Improving American Education: The View From Bill Gates

Friday, May 31, 2013 -- Ashlee Tatum-Eckley

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made its reputation largely through philanthropy on behalf of global health and development initiatives, including addressing the challenges of: malaria; HIV; tuberculosis; polio; water, sanitation, and hygiene; agriculture; and others. What is somewhat less known is the foundation's advocacy in the United States in promoting college-ready education. In this endeavor, its goal is to, “ support innovation that can improve U.S. K-12 public schools and ensure that students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college.” The challenge, according to the foundation, is that, “We live in a globally connected, information saturated world. To thrive, our students need to learn in and out of school, in person and online, together and independently. Students need learning experiences that meet them where they are, engage them deeply, let them progress at a pace that meets their individual needs, and helps them master the skills for today and tomorrow.”

To achieve its education goals, the foundation's investments have a common aim; to strengthen the connection between teacher and student. To that end, it, “works with educators, policymakers, parents, and communities to expand and accelerate successful programs and identify innovative new solutions that can help unlock students’ potential.”

In a recent interview with Fast Company, Bill Gates discussed his vision for improving education in the United States. One of his main points is that we spend $600 billion a year on education in the United States, more than any other country, and that we should at least be able to match other countries in outcomes. A significant emphasis of the foundation is on teacher development. Gates says that, “The foundation's biggest investment, even bigger than what we're doing to enable technology, is in creating a personnel system for K-12 teachers that lets the average teacher move up to be as good as the top quartile. Instead of just being in isolation and getting no feedback, you can be videotaped, you can have a peer evaluator advise you on your performance. When we combine that with student surveys and principals' feedback, we can help teachers learn from the best.”

In addition, Gates says that these are “golden days” for the self-motivated student, but that unfortunately,  curious students are a small percentage of the student population. He touches on a wide range of other subjects, including standardized testing, innovation in both teaching and learning, charter schools, and – of course – technology.

Agree with what he says or not, the interview – and the foundation's work – is worth a look, not just because Bill Gates is wealthy, or that his foundation's trust has assets of over $36 billion. Or that the foundation's partners in its U.S. Education initiatives include the American Federation of Teachers Educational Foundation, the Innosight Institute, and iNACOL. But that he and his foundation have a real commitment to improving education and college readiness for all students. And that's a worthwhile end, even as we continue to discuss the most effective means.