Bill Gates Talks Successes & Failures in First Annual Letter

I feel like a Bill Gates fanboy. He’s one of the few public figures that I seem to continually bring up in my posts because I think so highly of his move from Microsoft to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation six months ago. When he first made the announcement that he had planned to do that, it was an acknowledgment to the entire world that we are facing extremely grave social problems, and that it was going to take commitment from talented people to solve those problems. And it was like a high five for the nonprofit sector. Thanks Billy.

Recently, Bill released a public letter about the foundation’s  efforts to improve education and global health, as well as the impact of the economic downturn on those efforts.

What I liked about the letter was Bill’s candid review of the foundation’s successes and failures, particularly in the education field. He discusses that even though they’ve made over $2 billion in grants to create better high schools over the last nine years, “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” Rather than investing in existing schools to improve their systems, the foundation will focus on creating new schools out of radical charter school models that work, like KIPP, and invest in systems that will foster the creation of better teachers. He said, “If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.”


He also praised the Obama administration for committing to education despite the recession and dwindling tax revenues, as we saw with the education portion of the stimulus plan.

I also wanted to point out that the foundation’s website says “Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation BETA.”

Seriously? BETA? Come on… What’s up with this beta culture spreading to the nonprofit sector?

Check out the lengthy letter at this link or by clicking the pic above. If you don’t want to read all 20 pages of the letter, I’ve picked out a few choice excerpts from the U.S. Education page after the jump:

How many kids don’t get the same chance to achieve their full potential? The number is very large. Every year, 1 million kids drop out of high school. Only 71 percent of kids graduate from high school within four years, and for minorities the numbers are even worse—58 percent for Hispanics and 55 percent for African Americans. If the decline in childhood deaths I mentioned earlier is one of the most positive statistics ever, these are some of the most negative. The federal No Child Left Behind Act isn’t perfect, but it has forced us to look at each school’s results and realize how poorly we are doing overall. It surprises me that more parents are not upset about the education their own kids are receiving.

Nine years ago, the foundation decided to invest in helping to create better high schools, and we have made over $2 billion in grants. The goal was to give schools extra money for a period of time to make changes in the way they were organized (including reducing their size), in how the teachers worked, and in the curriculum. The hope was that after a few years they would operate at the same cost per student as before, but they would have become much more effective.

Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way. These tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum. We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school.

Even so, many schools had higher attendance and graduation rates than their peers. While we were pleased with these improvements, we are trying to raise college-ready graduation rates, and in most cases, we fell short.

One of the key things these schools have done is help their teachers be more effective in the classroom. It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one. Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.

Whenever I talk to teachers, it is clear that they want to be great, but they need better tools so they can measure their progress and keep improving. So our new strategy focuses on learning why some teachers are so much more effective than others and how best practices can be spread throughout the education system so that the average quality goes up. We will work with some of the best teachers to put their lectures online as a model for other teachers and as a resource for students.

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