By Anthony Cody. 

In recent weeks we have heard something new from Bill Gates and the new CEO of the Gates Foundation. A bit of humility regarding their overseas work. It remains to be seen if this sort of reflection will be applied to their domestic work in the field of education.

A month ago, Bill Gates hosted a summit in Seattle to look back on a decade of his Grand Challenges project, which has sought to motivate innovative technological solutions to problems that contribute to poverty in poorer parts of the world.

A report in the Seattle Times explains,

When he took the stage this fall to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his signature global health research initiative, Bill Gates used the word “naive” — four times — to describe himself and his charitable foundation.

Not only did he underestimate some of the scientific hurdles, Gates said. He and his team also failed to adequately consider what it would take to implement new technologies in countries where millions of people lack access to basic necessities such as clean water and medical care.

Sue Desmond-Hellman, the new CEO of the Gates Foundation expanded on this, and struck a note of humility in an interview published yesterday. Desmond-Hellman brings with her two years of experience teaching in Uganda, and explained,

On a very practical level, that time in Uganda was a lesson about what it takes to work successfully in a different culture. “I learned about what it really takes to work at scale in a poor country. As a western academician, as a Gates Foundation person, the first thing you should be doing is listening and learning. And have a huge sense of humility about what you don’t know,” she said.

It is a welcome sign that the world’s largest philanthropic organization may be willing to look critically at their work. The Gates Foundation has a fundamental belief that market forces and technology can combine to improve the lives of the poor – and this outlook drives their investments. This has led them to push GMOs and chemical fertilizers as part of a new “green revolution” in agriculture. This has tended to displace traditional agriculture, and make farmers dependent on these expensive technologies.

Education is the chief priority for the Gates Foundation within the United States. We have yet to see much sign of reflection or humility in this arena. Gates entered the field with guns ablazing, investing heavily in what he called experimentation.

Back in 2008, Gates described the aggressive approach his foundation was taking:

There’s a lot of issues about governance, whether its school boards or unions, where you want to allow for experimentation, in terms of pay procedures, management procedures, to really prove out new things. As those things start working on behalf of the students, then I believe the majority of teachers and voters will be open-minded to these new approaches. And so we have to take it a step at a time. They have to give us the opportunity for this experimentation.

The cities where our foundation has put the most money in, is where there’s a single person responsible – in New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, the mayor has responsibility for the school system, and so instead of having a committee of people, you have that one person. And that’s where we’ve seen the willingness to take on some of the older practices and try new things, and we’ve seen very good results in all three of those cities, so there are some lessons that have already been learned. We need to make more investments, and I do think the teachers will come along, because after all they’re there because they believe in helping the students as well.

This was followed by the Foundation’s multimillion dollar investment in the anti-public school propaganda film, Waiting for Superman, and the promotion of Michelle Rhee as a model reformer. At the same time, top level Gates Foundation staff migrated over to the new Obama administration Department of Education, and Federal policy was aligned with foundation goals. That meant federal dollars were directed towards the promotion of charter schools, including test scores in teacher evaluations, and the development and spread of the Common Core.

In 2010, Gates spoke to state legislators, and told them,

Aligning teaching with the common core – and building common data standards – will help us define excellence, measure progress, test new methods, and compare results. Finally, we will apply the tools of science to school reform.

In 2011, he and his wife Melinda wrote this,

It may surprise you–it was certainly surprising to us–but the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching. We have all known terrific teachers. You watch them at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft. But nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them so outstanding.

This ignorance has serious ramifications. We can’t give teachers the right kind of support because there’s no way to distinguish the right kind from the wrong kind. We can’t evaluate teaching because we are not consistent in what we’re looking for. We can’t spread best practices because we can’t capture them in the first place.

Thus Gates has denied that the teaching profession holds any expertise about its own field, and insisted that only the solutions he has created will bring “science” to bear.

