Billionaire Bill Gates has been working to improve American education performance for more than a decade. He’s made a lot of changes (small schools, Common Core, teacher performance, principal quality, restructured schools) but education performance hasn’t improved much. While it’s inappropriate to expect dramatic results at this point, Gates admits that some of this has pretty much been a disaster.

According to this piece by Valarie Strauss in the Washington Post:

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s extraordinary “Grand Challenges” project [awarded] …billions of research dollar… in at least 80 countries to research improve health and development to the neediest. …Rather than giving a boastful speech, Gates, used the word “naive” four times in describing the expectations he and his foundation had for the initiative.


In 2009 Gates wrote in the foundation’s annual letter that,

Nine years ago, the foundation decided to invest in helping to create better high schools, and we have made over $2 billion in grants. The goal was to give schools extra money for a period of time to make changes in the way they were organized (including reducing their size), in how the teachers worked, and in the curriculum. The hope was that after a few years they would operate at the same cost per student as before, but they would have become much more effective.

But they didn’t. So then Gates decided to focus on teacher quality. But, oh damn, by 2013 Gates was writing that:

As states and districts rush to implement new teacher development and evaluation systems, there is a risk they’ll use hastily contrived, unproven measures. One glaring example is the rush to develop new assessments in grades and subjects not currently covered by state tests. Some states and districts are talking about developing tests for all subjects, including choir and gym, just so they have something to measure.

No kidding.

I’ve often been pretty critical of Gates, largely because once he decides to experiment on something in education everyone shifts around to make that happen, despite the fact that we’ve been educating children for thousands of years and there aren’t a whole lot of big questions remaining here. Just because a rich guy has an idea that doesn’t mean the idea is any good.

But he does, perhaps, give focus to issues that need them, even if his enthusiasm for technology and his distrust for organized labor often lead him in bad directions in terms of education reform.

But give the devil his due. Gates can admit when he makes a mistake. He’s not a salaried employee anxious to demonstrate success to keep his job. If something doesn’t work he’s perfectly comfortable admitting failure and moving on to trying something else.

One wonders what his next education idea will be. How long until he finds out that Common Core isn’t going to improve learning dramatically either?

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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