How the Gates Foundation Got So Hard

For many progressive educators, especially those long involved with the small schools movement, the Gates Foundation has long seemed wrong-headed, prescriptive, and top-down in its efforts.

They, along with NCLB and standardized testing in general, are seen by critics as being the big bullies on the education block.

How fascinating then to learn that, according to Education Next, at least, the Gates effort started out as a much more starry-eyed (and progressive) effort that only slowly turned into something more hard-boiled later.

Whether this is a good thing or not is another question.

That's the basic premise of the Education Next piece, A Foundation Goes to School, which chronicles the evolution of the foundation's grant-giving "from utopian to pragmatic, from progressive to agnostic, and from person-focused to system-focused."

"Those early grant recipients included [Ted] Sizer; Larry Rosenstock, creator of San Diego’s High Tech High, which emphasized project-based internships in local businesses; Dennis Littky, founder of The Big Picture Company, which was dedicated to reproducing the progressive Met High School in Providence, Rhode Island, throughout the country; and Doug Thomas, who had developed a Minnesota-based teacher cooperative."

However, the foundation found out that "the project-based schools sponsored by the foundation were proving difficult to reproduce and hard to make work for young people who had not connected to school." (Coincidentally, there's a piece in Education Week about the evaluation results here: Gates High Schools Get Mixed Review in Study).

And so the foundation's grant-making changed from its initial focus on bringing computers to schools and progressive ideas about school reform espoused by Tony Wagner and others to its more recent interests in charter schools, "traditional forms of instruction [like KIPP and Early College] that would horrify the progressive educators who received most of the early small-schools grants," and even private school models like Cristo Rey.

Now, none of this will satisfy the foundation's many critics in education circles, or change the foundation's modest successes. And, to be sure, the Education Next piece is perhaps too kind to the foundation in its effort to make sense of what has seemed from the outside to be a series of hard-to-follow course corrections. (The article's author has been funded at various times with Gates money, as have I.)

However, it is a fascinating peek inside the workings of the field's most prominent foundation and the difficult decisions that foundation staff have to make -- as well as at least a partial explanation of the recent gyrations that the foundation seems to have been going through.

Read More:
17 States Get $5.2M in Private Funds from NGA to to Improve High Schools (EdWeek)

Previous Posts:
Dear Tom: What Is Going On at the Gates Foundation?
Gates Foundation: Not Just About Small Schools Anymore
The End of Small Schools--Or The Beginning?
Small Schools Ups & Downs.

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