Can Big Data Save American Schools? Bill Gates Is Betting on Yes

The world's largest private charity is taking the strategy it sharpened while fighting malaria and malnutrition in Africa to target under-achievement in the U.S. public-school system

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Bill Gates trumpeted his numbers-driven approach to philanthropy at a Manhattan meeting with six reporters and writers, including myself, Wednesday afternoon, where he laid out his wish list for how to improve data-gathering efforts to address social, health, and economic problems around the world.

The world's most generous donor also launched a few missives aimed at fellow philanthropists -- who, he says, devote too much funding to disaster-relief in the wake of floods and earthquakes, and too little to sustained improvements that prevent disasters from wreaking such havoc. He also took aim at the federal government, which he said should spend more money on research and development on innovative policy reforms, particularly in public education.


Aid for bed nets, vaccines, and agricultural assistance has helped reduce childhood deaths in the developing world by 250,000 per year since 1998, and half of all African children are now arriving at school having survived once-deadly health traumas like malaria, malnutrition, or polio. But while surging survival rates are encouraging, an often-ignored side effect is that "the kids who live are damaged," Gates said, cognitively impaired by disease in ways that impede learning in the classroom. He'd like to gather better information on exactly how physical health problems impair neurological functioning, and though he didn't say so, this information would also be valuable in the United States, where early childhood exposure to lead and poor diets affect brain development.

Economic growth, Gates said, has been woefully mis-measured throughout Africa, especially in Nigeria, whose official GDP is expected to grow by a massive 60 percent this year, due partly to previous mistakes in how it was calculated. The underestimation of GDP can dissuade investment, artificially depressing a nation's economy. But there is also a well-developed critique of GDP, associated with Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, who argue the measurement is a bad proxy for the factors that most impact people's lives, such as inequality, environmental sustainability, health, and life satisfaction.


On the domestic front, Gates expects his foundation to devote increasing resources to ranking colleges not by how selective or prestigious they are -- the infamous U.S. News and World Report model, which Gates called a "perverse metric" -- but on how aggressively they recruit underperforming students, provide them with a rigorous education, and then place them in remunerative careers. Real success in higher education, Gates, said, would mean accepting a student with "a combined SAT score of 600, and they got $100,000 jobs, and they're super happy." He also hopes to rank teachers' colleges according to how well their graduates perform in the classroom, but warned that real "excellence" in teacher education is probably a long way off.

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Dana Goldstein is a staff writer at The Marshall Project. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.

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