Philanthropy and Control: Bill Gates And Our Public Schools

The Self-Appointed Most Powerful Man in Education

In 2008, Bill Gates took an online class about the history of the universe (called “Big History”) while he was on the treadmill and he thought it was great. Most people in the same situation might share the news on social media, or perhaps tell their spouse about it, or even bring it up at work the following day. Bill Gates, who at the time was the richest man on Planet Earth, decided something else.

“It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everyone should watch this thing!” [1]

So, he pumped $10 million into the class in order for it to be adapted to the high school level, at first piloted by a few thousand students and eventually scaled up to many more.

This is a tiny example of Bill Gates’ reach, but it is clear that he has been the main player picking the winners and losers in the education world in recent years. From urban school experiments, to the proliferation of charter schools, to the controversial Common Core standards, Gates seems to always be the man behind the curtain…

For the last decade, Bill Gates, the CEO of Microsoft-turned-philanthropist, has operated as the unelected superintendent of the American school system. In 2014, Washington Post Reporter Lyndsey Layton asked him about it.

Layton: “How about the simple notion that because you are funding so much of the Common Core, charter schools, and teacher evaluations, and you are advocating for it, that you have become a very powerful figure in K-12 education. But you’re unelected- some people say that’s undemocratic.”

Gates: “It’s important to separate out two things: there’s how much resources and energy is going into new ideas and then there’s the question of what gets chosen to be adopted…”

Bill Gates then launched into a non-answer about the necessity of his foundation to empower “teachers’ ideas” and the lack of research and development funding in education. But Lyndsey Layton kept pressing.

Layton:”The running joke (in education) is, sooner or later, everybody works for Gates, because, when you look at how the breadth of your funding, and in terms of the advocacy work for the Common Core, you’ve funded on the left of the spectrum, on the right of the spectrum, think tanks, unions, business groups…the suggestion is that because of that pervasive presence, that you set the agenda. It’s harder to get contrasting views and to get real honest debate because you are funding such a wide variety of actors in the field.

Gates: “Boy, I guess we’re not gonna get to any substance, I’m sorry…at the end of the day, I don’t think wanting education to be better is a left wing thing or a right wing thing…We fund people to look into things…”

But Gates’ avoidant answers don’t tell the full story- his body language was dismissive of Layton’s questions, and throughout the interview he frequently questioned her questions rather than addressing them. To Bill Gates, the idea that one man pumping billions of dollars along with a strongly-held set of ideas into our public education system is something not to question but to accept as normal.

However, the opposite is true. We as Americans need to question the role that Bill Gates and his foundation have played in establishing themselves as a quasi-governmental decision maker in the field of education. Despite the expertise of Bill Gates in creating computer products, he has established himself as not just a funder in education but a decision maker. Billionaire philanthropists question and micromanage our schools, but it is time to question the philanthropists themselves. They apparently have every right to enter the public school fight without any question of experience, expertise, or ideas; they buy their way to power in the education world with their money and false expertise just because they got wealthy. It is anti-democratic and it is patronizing to the millions of trained professionals who work every day to fight for better schools and outcomes for kids.

As Bill Gates is in the process of dishing out another $1.7 billion towards public education, it is critical that he be evaluated just as he says schools and teachers need to be evaluated. A recent study by the RAND Corporation found that one of the Gates Foundation’s main initiatives on Teacher Effectiveness “did not achieve its goals of increasing teaching effectiveness overall, improving access to effective teaching for low-income minority students, or boosting student outcomes.” The Gates Foundation decided to move away from funding teacher evaluation methods, but the total cost of the failed program was an astounding $575 million. Even with abject failures such as this, Gates continues to fund his ideas about education with zero accountability. Perhaps it is time to question the very premises that guide the Gates Foundation’s education initiatives and to think about how to redirect the effort and funds in a manner that is truly beneficial to our society.

A History of “Help”

In February 2012, the Gates Foundation gathered 250 teachers at a hotel in Arizona to share their vision. The Gates Foundation’s Irvin Scott said, “We’re trying to start a movement. A movement started by you. A movement you’re leading”[2].

Scott’s words wring hollow because…well…this organic, grassroots “movement” just happens to be started and led by one of the wealthiest men in human history. It is clear that the cognitive dissonance is deep in the billionaire philanthropist world, where wealthy men convince themselves that their exertion of control is actually somehow led by the people.

Bill Gates left Microsoft to work for his foundation full-time in 2008, and since then, Gates has spent his time and money trying to make the world a better place. I have nothing wrong with that idea in theory, but he began to exert more control in the education sector almost immediately.

