Next Move? Parsing What Bill and Melinda Said About Education Funding

Bill and Melinda Gates are obsessed with impactful grantmaking and evaluating the outcomes of their foundation's giving. Recently, the heads of the world's largest foundation discussed the impact of their funding activity with New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof.

The couple highlighted a number of accomplishments in the areas of global health and child mortality, but acknowledged that the billions they have poured into education reform haven't had quite the same impact.

"There's no dramatic change," Bill Gates told the columnist. "It’s not like under-five mortality, where you see this dramatic improvement.” However, Bill and Melinda Gates say they are not discouraged by this inertia and that they remain committed to sweeping change in the nation's K-12 and higher education systems.

This is significant for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is that the Gateses still have not tapped the bulk of their personal fortune for philanthropy, as we've discussed in the past. While the Gates Foundation lists assets of $43 billion, Forbes pegs Bill Gates' personal fortune at nearly $80 billionmost of which will likely go to philanthropy eventually. 

Related: Bill and Melinda Gates Have a Big Vision. So Why Aren't They Writing Bigger Checks?

In other words, assuming that they stick with education as a major focus of their giving, Bill and Melinda Gates could have an even larger impact on U.S. education in coming decades than they have had to date. But what might that look like? 

As we know all, the Gates Foundation has been pivotal in the battle over education reform for many years. Less clear, though, is the long-term trajectory of its efforts going forward. Most recently, Gates has placed an early emphasis on college- and career-ready standards, pouring tens of millions of dollars into the development of the Common Core State Standards. Despite the controversy surrounding the standards, the Common Core has been adopted in the majority of states, as well as the District of Columbia.

The funder also paid attention to years of education research showing that effective teachers are the single most-important in-school factor in student success. Gates funded the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, studying best practices in classroom instruction in school districts across the country. Gates also provided millions to nonprofit organizations and individual school districts to support professional development for teachers and the development of teacher evaluation systems. (Here's a breakdown of Gates giving on teaching since 2008, which totaled nearly $700 million as of late 2013.)

In the past few years, Gates has largely moved away from grants to individual school systems, preferring instead to focus its grantmaking among large nonprofits with a national reach. 

Assessing their mistakes in grantmaking, Bill and Melinda Gates said some of their early grantmaking activities — in all areas, not just education — were too technology-focused. This is understandable, given that Gates made his fortune as the head of the company whose software powers most of the world's computers. Technology has figured prominently in the Gates Foundation's portfolio of education investments — and continues to do so. An example is Gates' support of Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), which sought new ideas for wedding classroom teaching to instructional technology through blended learning and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

So where does Gates' support for education go from here, given the lack of transformational change arising from its past investments in the area? The talk with Kristof and a look at recent grantmaking activities point to two areas.

The couple told Kristof their foundation plans to step up its investment in early education programs, which is good news for advocates of early learning. Such investment has the potential for powerful impact in elementary school and beyond, given the rapid amount of brain development that occurs between birth and the age of five. Historically, the Gates Foundation's EC funding was mostly limited to its home state of Washington. More recently, however, the funder has expanded its reach in early learning activities, lending its support to the First Five Years Fund (FFYF). An arm of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, FFYF is a national advocacy effort aimed at expanding the availability of early childhood education programs nationwide. Gates is one of multiple funders supporting the work of FFYF.

As it has from its beginning as an education funder, Gates' support for effective teaching is likely to continue, only this time with a greater emphasis on teacher preparation. As reported here in May, two Gates officials wrote on the foundation's blog that they forsee new opportunities for new investment and collaboration in the field of teacher preparation. But this doesn't mean writing more and bigger checks to Teach For America. Rather, Gates is looking for new approaches to teacher training and preparation programs. Recent grants have included $1.5 million to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation to support a model for developing secondary math and science teachers in urban school systems, and $529,000 to Urban Teacher Residency United for a network of teacher residency programs.

Both approaches hold promise. Early childhood learning may be the best education investment — elementary, secondary, and beyond — that there is. Meanwhile, much work remains to be done not only to develop, but to retain high-quality teachers. Many teachers leave the profession within five years.

The Gates Foundation hasn't given up on America's teachers and students. Let's hope these and other efforts from the funder achieve the transformational change that Bill and Melinda Gates are hoping for.