Diane Ravitch’s Blog: Kevin Welner: Can the New Gates Initiative Make a Difference in Closing Opportunity Gaps?

Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center has written a thoughtful (and optimistic) commentary on the Gates Foundation’s latest big bet on reforming education. The new one will invest $1.7 billion in networks of schools in big cities, in the hopes that they can work together to solve common problems.

Welner, K. (2017). Might the New Gates Education Initiative Close Opportunity Gaps? Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/bmgf.

Welner notes that the previous big initiatives of the Gates Foundation failed, although he believes that Gates was too quick to pull the plug on the small schools initiative in 2008, into which he had poured $2 billion. Gates bet another $2 billion on the Common Core, and that was sunk by backlash from right and left and in any case, has made no notable difference. Gates poured untold millions into his plan for teacher evaluation (MET), but it failed because it relied too much on test scores.

Welner says that Bill Gates and the foundation he owns suffer from certain blind spots: First, he believes in free markets and choice, and he ends up pouring hundreds of millions into charters with little to show for it; second, he believes in data, and that belief has been costly without producing better schools; third, he believes in the transformative power of technology, forgetting that technology is only a tool, whose value is determined by how wisely it is used.

Last, Welner worries that Gates does not pay enough attention to the out of school factors that have a far greater impact on student learning that teachers and schools, including poverty and racism. These are the factors that mediate opportunity to learn. Without addressing those factors, none of the others will make much difference.

Welner is cautiously optimistic that the new initiative might pay more attention to opportunity to learn issues than any of Gates’ other investments.

But he notes with concern that Gates continues to fund charters, data, technology, and testing. He continues to believe that somewhere over the rainbow is a magical key to innovation. He continues to believe in standardization. 

It seems to me that Kevin Welner bends over backwards to give Gates the benefit of the doubt. With his well-established track record of failure, it is hard to believe he has learned anything. But let’s keep hoping for the best. 

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She serves on the board of the Core Knowledge Foundation, Common Core, the Albert Shanker Institute of the American Federation of Teachers, and Common Good. She is an honorary life trustee of the New...