Despite having the world’s richest economy, the United States still struggles to make quality education accessible to many of its children, especially students of color in low-income communities.
Last week, Bill Gates said the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a partner of Global Citizen, would commit almost $1.7 billion to public education innovations in the United States with the goal of making education more accessible to all.
To help remedy these educational inequities, the world’s most generous philanthropist recently announced a massive investment in the United States’ public education system.
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“Every student should get a great public education and graduate with skills to succeed in the marketplace,” Gates said during a speech at the Council of the Great City Schools conference in Cleveland, Ohio. “The role of philanthropy here is not to be the primary funder, but rather to fund pilots, to fund new ideas, to let people — it’s always the educators coming up with the ideas — to let them try them out and see what really works super well and get those to scale.”
About 60% of the funding will support "the development of new curricula and networks of schools that work together to identify local problems and solutions," Gates said, adding that local educators will drive much of the planning.
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“The actual tactics about great teaching, about how to reform the schedule, how to get students who are off track on track — those will be driven by the schools themselves,” he continued.
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Gates also noted that systemic issues, including racial disparities, hinder many students’ ability to receive a quality education. His goal is to strengthen public schools in the US so they offer a higher quality of education, and make that education equally accessible to children.
“When disaggregated by race, we see two Americas,” he said. “One where white students perform along the lines of the best in the world — with achievement comparable to countries like Finland and Korea.”
In the other, he continued, “Black and Latino students perform comparably to the students in the lowest performing” bracket of the 35 developed countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
This isn’t the first time the Gates Foundation has invested heavily in the United States’ public education system. With a personal net worth of $89.5 billion, according to Forbes, Gates and his foundation have donated $41.3 billion to global development, public health and education since 2000. In the past, he and his foundation have funded innovations like smaller schools, teacher evaluation systems and a nationwide Common Core curriculum.
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In hindsight, many education experts said, those top-down initiatives did not accommodate local ideas and diverse community experiences. But many now say they welcome the Gates Foundation’s revised approach.
“To me, it says that he and the Gates Foundation leadership has perhaps listened to some of the criticism of their more top-down, outside expert-driven approach to philanthropy in education,” Megan Tompkins-Stange, a University of Michigan public policy professor told Education Week. “I could not have predicted the new approach they would take would heighten the focus on communities having more autonomy.”
“A new approach that sets its sights on the school, not the corporate boardroom as the center of educational improvement, and providing support to schools as they undertake that work is a step in the right direction,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten.
Gates plans to invest the $1.7 billion he committed last week over the course of five years. Some education experts say the huge investment needs to come with a sustained commitment — even if initial plans fail — and wonder about the long-term support his investment might provide.
“Will they be ready to help their school partners when new programs don’t work out so well?” wrote Non-Profit Quarterly columnist Martin Levine. “Their business model has been to develop a strategy, fund its beginnings, and then, if it does not meet expectations, cut their losses and move on.”
“Especially in high-need communities, it takes a lot of money and people to sustain change,” University of California, Los Angeles education professor Pedro Noguera told Education Week. “Hopefully they are learning from past efforts to more smartly leverage change.”
Disclosure: Bill Gates is the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a funding partner of Global Citizen.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated to include a disclosure that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen. We regret the oversight.