ince 2000 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested $2 billion in public education, plus another $2 billion in scholarships. Most of it went into efforts to improve high schools that serve poor and minority students – mainly breaking up big, urban high schools and creating smaller, friendlier, and in theory more scholastically sound academies. (All told, the Gates Foundation gave money to 2,602 schools in 40 school districts.) Overall, it hasn’t worked. [Much more on Small Learning Communities]
“We had a high hope that just by changing the structure, we’d do something dramatic,” Gates concedes. “But it’s nowhere near enough.”
The results were a disappointing setback. So Gates and his $35 billion foundation went back to school on the issue. They spent more than a year analyzing what went wrong (and in some cases what went right). They hired new leaders for their education effort, while Gates turned his attention to philanthropy full-time after stepping away from his operating role at Microsoft last summer.
In mid-November, when Gates and his wife, Melinda, were finally ready to unveil their fresh direction, they delivered the news at a private forum at the Sheraton Seattle for America’s education elite, including New York City schools chief Joel Klein, his Washington, D.C., counterpart, Michelle Rhee, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, and top advisors to President-elect Obama.
The upshot is that Education 2.0 is bolder and more aggressive in its goals, and it involves even more intensive investment – $3 billion over the next five years. This time the focus isn’t on the structure of public high schools but on what’s inside the classrooms: the quality of the teaching and the relevance of the curriculum. It steers smack into some of the biggest controversies in American education – tying teacher tenure and salaries to performance, and setting national standards for what is taught and tested.
And it looks beyond high school. “Our goal, with your help, is to double the number of low-income students who earn post-secondary degrees or credentials that let them earn a living wage,” declared Melinda French Gates at the Seattle gathering.