Gates, Zuckerberg … and the limits on educational philanthropy.

Both threw much money at education with disappointing results.


Two related reports hit over the weekend.

The first announced that the Gates Foundation would spend more than $1.7 billion over the next five years to pay for new initiatives in K-12 public education. The plan is a “redirection” of prior initiatives. More on that later.

As the Washington Post observed, Gates’ prior mega-contributions to improve K-12 education “didn’t go so well, but the man, if anything, is persistent.”


The second story dealt with Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to improving Newark NJ’s schools. A report was released indicating disappointing results. More on that later, too.


I commend both Gates and Zuckerberg for throwing a massive amount of money at improving education. Their intentions seem good and the amounts of money are, as we say in academia, statistically significant.

That said, what’s going on?



Let’s deal with Zuckerberg and Newark first.

Mark Z. threw his money into a political maelstrom stirred by Christie, Booker and the teacher’s unions.

So, odds were stacked against the initiative from the get-go.

Much of the money went down the rabbit hole of teacher and administrator pay raises.

Hoped-for gains from “within school reforms” – efforts to improve existing schools by replacing principals, redesigning accountability, and focusing on Common Core standards – generated equivocal improvements.

The most significant gains came when students transferred from bad schools to better schools – largely when low-performing schools closed (partially funded by the Zuckerberg money) and students were moved to better-performing schools … or when students voluntarily moved to charter schools.

The biggest takeaway: throwing well-intended money at improving under-performing schools just didn’t work … but closing them did.


The Gates initiative was more substantial – over $1 billion – and more controversial.

Much of the money went to supporting implementation of the politically-charged Common Core.

So far, gains from the Common Core are equivocal, so the pay-off from the Gates’ boost is, too.

Another chunk of money was dedicated to improving teacher effectiveness by implementing data-driven metrics.

English translation: paying and promoting teachers based on students’ standardized test scores.

Teachers haven’t bought in to that idea and data-driven evaluations are largely being shelved.

The third major thrust was supporting charter schools and smaller-sized public schools.

Bottom line: Gates concluded that these initiatives yielded equivocal results  … and, even when they worked, they couldn’t be scaled.

So, the new Gate’s money infusion is being directed to “data-driven continuous improvement in networks of public schools.”

Translation: business as usual with no expectation of noticeable near-term improvement.



Again, I laud Gates and Zuckerberg for trying … and for putting their money where their mouths are.

But, their experiences reconfirm that getting the US education system up to a higher performance level is a major challenge … impeded, not speeded by political forces.


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One Response to “Gates, Zuckerberg … and the limits on educational philanthropy.”

  1. SJ Says:

    The equation in the US public school system is simple: better socio-economic demographics = better parenting = better students = better schools.

    It is demand what drives quality and not the educational supply. Conclusion: stop the war on the family stemming from the “Great Society” programs if you want to improve student performance.

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