The closest thing to reflection we have seen have been some modest notes acknowledging the frustrations teachers have expressed over the often absurd and onerous evaluation systems that have resulted from Gates Foundation policy initiatives. But while Gates and some of his staff have acknowledged that there have been unfortunate excesses, they have failed to grapple with the fact that Value Added Models, (VAM), the use of test score predictions as a part of teacher evaluations, has been completely discredited. Their grants and funded advocacy continues to push for this across the country. Neither have they come to grips with the fact that charter schools are not yielding better results, and are actually increasing segregation, and sapping resources from public schools. And they continue to push the toxic recipe of “rigorous” standards and high stakes tests, in spite of the lack of evidence that this will help.

As we learn that now the majority of students attending public schools in the US live in poverty, will the Gates Foundation finally realize that this must be directly confronted?

One would hope that the humility expressed by Gates Foundation CEO Desmond-Hellman might translate into a willingness to hear and truly respond to critics in the field of education. Perhaps here, as in Uganda, there might be things the Gates Foundation could learn from those of us with decades of experience. I last tried to engage with foundation leaders in 2012, with little success. My recent book, The Educator and the Oligarch, a Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation, provides more feedback, if anyone there might be interested. Unfortunately, my own recent experience with the Education Writers Association, which receives major funding from the Gates Foundation, suggests there is a well-policed echo chamber surrounding their work in this field. It is time for a change.

What do you think? Will the Gates Foundation recognize the need to learn from their mistakes in education?


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. teacherken    

    Perhaps the ceo of the foundation should look at the track record behind them. They were wrong on how they tried to big foot health care in Africa. They were wrong on how they tried to big foot small schools. In other words, on their two signature efforts, they were wrong, and they have at one point or another admitted as much. So why should we think they are right on anything else when they propose their next big-foot initiative?

    The foundation operates like Microsoft operated. They try to buy you out, and if they cannot get you to agree to them they fund something against you. Remember, Microsoft got started by offering an operating system for IBM personal computers which they did not develop, but bought from someone else.

    Oh, and perhaps they should have someone work with Bill and Melinda so they do not continue with their foot in mouth disease. If New York, Chicago and DC public schools are supposed to be examples of “success” it is only in how public funds have been transferred into for profit entities with little benefit to the vast majority of students in those systems, even by the false standard of test scores. Meanwhile communities have lost the anchors of public schools, students in Chicago dropped out rather than walk across dangerous gang territory, and even the conservative Chicago Tribune was critical of the results of its city’s school reorganization.

    If Bill Gates still thinks that using the example of standardized electrical plugs helps anyone meaningfully understand how to approach public school education, it is amazing with anyone with the mental capacity of a 6 year old continues to listen to his bloviations on education.

    I had some hope when they were at first willing to engage with you, Anthony, but as your book makes clear, that was not because they really were interested in learning from you. You were an effective critic and they were attempting to minimize the damage you were doing to them.

    If and when the Foundation, rather than coopting any possible opposition and attempting to crowd out any voices that remain critical, begins to truly listen and learn from those who actually understand teaching and learning, then perhaps what they have to offer will be useful and of benefit to our students. In the meantime, their approach somehow just always seems to benefit the corporate coffers of Microsoft, Pearson (and remember those two firms have a partnership), hedge fund operators, and corporatizers who insist they they are entitled to public money for their charter chains but are not subject to the sunshine laws and transparency required of truly public entities. If that remains the effect of what the Gates Foundation supports, then we should continue to oppose them at every opportunity.

    1. ira shor    

      Excellent, articulate, accurate, wise, thank you. Gates bloated in a 2000 NYT news report on his “humility” vis a vis what tech could accomplish in societies where people live on $1/day. A photo of his humble face accompanied the report of Gates rethinking tech as a panacea. Still, these last 15 yrs show no impact from that long-ago moment of “humility.” Gates only appears humble and only appears willing to learn from his mistakes and then humble when his vast wealth fails to improve the world. In fact, he is not humble or teachable. He is arrogant and single-minded in his pursuit of the next tech gimmick which enhances the market position of Microsoft, Pearson, and their ilk.

  2. chemtchr    

    Sucker. What they’re interested in learning is how to get away with it. The world has caught them with their hand in the cookie jar in Africa, and their cover story that they’re only trying to help has unraveled. The Gates Foundation is a predatory, tax-deductable business cartel for big pharma and corporate agriculture, and it has helped them pillage the public assets of third world countries, just as it has here.

    So, here you stand as their last loyal defender. They just made a mistake. They crippled in-country medical development to favor their entrepreneurial enterprises, and the enterprises delivered profits to their own stock portfoliios, don’t get me wrong, but only losses for the peoples. Oops, my bad.

    As to the new CEO, you wrote, “Desmond-Hellman brings with her two years of experience teaching in Uganda.” Yes, apparently you really did. I checked to see if it was in quotes, hoping some other putz has fallen for that spin-doctor-phrase.

    She says, ““I learned about what it really takes to work at scale in a poor country.”

    And she has learned. “Work at scale” means take control of the decision making capacity at the ministries of agriculture and health, and at international agencies that control investment, and at the World Health Organization. It means crippling the democratic capacity of a people to resist you, same as it does here. They’ll get there. They just need another chance, now that they’re humble.

  3. chemtchr    

    Desmond-Hellman will have to be more humble to devise a way impose the costs of proprietary monoculture on the people of Uganda, in a way that guarantees the profits of Monsanto stockholders like Gates. That’s the Gates Foundation’s bald-faced official philanthropic principle.

    You have to first guarantee profitability for the corporate investors, so they can bring the wonders of their innovations to scale. When the monoculture crop fails, and leave the people starving, they are still liable for your royalties. You still get to take your profits, tax-free, and reinvest them in a new conquest. As a penance, you confess to the world that you were naive. You just didn’t understand how backward those people are.

    “These trials funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are being carried out under the leadership of Dr. Wendy White of the Iowa State University, on 12 young students, with the intention of introducing the GM banana first in Uganda and later, to other countries in East Africa. The GM banana, currently undergoing field trials in Uganda, was developed by scientists at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, similarly also funded by the Gates Foundation.”

    “We question what firm conclusions can be drawn from feeding trials of young people residing in the United States for poor rural farmers and consumers in Africa”

    “Great strides have been made in the Philippines, another target country for Vitamin enhanced GM crops, through government programs that supply supplements and improve access to vitamin A rich foods, to overcome Vitamin A deficiencies. This is done without the enormous costs or unknown long- term impacts on health, the environment and farming systems that are entailed by using GM crops. And it is more completely in control of the user society.”

  4. rbeckley58    

    Any Gates epiphany may come too late – not only for a sane, quality education, but for a school culture of democracy and creativity.

    1. chemtchr    

      You are speaking the truth, rbeckley58. And also too late for an Africa of health, justice, and abundance. Desmond-Hellman has been working to take colonialist exploitation of Uganda to scale. This is a continent whose people have no way to fight her, because they are under attack from all sides. No, she hasn’t been “teaching”, in Uganda. She has been imposing corporate domination on their ministries, to harvest profit from the medical and agricultural infrastructure of a real people, with real human rights.

      While my husband was a post doc in international health at UC Davis, in the nineties, I took large amounts of beta carotene and donated several horse syringes of my blood, to be exposed to cigarette smoke. Beta carotene isn’t just a precursor molecule to vitamin A, but to a whole raft of retinoids, many of which are pro-inflammatory and carcinogenic. We got that paper out just as a group in Finland discovered their beta carotene trial had raised the cancer rate dramatically in their study of smokers.

      The forced introduction of this proprietary crop, to replace a staple food source, is scientifically unconscionable. There are important and specific medical objections. Scientists trying to say so are facing the same kind of retaliation and repression we face here, as educators. I’m calling people names like sucker to make it clear I’m not attacking their integrity, but only their gullibility. However, at some point we in the West have a responsibility to the rest of the world’s peoples, when our favorite billionaire philanthropists are given free reign to exploit them for profit under our tax laws.

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