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$5.6 Billion Later

Bill and Melinda Gates have engaged in over twenty years of dedicated, and generous, philanthropy. Since 2000, they have invested some $53.8 billion in a variety of societal causes. Of that amount, approximately $5.6 billion has been invested toward achieving greater outcomes in public education.

As reported by CNBC on February 12 of this year, Mr. and Mrs. Gates are expressing some frustration that their investment has failed to yield the desired result. Quoting Melinda Gates, "When it comes to U.S. education, we're not yet seeing the kind of bottom-line impact we expected."

What have they learned? Their insights fall into one of three broad categories.

First, they have concluded that there is a significant lack of consensus of what comprises best practices in the unwieldy field of public education. According to Mrs. Gates, there's no consensus on cause and effect in education. "Are charter schools good or bad? Should the school day be shorter or longer? Is this lesson plan for fractions better than that one? Educators haven't been able to answer those questions with enough certainty to establish clear best practices.” As CNBC reports, “without research that provides universal solutions, the couple says it has been difficult to fund universal outcomes.”

There’s a one word label for this dilemma. Tradition. Educators hold fiercely to the approaches and strategies that worked for them while they were students. They bring these behaviors forward into their own practice. In a profession that is frequently isolated and solitary, it’s both easy and convenient to go with what one knows, and what is comfortable. I call this “teaching as we were taught.” This approach creates more differences of practice than it does consensus of practice. And, it’s a reality that is deeply rooted in the professional psyche of educators; practices that do not promote or contribute to “universal solutions and universal outcomes.”

Second, the Gates’ have realized the challenge of bringing any significant interventions to scale. Again, Melinda states “improving educational outcomes requires supporting students along 13 years of schooling. The process is so cumulative that changing the ultimate outcome requires intervention at many different stages.”

Bill observes that the foundation's billion-dollar bet on Common Core, a set of standards for all students in each grade, fell short of their expectations. "We thought that if states raised the standards, the market would respond and develop new instructional materials that aligned with those standards. That didn't happen.”

Again, CNBC reports Bill’s observations. "If there's one lesson we've learned about education after 20 years, it's that scaling solutions is difficult. Much of our early work in education seemed to hit a ceiling. Once projects expanded to reach hundreds of thousands of students, we stopped seeing the results we hoped for.”

Here again, universal outcomes.

The third Gates insight from their 20+ years of educational philanthropy requires a new (and correct) approach. "It became clear to us that scaling in education doesn't mean getting the same solution out to everyone," writes Bill. "Our work needed to be tailored to the specific needs of teachers and students in the places we were trying to reach.” Bill says that because of this lesson, the foundation has shifted to funding solutions proposed by local public school networks.

"Rather than focus on one-size-fits-all solutions, our foundation wants to create opportunities for schools to learn from each other," writes Bill.


A “one size fits all” approach doesn’t fill the bill. It’s a failed and insufficient strategy. Yet, it has been the prevailing solution of “educational reform” that has consumed the energies of educational reformers. They, like the Gates’, have been barking up the wrong tree.

It would be a different story if we were creating widgets. But, we’re not. We are educating children. Children who do not fit a mould. Children who are inherently unique. Unique in their experience, history, interests, gifts and their aspirations. And, it is this uniqueness that requires, that demands, a personalized, non-standardized, approach to their education.

Is it challenging? Of course. Is it necessary? Absolutely. It’s The Education Kids Deserve.

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