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

I think there was an earlier Gates Foundation project to fix education which had a fascinating result.

They pumped a fair bit of money into a handful of schools, gave them extra resources for various things, got them doing some stuff differently or whatever. Scores went up some. Then they stopped the funding. The schools kept trying to do whatever it was, because it had seemingly worked. Scores went back down.

This seems to have been cast as ‘oh that didn’t work’, but I think it actually showed that more resources, perhaps of almost any kind, helps. The teachers at the school will figure out how to get a benefit from almost any actual valuable (and therefore non-free) resource they are given.

Essentially we know how to make schools better. We have dozens, probably hundreds or even thousands of things we could do that we know work. Problem is these things all cost money. And that isn’t what is wanted. What is desired is an answer that is free.

So instead of just spending more and getting better results we spend in dribs and drabs trying out various schemes to get something for nothing, very few of which work at all and none of which are a big deal.


One… You only hear about the failures. It is amazing how much good the Gates foundation is doing for education in third world countries around the globe.

Two… Failures like this are important because now we know that this doesn’t work. This is an obvious solution that governments have been championing for years, and any sane government would do well to review these results and realize that this is not a good path to take and select something else.

The Gates foundation is more nimble and less ideology bound than government and other non-profit entities in the area, so they have a better chance of finding something that works. They have a vested interest in the outcome, not in the process.


Even without fixing the fundamental problems, I’m sure there are relatively easy improvements that could be made to education, and it all helps, and good for Bill Gates for at least trying (and trying to be scientific about it). But, as @Lexicat alluded to above, the difficulty is knowing who to ask – the right people probably aren’t business titans or technical wunderkinds.

Everyone has access to information now, but knowledge is just as locked up in silos as it ever was. If you wave $800million in twenties in the air and say “who knows how to improve education?” , you’ll get plenty of suggestions, but if you want to know which are truly wise, money can’t buy you that. In fact, if you’re Bill Gates, it’ll be harder, because everyone you talk to just sees a fat wad of cash, the way Wile E. Coyote sees Roadrunner as a roast chicken, and they’ll try to work an angle on some level.

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Out of the gate with a “nice reply” and multiple replies to it: a hearty welcome to BoingBoing!

ETA: personally, I was thinking spend the money on textbooks but maybe I’m a little old-fashioned.

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Speaking of education, I didn’t know that Google was really big in schools, and sometimes the opt-out isn’t easy.

He’s actually probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives at least through his foundation, maybe quite a bit more. What have you done with your wealth lately?

Spending that money on textbooks would have done far more good.

It most definitely is. Generally similar to our office-cat, but ours is definitely not fluffy.

This is why it is really helpful, if at all possible, to have a control group. It might not even be the funding – just having someone external select your school and pay attention to it and monitor outcomes may be responsible for some or all of the benefit. It would even be pretty advantageous to have two control groups: one where the researchers engage with the schools and monitor their performance, one where they do that and the school gets equivalent extra resources for their general fund, and compare both to the experimental group.

There are serious ethical issues about pure controlled experiments in education settings, but that is what is needed to really show that your proposed treatment is helpful. And in many cases you would probably find that the treatment may do better than the baseline, but does worse than the “general grant” control and possibly even worse than the control that gets no resources.

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I think mixed-methods data is appropriate, but yeah. The irony being that educational administrators should have been exposed to qualitative research data methods at some point in their training, so they should know better than most how to gather and interpret that data.

I’ve never understood why this is perceived to be an insurmountable problem by so many people, including those on the inside. Teaching is a unique practice in many ways, but it’s not magically opaque or unmeasurable, and the disproportionately critical role of the teaching profession to our society means there should be greater onus on teachers to promote excellence within their own ranks than in most sectors.

There are many outstanding teachers; we all had some. There are many terrible teachers; we all had some. We should be able to agree – in particular those responsible for training and for hiring teachers should be able to agree – on some simple identifiable criteria that allow us to distinguish good from bad, so that we can both identify and model excellent practices and remove from the profession those who are doing their students more harm than good.

No, those criteria won’t (just) involve test scores and big data algorithms, and the Gates’ initiative appears to be a great example of how not to do it. Yes, a lot of that data should be observational and reflective and qualitative. Yes, that means work on the part of school admins and faculty, because peer evaluations should be a critical source of information. Absolutely, greater funding for education is a necessity before any meaningful education reform can be achieved (teacher salaries not being the least of it). But meaningful and valid assessment of teaching competence and teaching excellence isn’t impossible, and it should be a piece of the puzzle.

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Nah! Can’t be the real problem! Must be “culture”! Or parents! etc! /s

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