The Evolution of Bill Gates, Education Philanthropist

One thing I admire about Bill Gates is that he isn’t afraid to update his thinking when presented with new information. I’ve written in the past about Gates’ annual letter on his philanthropic activities, which always includes a section on the nearly $400 million his foundation spends each year on American education reform. In these letters, Gates has been careful to praise teachers while simultaneously advocating for more rigorous, often data-based evaluation in order to weed out low performers. In his 2010 letter, for example, Gates controversially called student testing the model for teacher evaluation, noting: “It is amazing how little feedback teachers get to help them improve, especially when you think about how much feedback their students get. Students regularly have their skills measured with tests. The results show how they compare to other students.”

The new 2012 letter, however, marks a significant shift in Gates’ thinking, and shows he has learned a lot from dialogue with classroom teachers. The letter argues strongly in favor of teacher peer review, a more holistic, classroom-observation based evaluation strategy that is popular with teachers and their unions. Gates praises a program in Tampa in which teachers receive feedback from both their principal and a team of trained peer evaluators. “Most teachers want more feedback and will use it to improve, even if the financial rewards for performance are comparatively modest,” Gates writes.

Gates’ beliefs on teaching reform are more sophisticated than they used to be. While he still supports the use of student testing data as part of a teacher’s evaluation score, he now understands that teaching is a profession built around an ideology of cooperation, not competition. Indeed, the sociological research on teachers has shown this consistently for decades; check out the work of Edward Deci and Dan Lortie. Teachers’ disinterest in financial gain relative to other working conditions is why merit pay programs are rarely the transformative reform lever their supporters hope they will be.

Last year I visited the Math and Sciences Leadership Academy, a Denver public elementary school built around teacher peer review. I was really impressed, and you can read about the school here. To learn more about classroom observation as a teacher evaluation strategy, see this wonderful paper by my colleagues at the New America Foundation, which shows detailed rubrics on what effective teacher coaches and evaluators should look for when they step into a classroom.

7 thoughts on “The Evolution of Bill Gates, Education Philanthropist

  1. Robert D. Skeels

    I’ll believe that there’s a “significant shift in Gates’ thinking,” when the convicted predatory monopolist stops donated funds to the Discovery Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

  2. Leonie Haimson

    I couldn’t disagree more. Before Gates proposed increasing class size so they could use the money to impose merit pay. His latest, crackpot idea; grow the bureaucracy by devoting 2% of all teachers to evaluation, while increasing class size:

    “After seeing how valuable peer evaluation is, I think it should be part of every public school personnel system. Dedicating 2 percent of teachers to do this work is a large investment. It can mean raising the average class size by 2 percent or spending 2 percent more money. With budgets as tight as they are, most states will not add extra money for evaluation so we will have to make the case that it is worth the small increase in class size (of fewer than one student per class on average). Without this investment I don’t think an evaluation system will get enough credibility with the teachers or provide enough specific feedback to help teachers improve. Looking at test scores is also valuable for most subjects, but test score data mostly just identifies who is succeeding—it doesn’t show a teacher what needs to change. I see the willingness to make this investment as a test of whether people are serious about an evaluation system that really works.”

    Did he ask parents whether they are willing to make this “investment”? No! Experiment on your own kids, Bill, not on ours.

  3. Leonie Haimson

    And I haven’t mentioned his continuing obsession with technology, which is reflected in the letter — with NO research backing, and which is being imposed on schools throughout the country w/ his support.

    In the letter, he ends by describing the scary LLC that he has created, the “Shared Learning Collaborative” which will hold confidential student and teacher data, to be made available to commercial operations, and run by Murdoch’s Wireless Generation:

    “an online service that helps educators easily discover and learn how to use these new tools and resources. I think there’s no limit to what a teacher with the right tools and information can do.”


  4. P. Valencio

    This should enlighten thoughts on the real Bill Gates and how “insanity” has overtaken him.

    In this 2010 Video he indicates: that we spend less on keeping people alive to save teachers jobs. He indicates that we should pull the plug on older, sick and dying patients advocating death panels. Take a few minutes and watch the video.

    At a TED conference, he also advocates : Zero Population Growth through vaccinations, while on the board of major pharmaceuticals and a keen investor in drugs. Shame.

  5. Integrity

    Dana, will you please disclose whether you ever received funding or support from Bill Gates or his affiliates or have applied for such funding or support? Thanks.


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