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Ed Knows Policy

EKP -- a local (Washington, DC) and national blog about education policy, politics, and research.

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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bill Gates Gets Schooled

Jay Greene has what I would call a very useful article in Business Week about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It traces the experience of the Gates Foundation's cannonball into the edupool with its somewhat ill-conceived "smaller schools" initiative (Greene is suprisingly candid for a Gates grantee) [Update: It's not the same Jay Greene; this Business Week contributor is different from the Gates-funded researcher with the same name -- thanks to "rlf" for pointing this out] and walks us through how Gates squandered their first billion in education philanthropy. It makes me sick to think of how those resources could have been spent if they had had better experts and had not misread the social science. I have seen other corporate foundations and even some government agencies (but less so) move large piles of money in suprisingly naive and foolish ways because they become enamored by an "expert" who puts on a good show but is not really the authority that they seem to be. I won't mention names.

Business leaders have been trying to play the hero and solve education problems for a long time. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, H. Ross Perot, Louis Gerstner, Walter Annenberg, Bill Gates. Sometimes they see it as their extracurricular activity after their pile of wealth is getting too tall to see over and they want to leave their mark on society. Their choice of eduphilanthropy is a wonderful one, but they tend to range between two extreme categories. (1) hopelessly naive, charging like a bull in a china shop (2) careful, thoughtful, and successful in bringing about change.

So far, Bill Gates is the former category. (Click on continue for why).

The biggest problem with the BMGF (why personalize this?) is that they don't appreciate the value of real research. They pay lip service to research, but look at who and what they fund. I don't want to name names, but most of these are not serious social scientists seeking causal explanations, but "policy" researchers who are more advocates and aggregators of others' research than producers of knowledge themselves. Fine people, but not the ones you want to render judgment on the effectiveness and impact of multi-million dollar interventions.

The "evaluation" research (e.g. of the Gates Millenium Scholarship program), seems to be more outcomes tracking than any serious attempt to compare those outcomes to what would have happened to the awardees had the program not been available.

I have a great deal of hope that BMGF will evolve into a more questioning, research-savvy operation, but for the sake of the children who could benefit from their philanthropy, I hope it happens sooner rather than later.


Blogger Andrew Pass Educational Services, LLC said...

Your essay is especially interesting given the new found power that the Gates Foundation has with Buffet's additional money. This foundatio truly has the power to decide who will live and who will die. I do hope that they learn to use this power wisely. Even if your analysis of the foundation's use of research is inaccurate, the foundation must continuously ensure that it spends its money wisely, or they will have the ability to do some really foolish things.

Andrew Pass

5:10 PM  
Anonymous rlf said...

think you might want to check your statement that jay greene is a gates grantee. while his name is spelled the same as "jay greene" - the researcher, the businessweek reporter jay greene lives and works in seattle covering the technology beat. could you have the researcher and reporter with the same name mixed up?

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