What if Bill Gates rewarded results?

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Last winter, two things clarified my views on the utility of the Gates Foundation in education policy. One was an opportunity I had to spend time at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, an Oklahoma-based foundation that focuses primarily on plant and seed sciences. Their campus was intensely focused on experimentation and rewarding results in the field. Its buildings were not ostentatious but rather highly focused on their mission. They were also interested in investing in high-value ROI obtained from places like the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California.

The other came in Sam Dillon’s December 2010 New York Times article on the Gates Foundation’s effort to scope out the perfect way to evaluate teachers. Using value-added statistical models, “scores of social scientists and some 3,000 teachers and their students,” the Foundation was studying “correlations between the value-added rankings and other measures of teacher effectiveness.” Vicki Phillips, director of Gates’ education program, underscored “one notable finding”:

teachers who incessantly drill their students to prepare for standardized tests tend to have lower value-added learning gains than those who simply work their way methodically through the key concepts of literacy and mathematics.

Teachers whose students agreed with the statement, “We spend a lot of time in this class practicing for the state test,” tended to make smaller gains on those exams than other teachers.

“Teaching to the test makes your students do worse on the tests,” Ms. Phillips said. “It turns out all that ‘drill and kill’ isn’t helpful.”

Education researcher Jay Greene has pointed out that not only did Ms. Phillips get the results of her own study wrong but she never bothered to correct the error publicly. Interest in the research or in winning the spin wars? Noble Foundation they are not.

The Gates Foundation is at an important pivot point in its development. It has built a strong brand in health care philanthropy and an education operation that is notable for how top-heavy and PR-driven it is. Worse, on results, its record is at best a mixed bag. As the Foundation creates an eerily Pentagon-esque campus that’s almost twice the size of the South Boston Convention Center in only its initial construction phase in Seattle, it would do well to ask if the culture it is building inside its World HQ walls is conducive to success.

As shovels hit the ground, Jay Greene has emerged as the most coherent critic of Gates’ education philanthropy. In a couple of must-read blog posts (1 and 2) exploring the state of the Foundation, Greene sums up his view:

1) they’ve realized that the focus of their efforts has to be on the political control of schools and 2) they are uninterested in using that political influence to advance market forces in education. Instead, the basic strategy of the Gates Foundation is to use science (or, more accurately, the appearance of science) to identify the “best” educational practices and then use political influence to create a system of national standards, curricular materials, and testing to impose those “best practices” on schools nationwide.

The Gates Foundation came to understand the necessity of political influence over schools with the failure of their previous small schools strategy. Under that strategy they tried to achieve reform by paying school districts to break-up larger high schools into smaller ones.

“[E]ven the Gates Foundation does not have nearly enough money to buy systemic reform one school at a time,” given that “all [philanthropic] giving, from the bake sale to the Gates Foundation, makes up less than one-third of 1% of total [education] spending.”

I find Jay’s analysis really interesting, especially in noting that there isn’t a single “scientific” way to deliver education. The success of Massachusetts’ reforms in part were due to policy clarity, with the state setting out broad stroke policy but leaving pedagogical and management approaches to districts and schools. One example to show you what I mean: Massachusetts’ department of education until recently limited its views on instructional method to insisting that a minimum of content mastery was attained by students; little top-down direction was given as to whether a teacher chose to teach by rote, hands-on learning, project method, etc.

With its top-down views on “scientific” educational policy, the Gates Foundation finds itself expanding fast and its own internal processes getting, well, Microsoft-like.

The scale of the political effort required by the Gates strategy of imposing “best” practices is forcing Gates to expand its staffing to levels where it is being paralyzed by its own administrative bloat[.]

Big bureaucracy command-and-control strategies rarely work. While I believe market-based solutions (with appropriate guardrails to preserve the public trust) have produced big and sustainable improvements in student achievement, I wouldn’t suggest that the Gates Foundation should unilaterally adopt my view of market-based solutions.

A foundation the size of Gates should be more nuanced in its view of the social sciences and public policy than to fake an exercise more suited to the physical sciences. In the physical sciences, big brains set out hypotheses and test them, looking for atemporal explanatory theories. Human societies don’t work that way. Our “solutions” set off different and multiple reactions that cannot be fully predicted in the amazing variety of social and cultural conditions, which is of course why keeping control of schools as close to states, if not to parents, is more conducive to successful schools.

So should the Gates Foundation just give up? No way. Philanthropy has always been a big part of the lives of educational institutions and policymaking. I think today’s Boston Globe editorial put it pithily in laying out a critical view of the Obama Administration’s abandonment of No Child Left Behind’s requirement that all students would be proficient in math and reading by 2014: Arne Duncan’s proposal misses the mark because it “measures reforms, not results.”

Unfortunately, the feds and the Gates Foundation (often together) are focused on process and compliance (national strategies on standards, tests, turnaround schools, and so on), not results. Instead of ramping up bureaucracies in DC and Seattle, both could simply focus on rewarding results–not compliance. How? I outlined the bold strokes of how in an interview on MSNBC this past Saturday.


They could take a page out of the X Prize Foundation’s handbook. Remember the X Prize—the foundation that

addresses the world’s Grand Challenges by creating and managing large-scale, high-profile, incentivized prize competitions that stimulate investment in research and development worth far more than the prize itself. It motivates and inspires brilliant innovators from all disciplines to leverage their intellectual and financial capital.

The X-Prize Foundation offered $10 million to the entrepreneur who could send a rocket 100 miles into space and within 10 days, send it back up 100 miles into space. That competition leveraged billions in investment. And it spawned a rocket industry in the Mojave Desert. Gates and the feds could get out of the business of devising the perfect mousetrap for 50 million schoolchildren and 100s of thousands of schools. Fact is, that is hubris—not policy. Instead, they could devise a policy as simple and capable of diverse pathways and experimentation to getting there that might be something like this

The [Gates Foundation or the federal Education Department] will award a World Class Schools Award to the three states that have made the most progress on private tests such as the ACT and SAT, the national assessments (so-called NAEP tests), and the international tests (TIMSS and PISA) amounting to a lump sum of $250 million. Winning states will have also to demonstrate a decrease in dropout rates of at least five percent and will have to show stronger improvement for minority students and socio-economically disadvantaged students.

That kind of experimentation would allow those in the field to figure out how to get there. People in power don’t have to be scared to say they don’t have all the answers–or at least answers that hold true for every inch of our intricate tapestry of cultures. And the nice thing about competitions is that you can focus on key issues, like STEM preparedness or whatever is viewed as an important national interest.

That’s what Race to the Top should have been: A race for results, not compliance.

Crossposted at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.