giving?  What if instead of trying to renovate our existing struggling schools, we tore down and built new?  What if?

The points I made three years ago still hold true today.  And they are still questions and issues in demand of real answers.

6 thoughts on “The ROI on $5B

  1. Hi Patrick,Actually, the Gates Foundation did support a system-wide reform in NYC that resulted in the creation of scores of new small schools within the public system. MDRC’s random assignment study (released last June) found that students who attended these schools were nearly 7 percentage points more likely to graduate than students who wanted to attend but were assigned to another school. Most of the increase was driven by the more-demanding Regents diplomas. Students were also more likely to pass the English Regents exam with a score that would exempt them from remedial classes at CUNY.The reform effort was a collaboration of the city department of ed, a consortium of philanthropies (led by Gates), the teachers and principals unions, nonprofit intermediaries, and community groups.It was rooted in the small schools movement, but it went further. The city closed more than 20 large, low-performing high schools. The schools they created in their place were more than just small. They were authorized through a competitive proposal process that was designed to encourage and enable a range of on-the-groundstakeholders with innovative ideas — from educators to school reform intermediary organizations — to start new schools. The result was an emphasis on features that offered supportto disadvantaged and traditionally underserved students, such as reduced teacher load and common planning time as a way to ensure that all students were known well and to promote strong, sustained relationships between students and faculty. Each small school also received start-up funding as well as assistance and policy support from the district and other key players to facilitate leadership development, hiring, and implementation. Here’s a link to our study: While the results are encouraging (and we’ll continue to follow the students in the sample), there’s still a long way to go in making sure that all students benefit.Sorry for the long post!Best,JohnJohn HutchinsMDRC Communications Director

  2. John,
    Thanks for sharing the report.
    I do think the approach should be extended to more educational directions. The Gates Foundation is not the first but one of the most impressive initiative in this sphere.

  3. John, it’s very easy to destroy everything and build it from the ground up. However, it’s so much harder to upgrade the current system without making any harm to the students, teachers, etc.Therefore, I think Gates is write when saying that even 5 billions is not enough.

  4. I totally support the idea of school reforming. The latest research shows that standards of education in the US getting worse each year. That leads to the situation where we have to invite specialists from the other countries and become dependent on them.
    In addition, it’s not only about specialists, it’s also about the whole country’s intelligence level.

  5. I totally support the reforming idea, because it’s a question of the country’s intelligence level. And as its known, according to the latest research this level decreases every year.We have to invite international specialists what make us dependent on them.

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