In 2009 alone, Gates spent $373 million on education, and he increasingly attached an anti-public school ideology to that funding. He funded advertising campaigns to promote the Common Core Standards (which are pretty unpopular with teachers if my experience counts for anything), he gave money to anti-union groups like Teach Plus and Educators for Excellence, and he handed $500,000 to the right wing American Enterprise Institute in order to “influence the national education debates.” The Gates Foundation has also funded anti-public school movies such as Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down as well as the media organization Media Bullpen, which issues “grades” to the media based on their support of market-based reforms [3]. Like Washington Post Reporter Lyndsey Layton pointed out, Gates has funded advocacy groups on both sides of the political aisle in order to set the agenda for ideas. The overall theme of the funding is that our public schools are failing and in need of fixing; this idea is rooted in the false premise that somehow our education system is in a vacuum and that micromanaging this system will make it succeed. Gates has focused very intently on improving the teaching profession and hiring great teachers without critically thinking about the structures that surround the education system.

I have learned from my teaching experiences all of the horrors that students walk in the door with- the effects of technology addiction, poverty, segregation, and trauma are visceral to anyone who has stepped in the doors of an underserved school any time recently. The toxic environment that millions of American children grow up in is far more pressing than the inability of teachers to conquer the toxicity.

To adequately fight for an equitable education system, education must be seen in conjunction with systems of government, healthcare, the economy, technology, and the environment. That means that we should have a conversation about the very system of capitalism which puts so much wealth in the hands of so few people (like Bill Gates) and leaves 21% of American children growing up in poverty.

A Failed Evaluation

As Anthony Cody points out in his book “The Educator and the Oligarch,” some of the Gates-funded ideas that have proliferated in recent years include:

1. “teacher pay and evaluation systems that must give significant weight to test scores and VAM formulas.”

2. “Unlimited expansion and deregulation of charter schools.”

3. “Creation of Common Core standards and aligned tests and curriculum” [4].

Each of these are flawed ideas in their own right, but the summation of them is that they seek to take a public good and apply privatized market forces to fix it (Whatup, Betsy DeVos!). These ideas seek to standardize K-12 education so as to make it easier for technologists (Like Gates!) to collect data on our students and thus push out personalized learning technologies to ‘better teach’ our students than humans would do. In this vision, teachers would just be overseers of the technology-to-student relationship. Oh, and these ideas seek to punish those teachers who do not get with the program and deviate from the standardized way to teach.

A Better World

The technocratic approach to education reform is a bleak one, one where computer software knows and understands our children’s needs better than humans do. This approach distrusts democracy and instead rams down authoritarian micromanaging onto the professionals who are entrusted with our children.

Famed education scholar John Dewey stated, “Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”

Well, I want a world that creates personalized learning with small class sizes and independent teachers rather than through Orwellian AI products. Rather than fixating on testing basic math and reading skills of impoverished students, I think a focus on other skills will make better lifelong learners and happier students.

Some of the most important skills such as creativity, critical thinking, resilience, curiosity, empathy, self-awareness, compassion, sense of wonder, and integrity cannot be effectively tested. As a teacher, these are the skills that I truly care about my students coming away with. In my experience, the learning comes with unique lessons and good relationships with students anyways.

I admire Bill Gates for attempting to use his wealth and power to do good in the world. But he has unduly influenced the public education system in an undemocratic way, and he needs to humbly accept the fact that he has made some big mistakes in education over the last decade.

If he wants to remedy the failures of the Gates Foundation in public education, he should start by listening to stakeholders who are not paid off with his Foundation’s money nor agree with his technocratic ideology.

Rather than charter schools, standardized tests, and teacher effectiveness measures, I can rattle off a few initiatives that would be more effective. Small class sizes, more time for teachers to lesson plan, and higher teacher salaries would strengthen the profession and lead to better outcomes for students. To make the impact Gates wants to make, he could make education a more attractive career and empower the professionals who are already in the trenches. But most importantly, he needs to understand that his non-credentialed role in making education decisions needs to end.

Meanwhile back in reality, the doublespeak continues from the Gates Foundation about their recent $1.7 billion commitment to education initiatives. They say they are going to focus on “partnering with middle and high schools” through “evidence-based interventions that best fit their needs, and data-driven continuous learning”[5]. Sadly, it seems like Gates has not learned his lesson about paternalistic philanthropy. If Bill Gates really wanted to help change the future, he would support an initiative that supports students questioning why one man has so much power in a supposedly free and democratic society.

1. [1] Cody, Anthony. The Educator and the Oligarch. Garn Press, 2014. Pp. 37.

2. [2] Ibid, pp 108-109.

3. [3]

4. [4] Cody, Anthony. The Educator and the Oligarch. Garn Press, 2014. Pp. 161.

5. [5]

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