Thinking Tech

Is Bill Gates good for education in America?

Posting in Education

Are the billions spent by Bill Gates on education helping students and schools? It is certainly better than the alternative of him not caring at all, but not everyone thinks so.

Bill Gates is spending his billions to help reform high school education. Bottom line: he wants to double the number of low income adults earning a postsecondary (read college) degree, hold teachers more accountable and create "core standards."

So far, he's spent $4 billion on his bold experiment. It's all good, right?

credit: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

A column in yesterday's Boston Globe "Bill Gates's Risky Adventure" cites respected author and education historian Diane Ravitch as one of his biggest critics. Gates has been speaking around the nation of his "Giving Back" tour, extolling aspiring MIT engineers, for example, to tackle big problems and do great things.

"In “The Death and Life of the Great American School System’’ Ravitch writes that Gates and other so-called venture philanthropists, including Eli Broad, are experimenting thoughtlessly. There is no proof, she writes, that Gates is on the right track now any more than he was from 2000-2008, when he pumped about $2 billion into a campaign to restructure large American high schools into smaller schools. That effort, writes Ravitch, was marginal at best," wrote Globe columnist Lawrence Harmon.

Gates would counter that his foundation has done copious research and is getting results. Indeed, there's plenty of that at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation education web home page.

Ravitch is highly skeptical of educational reform movements and crusades and does not want to see public education run and measured like a business.

But let's face it. There is nary a school district in the U.S. that would not take Gates money these days. Funds are scarce or non-existent and many communities - like it or not - consider education a luxury that in these tough times must be trimmed. Sports, band, art, drama and French have been on the chopping block for two decades now.

Bill Gates does not have to spend most of his time giving away his money to discover vaccines and reform education in America. He does not have travel to dangerous parts of the world. He could be spending his 50s making Microsoft even bigger and more dominant. If he had he his druthers, that might be just what he'd be doing were it not been for other influences in his life such as wife, Melinda.

That Gates is passionate about education is a good thing. At minimum, it ratchets up the debate about how to improve education. Is he doing damage? I doubt it. At least, he's doing SOMETHING when he could be hiding under a rock watching his billions double every couple of years.

I read chapter 1of Ravitch's book (chapter 10 is "The Billionaire's Boy's Club" about you know who) which is free on Amazon. She's seems pretty cynical about reform and defends how she's changed her mind about many things in public education over the years.

It's almost as if she's defending her turf from interlopers like Gates and his fellow billionaires (although he is not mentioned by name in the chapter I). Indeed, her sterling credentials in education go toe- to-toe with Gates' record in software. From the book, here's her two cents:

"School reformers sometimes resemble the characters in Dr. Suess' Solla Sollew, who are always searching for that mythical land "where they never have troubles or at least very few." Or like Dumbo, they are convinced they could fly if only they had a magic feather. I have consistently warned that in education, there are no shortcuts, no utopias and no silver bullets."

I'm have no doubt Bill Gates would agree.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure