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.

One of Gates' most controversial priorities has been his attempt to encourage school districts and states to tie teacher evaluation and pay to evidence of student learning. Through the federal Race to the Top education grant competition, the Obama administration adopted this agenda, and now 33 states have passed laws overhauling the way public school teachers are evaluated.

The devil, Gates freely admits, is in the details. In his 2013 "annual letter" about his philanthropic work, released yesterday, Gates praised the Eagle County school district in Colorado, which abolished seniority-based pay and instead rewards teachers by grading them during intensive classroom observations and by factoring in their students' scores on standardized tests in math, reading, and science. Teachers of other subjects are exempted from many of the test-score based components of this system. But Eagle County's program could be seriously upended by SB191, the law Colorado passed three years ago in response to Race to the Top. The bill requires that every Colorado teacher -- even those in currently non-tested subjects, like art and music -- be evaluated according to individual students' achievement metrics. Pencil-and-paper tests are unlikely to be the best way to measure student learning in non-traditional subjects. But because tests are "cheap," as Gates puts it, some states and districts are extending them to music, art, and even gym classes.

Florida plans to roll out standardized testing in the performing arts within the next two years. Gates called the timeline "crazy." "That will contribute to giving testing a bad reputation," he said. "Whether it can be done in music and art, I have no expertise. I think we should try," but not without first "trying things out in advance." He emphasized that classroom observations, while much more expensive to effectively implement, are a key component of any high-quality teacher evaluation system, and should also be supplemented by student surveys about their teachers.

Gates said he is not overly concerned about recent revelations of test-score manipulation by teachers and principals in cities like Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, which have heavily emphasized test-driven school reform. He argued that cheating represents little more than a rounding error when measuring student achievement. A 2011 six-state investigation by USA Today, however, found over 1,000 instances of statistically implausible test score gains since 2002, when No Child Left Behind significantly ratcheted up testing pressure.

Gates acknowledged that in all his philanthropic work, unanticipated challenges usually lie in the "delivery" of transformative reforms. As Gates learned in Africa when some health workers inflated their vaccination rates to please supervisors, attempts to measure outcomes can create perverse incentives that make it even more difficult to get a grasp how well institutions and systems are functioning. These international lessons are crucial to domestic educational and social reform, as well.