Gates talks school reform on a school day

I’m sorry I missed Bill and Melinda Gates talking about their foundation’s efforts to bring about meaningful reforms in education to America’s public schools on October 7, but I was at work when they spoke at the foundation’s Seattle headquarters and can’t find a video of their speech.

The next best thing is the video, embedded above, of an interview the two philanthropists gave with PBS Newshour’s Gwen Ifill. A transcript of the interview can be found here. I was also able to consider accounts of his speech by Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post and by Katherine Long in the Seattle Times. The Gates Foundation provides funds to the Times for certain education-related coverage, and the Post is owned by Amazon founder and philanthropist himself, Jeff Bezos.

Mr Gates said in his speech, according to both the Post and the Times:

If we come up with a new malaria drug, a new malaria vaccine, nobody votes to uninvent our malaria vaccine. So it’s pretty steady progress. Every year is better than the last.

(However,) because of its complexity, the relationship to management, how labor is one, you can introduce a system … and people say, “No, we’d rather have no system at all, completely leave us alone.” That’s a real possibility, if you don’t nurture these systems and get it so there’s critical mass. That’s a level of uncertainty that we don’t have in most areas we work in.

He said the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would continue to invest in the Common Core State Standards.

The early days almost went too well for us. There was adoption, everything seemed to be on track. … We didn’t realize the issue would be confounded with what is the appropriate role of the federal and state government, we didn’t think it would be confounded with questions about are there too many tests, confounded with if you’re raising the bar, what is the right set of things to help teachers be ready for that?

All of those things came together, so did the Internet myths, that the math of the Common Core is some mysterious strange thing that no parent could ever help a child with. The fact that some of it really is off the rails, in terms of some of the facts, that’s a little disappointing.

He then turned to teacher evaluation systems and expressed confidence in the use of data to help schools evaluate their teachers. In order to work, he said, teacher evaluation systems must be balanced, embraced by teachers, include data that teachers trust and have resources behind it to drive improvement.

This is where we’re focused: Over the next decade, we hope to see incredible progress in this. I hope that teachers will demand systems that help them improve. In the long run, that’s absolutely the only things that will sustain these systems.

Test scores, of all the evaluation elements, is perhaps the most controversial. I personally believe they are a critical element of these systems. But they are not what tells you what skills you need to improve. They are simply numbers.


Bill and Melinda Gates, with their foundation, have done great work, especially in the area of world health. They are both sincere and interested in helping schools get better, and everyone in those schools has to appreciate that.

However, when those good intentions turn into throwing one’s weight, or money, around to bully people into accepting that their way is the only way, that’s where our appreciation ends. Other people don’t have as much money as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but they care just as much about educational outcomes and probably know more about what it takes to teach a kid even one of the standards in the Common Core than anyone at the foundation.

The ideas of democracy demand that we listen to multiple voices about schools. They also compel us to investigate scams and scandals at charter schools that are given, sometimes by voters, every opportunity for corruption. In the interview with Ms Ifill, Mr Gates mentioned the idea of charter schools being laboratories and providing public schools with the fruits of their experiments and even some relief for students with highly specific special needs.

Unfortunately, charter schools have evolved, under a corporate, profit-driven model, into institutions unto themselves, sometimes becoming entire chains of charter schools that have no intention of sharing anything they’ve learned with the public school districts that created them under a charter idea that sought to improve every school in the district. The more of this we allow, the more culpable we all are when another corporate reformer goes corrupt.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.