Bill Gates has given some $28 billion, though the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to help fix the world’s problems. He’s tackled global poverty, agricultural development, disaster relief, and combatting AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, with notable success. But there have also been some big failures.

One of the biggest problems, he said, has been trying to fix American education. Maybe it’s time to consider why that’s so difficult for him. According to an Associated Press piece :

Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates says eradicating malaria, tuberculosis and polio is easier than fixing the United States’ education system.

Gates talked about his foundation’s work improving and distributing vaccines across the world. But he says making advances in education is the foundation’s hardest challenge.” You name it, we have been passed by,” Gates said of the country’s math and science programs. New technology to engage students holds some promise, but Gates says it tends to only benefit those who are motivated.

This is an interesting admission. He has said before that, “America is the land of equal opportunity, and the reality is we’re not delivering on that promise when low-income households end up in public schools that don’t educate their kids well.”

He believes it’s important to fix the American education system because education, and nurturing Americans to do amazing things, is important to American prosperity.

But maybe he can’t fix education. Despite building 10,000 new schools, investing in 100 education policy nonprofits, and placing 500 op-eds, it might be actually impossible for him to make a difference. That’s because our education performance problem might be more serious than the schools can fix at this point.


Over the long run we might see that can throw billions more at education and it will never make a difference, at least not as far as our performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the county’s nationally representative assessment of what American students know and can do in core subjects (that “you name it, we have been passed by” thing), is concerned.

He’s tried almost everything. The Gates foundation has promoted smaller schools, given more than $1 billion for scholarships to high achieving minority students, built charter schools, and encouraged 2008 presidential contenders to include education in their campaign policies.

He and his foundation often critiqued for using their vast wealth to promote a particular free-market agenda. As education historian Diane Ravitch put it back in 2012:

I am… puzzled by the Gates Foundation’s persistent funding of groups that want to privatize public education. I am puzzled by their funding of groups that are promoting an anti-teacher, anti-public education agenda in state after state. And I am puzzled by the hundreds of millions they have poured into the quixotic search to guarantee that every single classroom has a teacher that knows how to raise test scores.

That’s an understandable critique from the perspective of a teaching as labor force, but as far as education performance goes, it might be irrelevant.

If observers look at this on a global level, it appears that nothing much about teacher quality, or classroom size, or governance structure really matters.

The high performing countries have a lot of interesting things going on as far as education goes, South Korea and Finland and the often-cited high performing examples, but they have little in common.

Finland has great labor protections for teachers, short school days, little homework for students, and a focus on “helping children understand and apply knowledge, not merely repeat it.” Finland also has no private schools. South Korean students have long school days featuring a lot of examinations and rote learning. Finland has a highly selective entry program into the teaching profession. South Korea has few barriers to entry but teachers can make millions teaching in private exam schools.

What high performing education nations have in common, in fact, has little to do with school governance. It’s something else entirely: there are virtually no poor students in top education countries like Finland, Germany, Japan, and South Korea. We have 16.4 million. What high performing nations have common is low poverty and relative economic equality, not just for students, for the whole population.

Maybe it’s time to work that, Gates.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer