The Gates Foundation spent $775m on a Big Data education project that was worse than useless

Originally published at:


It might never be.

Welcome to my life.


@doctorow I think you copy pasted the wrong URL to the Bloomberg article.

You used

The Recycling Game Is Rigged Against You

But the article is actually

Here’s How Not to Improve Public Schools


Proving (again) that humans are not computers that can be predicted and manipulated using algorithms. Sure, an algorithm can target us with ads to push an entire population in a certain direction, but they can’t assess us individually. Most of the people who get served ads probably aren’t affected by them, but that doesn’t matter because even a small percentage of several thousands or millions is enough for the advertisers. This doesn’t apply for teachers in schools though, where you want to assess individual performance in detail. The system is too complex, and really needs qualitative data, not quantitative.


I’m sick of that guy. All the money in the world and he has no idea how to use it effectively. I’m glad he pursues altruistic things at all but when I hear about him spending money on projects I always think “he’s going to burn through that cash and change nothing”. He might as well pay peoples medical bills if he wants to use his fortune to really be helping people. I’m sure he could keep doing it for quite a while.


I wonder how many extra teachers could have just been hired for nearly a billion dollars, thereby reducing class sizes and giving students more personal attention.

But public schools are pretty much doomed with the SC news today, they will get rulings that allow public money to be extracted for private/corporate schools. It’s most definitely on the agenda. BTW aren’t they eliminating department of education by folding it into department of labor for no reason?

This country is going to be so incredibly weird by 2024, a shadow.


Ditto bb4me. The one thing we know works in education, without a shadow of statistical doubt, is that smaller class sizes generate better results. But acting on that is somehow off-limits and “throwing money at the problem”.


No one gets rich when you just hire more teachers. Tests, curriculums, smartboards, software suites, one laptop per child–those are ways someone gets rich. That’s where the money will get thrown.


If the Gates Foundation really want to help this country, they should drop a billion or two into the midterms then in 2020 to support Dems/Progressives.


Funny. When I googled “autistic savants” yesterday (spurred by a Futility Closet article then), this popped up:


Looks like a disconnect, but it might actually explain a couple of things…


It’s almost like the biggest problems with public education in the US aren’t caused by the organization and methods at the school/classroom level, but are instead rooted in deep, systematic societal failures related to neoliberal capitalism… A system where the most economically disadvantaged students go to the worst schools and whose families have the least amount of time to devote to their children… Where students who might not even be getting enough calories on a daily basis have to constantly devote mental energy to existential crises rather than math homework. Can’t fix that with a cart of laptops and a fancy survey.


I … I don’t think that’s true actually. I mean, beyond a certain size, sure. But the performance at class_size=30 is about the same as at class_size=20.

There are lots of things we know don’t work, though:

  • streaming. Classes of mixed abilities work better than streaming all the ‘smart kids’ into one group and all the ‘dummies’ into another. The better outcomes apply to BOTH the smart kids and the dummies - the dummies get relatable instruction from their peers, and the smart kids really master the material by having to teach it.
  • demonising and devaluing teachers. The reasoning here is hopefully self evident, although giving the amount of demonising and devaluing going on, maybe it isn’t?

The problem I have with all these ‘reward excellent teachers, get rid of bad teachers’ is that it’s invariably tied to a zero sum (no increase in overall budget) or negative sum (reduced or reducing budget). On the surface it sounds great, but even awesome teachers can only teach so many kids per week - who, then, is going to teach all the other kids? I’d much rather see the whole pool of teachers be supported to improve so that all kids get a decent education, rather than singling out a few rockstars.

Takes the position that, yes, reducing class size does matter. Consider that specific conceded, although I wouldn’t put it as strongly as ‘without a shadow of a statistical doubt.’


Have you ever been in a room of 30 pre-teen kids? It is an absolute zoo. 20 is still crazy but remotely possible to manage if you are lucky.

You are forgetting that teachers are now babysitters, not just doing their job teaching but having to make up for massive parent deficiencies, apathy and/or poverty. At least in public schools. Sure this isn’t a “new” problem but it is massively amplified now, instead of just a few kids, it’s half the class that needs extra attention.

Since nearly anyone can be a parent, many often are and unfortunately teachers become the last line between a child having a good future or not. 1/20 ratio is way better chance than 1/30 ratio 1/10 would be a perfect world but of course unless you are very wealthy, that’s never ever happening.


You are assuming that my kids didn’t go to a bottom decile school, where visits from the police and social welfare were routine, behavioural problems were common, and English as a second, third, or null language was normal. And where they had a great education from mostly committed and passionate teachers.


Thanks! Hit that thing where Bloomberg helpfully loads a different article when you reach the end of the article you’re reading.


His work on polio and malaria certainly seems to be effective and inline with what the WHO and other organizations suggest. His goal of eradicating malaria in 30 years may be completely unrealistic, but that doesnt’ mean fighting it doesn’t do a lot of good.

I wonder how many extra teachers could have just been hired for nearly a billion dollars, thereby reducing class sizes and giving students more personal attention.[/quote]

Depends on what you mean. If you mean “1B would have made a great study of how much hiring teachers helps” then you are probably right. If you think $1B would make a huge impact nationwide, probably not. Google says an average public teacher salary in the US is around $58K. Add in benefits and payroll taxes, and lets say you can hire 10,000 teachers for 1 year for $.75B. According to the US department of education, there are 3.2 million full time equivalent teachers in the US public schools. So 10,000 teachers is a lot, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to what we would need to make an overall change, even if you only target poor / “underperforming” schools.

Honestly I think the biggest issue is that we are attacking the wrong problem. Our education system can use improvement no doubt, but the main problems are poverty and prejudice. Say you have a bunch of children who are growing up in poverty, rationally believe there is very little chance of them escaping poverty, and see pervasive discrimination where they aren’t given equal opportunities, and see that much of society views them as a nuisance and a burden." Then say those children tend to do poorly in school. How weird is it that we assume the school is the main problem in this equation? I am all for more education spending, but I think we need to work on wealth inequality and childhood poverty before we expect to see amazing results in education.


The “small schools” thing (slightly different than small classrooms, but grounded in the same confounded stats) was a previous failed Gates education initiative that they shut down after the evidence showed it wasn’t having the desired effect. Diane Ravitch (Secretary of Education under Reagan, has spent the rest of her career calling BS on various kinds of “school reform”) has written about that in a couple places. The Gates Foundation shows up in more than one section in one of her books The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, the relevant part of which is more or less replicated in this 2008 Forbes article.

The Gates Foundation is, IMO, slightly better than most education reform jackasses. They are actually looking for a silver bullet way to improve education, get real independent evaluations of their efforts, and switch strategies when one doesn’t pan out - which is better than most “education reformers” who are simple grifters and don’t care what the results are as long as their profit or ideological motive holds.

There is some evidence that outcomes are better with relatively-small classes, and it’s intuitive that smaller classes with more tailoring would be better, but from what I’ve seen, smaller classes (like every silver bullet education idea) stop looking like they have a consistent large effect when you make better efforts to work the stats to separate for things like “smaller classes” vs “smaller classes as a proxy for affluence.”


A common “dark pattern” in the charity of capitalists (including private individuals, and extra-governmental organizations like the World Bank) is that their projects are fundamentally grounded not in human rights or labor rights, but in paying the ‘charitable’ funding to people who come from their team (so often dressed with rhetorical sops about fixing social ills with meritocratic and technocratic solutions).

With Gates, it’s giving ‘charity’ to developers of his algorithmic fix while accomplishing harm to faculty and students. If you’re the World Bank, it’s paying contractors from first-world donor countries to pour concrete for the hydro electric dam that will provide the energy to smelt bauxite ore so that Americans, Brits, Norwegians, etc. can have Coke™ cans and 747s, while the displaced people who’s watershed you destroyed go without electrification.

We’re great at being rich! Let’s go be rich all over the faces of those less powrful folks, maybe being rich will rub off on them?


Explanation aside, that is one gorgeous schnorglepuss!

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Gates & Co. are not the first to try big initiatives in education. The foundation’s game plan seems to involve making large bets on daunting problems, collecting lots of data, and being honest about what the data show. You can fault them for this. I’d prefer not to.

At least not too much - I have my own concerns with some of the methods in the project, and could have predicted some of the resistance in the profession. But overall, sticking with a 6-year initiative, getting wide professional and geographic representation, using multiple instruments from multiple sources to measure results, and being willing to spend to do it - these are big steps that most education initiatives can’t pull off. The fact the this project mostly failed isn’t embarrassing for Gates - it’s discouraging for all of us.

From the Bloomberg article:

Those other measures, such as parent and student surveys, are also biased: As every pollster knows, the answer depends on how you frame the question.

Come on. This is reductive and insulting to the assessment people on the project.