Bill Gates Education Experiment Fails Again, Taxpayers Foot $300 Million Bill


A new report by the Rand Corporation evaluating yet another Bill Gates education debacle — this time for teacher evaluation — was discussed recently in both Forbes by Rick Hess and Bloomberg by Cathy O’Neil. Shane Vander Hart at Truth in American Education also analyzed the Bloomberg piece. This Gates boondoggle spent $575 million (of which only $212 million came from the Gates Foundation) on three public school districts and four charter management organizations:

  • Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) in Florida, encompassing Tampa
  • Memphis City Schools (MCS) in Tennessee
  • Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) in Pennsylvania
  • Alliance College-Ready Public Schools
  • Aspire Public Schools
  • Green Dot Public Schools
  • Partnerships to Uplift Communities (PUC) Schools

The effort, starting in 2009 and going through 2015, was to develop a new formula for teacher evaluation. This formula was based on student test scores, principal observation, and parent surveys, the data from which was fed into a secret, big-data algorithm called the value added model. The intent was to reward good teachers and root out bad teachers, all in service of the overall goal of improving student achievement, especially for low income and minority (LIM) students. The results affected hiring decisions for teachers and offered small bonuses to effective teachers to move into districts with higher proportions of LIM students.

Before discussing in detail the various aspects of the failures of yet another Gates disaster covered in both pieces, it is important to discuss the horrific waste of taxpayer funds that this program generated. As mentioned above, only $212 million of the $575 million spent came from the Gates Foundation. The other $363 million came from local, state, and federal taxpayers. In the case of Hillsborough County, Fla., the Gates Foundation gave $100 million for this misguided experiment, with the county required to bring in additional $100 million. However, the county’s cost eventually rose to $124 million, and now the program is being dismantled after largely failing, leaving the taxpayers out $124 million with nothing to show for that cost — funds that could have been spent on teaching real academics for poor children.

Both Hess and O’Neil noted the overall negativity of the Rand report, particularly for that main goal:

  • Overall, however, the initiative did not achieve its goals for student achievement or graduation, particularly for LIM students.
  • With minor exceptions, by 2014–2015, student achievement, access to effective teaching, and dropout rates were not dramatically better than they were for similar sites that did not participate in the Intensive Partnerships initiative.

Hess found five lessons from the Gates initiative and the Rand report, with his top-line summary of those being:

  • The reforms demanded too much time.
  • Big investments in new evaluation systems didn’t yield meaningful change.
  • The new systems didn’t help attract talent.
  • Little bonuses don’t induce educators to make big changes.
  • None of this means that teacher evaluation “doesn’t work.”

Hess, from the American Enterprise Institute, which has always been a bit friendly toward the establishment methods of education reform, gives the Gates effort an enormous pass despite its spectacular failure:

In the American system, philanthropy has a vital role when it comes to pioneering untried strategies and seeking new solutions. So long as foundations are transparent about what transpires and we take the time to examine what happened and why, even grand disappointments can be beneficial and instructive. In this case, the Gates Foundation has done its part, funding a remarkably honest and informative postmortem. The task now is to be sure that we learn the lessons it has to teach.

O’Neil takes a much harsher, and, in my opinion, far more correct view:

The approach that the Gates program epitomizes has actually done damage. It has unfairly ruined careers, driving teachers out of the profession amid a nationwide shortage. And its flawed use of metrics has undermined science…Considering the program’s failures — and all the time and money wasted, and the suffering visited upon hard-working educators — the [Rand] report’s recommendations are surprisingly weak. It even allows for the possibility that trying again or for longer might produce a better result, as if there were no cost to subjecting real, live people to years of experimentation with potentially adverse consequences.

She then goes on to discuss the dangers of big data and murky algorithms, as well as the horrific consequences of the Gates brand of invasive philanthropy:

Let me emphasize that unleashing such experiments on people is the most wasteful possible way to do science. As we introduce artificial intelligence in myriad areas — insurance, credit, human resources, college administration — will we require the people affected to trust the algorithm until, decades later, it proves to be horribly wrong? How many times must we make this mistake before we demand more scientific testing beforehand?

I’m not an entirely disinterested observer. I have a company that offers algorithm testing services. But I got into the business precisely because I wanted to avert disasters like this. It’s not enough to glean some lessons, make adjustments and move on. For the sake of data science, and for the sake of disadvantaged students, it’s crucial that the Gates Foundation recognize publicly how badly it went wrong.

Sadly, this is another in a very long list of Bill Gates’ education failures, the worst being Common Core and data mining. Even more tragically, despite all of these disasters, he plans to spend another $1.7 billion on more education reform in the competency-based education/personalized learning/data mining realm to expand on these and reach his apparent goal of creating a managed economy where workforce preparation is the sole goal of education and our children are merely widgets in the labor supply chain.

We must, as parents, continue to stand strong against these ill-fated utopian schemes. And we, as voters, must remind our elected officials, who all too often seek out these grants like crack addicts after their next fix, that our children, teachers, and wallets can ill-afford the costly and dangerous strings associated with this nasty addiction.

Photo credit: TED Conference via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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