The Price of New

An Investment in New Forms of Education

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation set its sights on new ways of teaching and announced an investment of $1.7 billion to test them. The foundation invested heavily in education with popular support. However, some past efforts led to worrisome results.

The foundation tried a new teacher-evaluation system of bonuses and firings to improve high-need schools in a Florida school district in 2009. The foundation pledged $100 million, with the school district matching funds dollar-for-dollar. The hidden costs of the system came out, including more than $23 million going to consultants and non-teaching peer-evaluators, and the foundation stopped $20 million short. The district ended up with larger costs to sort out, and the high-need schools still received a lesser rate of veteran teachers.

The foundation found that smaller schools outperformed larger ones, so it decided to invest heavily in the chartering of smaller schools in 1999. The studies it used indicated smaller schools outperformed, until closer inspection. In reality, with fewer students there is more deviation for a single school. Those deviations from the norm made smaller schools appear better, but accounting for the deviation revealed that school size made no real difference, so the foundation moved on, leaving smaller, often costlier, schools in its wake.

The foundation lobbied for the Common Core curriculum, a system that sparked very heated debate. Common core created many standards that on the whole seem to benefit education, although many find difficulty accepting a federal teaching standard that incentivizes teaching for standardized tests. The foundation’s initiative demonstrated its sheer political clout. When the foundation wants something, it has the money and connections to get it.

Education philanthropy can produce great results, and the foundation does great work in advancing new possibilities on the learning frontier, just sometimes at a cost. The foundation focuses on the future of learning, not the present, so it tries new ideas at the expense of current school systems. This lack of regard comes with the nature of a far-sighted vision, so I don’t fault it. Throwing money at an establishment often results in a short-term boost and much waste, but investment into fledgling ideas bears the possibility of producing great fruit. We must decide what we are willing to sacrifice for the future of education, or the foundation will decide for us.