The Great Gates Mea Culpa
by Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, Jr.
There is a wonderful line in a song in "Fiddler On The Roof" as Tevye imagines himself as a rich man fielding questions from admirers "And it won't make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong," he sings. "When you're rich, they think you really know."
Over the past 20 years or so, we have been treated to the spectacle of wealthy philanthropists, many of whom earned their wealth in digital technologies, throwing their money at the nation's public schools in an effort to raise the quality of education. They apparently believed their vast wealth endowed them with wisdom unavailable to ordinary people. But one after another, these visionary projects have come unraveled. Vast amounts of money have been spent without rendering any detectable improvement in the public schools.
Perhaps the most conspicuous of these well-meaning billionaires were Bill and Melinda Gates who through their Gates Foundation have pumped more than $3 billion since 1999 into school reforms. They have pursued a variety of initiatives - primarily smaller schools, better teachers, the Common Core curriculum and all of it of course predicated on the assumption that computers are the key to success. All of their clever schemes have involved commitment by politicians and the education establishment. All to no avail.
Now Bill and Melissa Gates, to their credit, have acknowledged that their efforts have missed the mark. The CEO of their foundation Sue Desmond-Hellman issued a statement to that effect. "It is really tough to create more great public schools," she wrote. "This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn't have all the answers."
What we have here is hubris on parade. Bill and Melinda Gates and a host of other billionaires have squandered a lot of money, and have brought about major changes in public education, without accomplishing anything. The educational establishment has gone along with this folly and wasted much of its time and resources, not to mention credibility.
There are in fact many successful experiments in schooling that are producing remarkable results, experiments that cry out to be replicated, but by and large they have not attracted the attention of rich philanthropists who have been determined to impose their vision on the schools. They mean well but their egos got in the way.
The solution is on display for any who will look for it and learn from the professional educators who know what they are doing and are out there doing it. I personally know of one such school, and have read accounts of many others. But we have to get away from the notion that the solution to this problem lies with egotistical billionaires or bureaucrats in Washington. The time has come to abandon grand theories and swollen egos and focus instead on what works.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.