JASON L. RILEY, WSJ
- 'It's hard to improve public education—that's clear. As Warren Buffett would say, if you're picking stocks, you wouldn't pick this one." Ten years into his record-breaking philanthropic push for school reform, Bill Gates is sober—and willing to admit some missteps.
"It's been about a decade of learning," says the Microsoft co-founder whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now the nation's richest charity. Its $34 billion in assets is more than the next three largest foundations (Ford, Getty and Robert Wood Johnson) combined, and in 2009 it handed out $3 billion, or $2 billion more than any other donor. Since 2000, the foundation has poured some $5 billion into education grants and scholarships.
Seated in his office at the new Gates Foundation headquarters located hard by the Emerald City's iconic Space Needle, Mr. Gates says that education isn't only a civil-rights issue but also "an equity issue and an economic issue. . . . It's so primary. In inner-city, low-income communities of color, there's such a high correlation in terms of educational quality and success."
One of the foundation's main initial interests was schools with fewer students. In 2004 it announced that it would spend $100 million to open 20 small high schools in San Diego, Denver, New York City and elsewhere. Such schools, says Mr. Gates, were designed to—and did—promote less acting up in the classroom, better attendance and closer interaction with adults.
"But the overall impact of the intervention, particularly the measure we care most about—whether you go to college—it didn't move the needle much," he says. "Maybe 10% more kids, but it wasn't dramatic. . . . We didn't see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that." Still, he adds, "we think small schools were a better deal for the kids who went to them."
The reality is that the Gates Foundation met the same resistance that other sizeable philanthropic efforts have encountered while trying to transform dysfunctional urban school systems run by powerful labor unions and a top-down government monopoly provider.
Of late, the foundation has been working on a personnel system that can reliably measure teacher effectiveness. Teachers have long been shown to influence students' education more than any other school factor, including class size and per-pupil spending.
So the objective is to determine scientifically what a good instructor does.
"We all know that there are these exemplars who can take the toughest students, and they'll teach them two-and-a-half years of math in a single year," he says. "Well, I'm enough of a scientist to want to say, 'What is it about a great teacher? Is it their ability to calm down the classroom or to make the subject interesting? Do they give good problems and understand confusion? Are they good with kids who are behind? Are they good with kids who are ahead?' [...] [empasis mine]