The Education of Bill and Melinda

The Gates Foundation has spent over $1 billion to fix the troubled U.S. high school system, and the Gateses have learned a lot along the way

The world's biggest philanthropists, Bill and Melinda Gates, are best known for tackling some of the most vexing issues in global health -- AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in developing nations. Their $29 billion foundation has saved countless lives, providing vaccines and other drugs in far-flung regions where health care is poor.

The couple gets far less notice for their work much closer to home -- funneling huge sums into U.S. high school education reform. So far, the Gateses have spent more than $1 billion trying to fix failing high schools. And it turns out that education reform is every bit as daunting as some of the global health crises the couple is targeting. Six years into their high school reform efforts, the Gateses have had some successes, made some mistakes, and realized there is still much more to be done. They each spoke separately to BusinessWeek Seattle Bureau Chief Jay Greene about what they've learned and what they still hope to accomplish. Edited excerpts of those conversations follow:

On how they decided to give money to high school reform efforts

Melinda You have to understand that Bill and I are both big believers in education. It's something we've talked about at home for a long, long time; as long as we've known each other. Even when we were dating, we talked about our own elementary and high school experiences and what a difference one teacher can make in your life to change your direction, how you think of yourself, and where you want to go.

Bill and I were also believers in technologies in the schools. We actually started with thinking about how do you put laptops in schools? Sometimes you start on a problem with what you know. I was touring a lot of schools. And it became painfully obvious that there was a much broader issue going on in our schools than something that technology alone could solve.

The piece that nobody seemed to be talking about was that high schools really were being left behind. One of the things that's very attractive to Bill and me is to work on the problems that nobody else seems to want to face because they're so hard. And so we decided that ultimately, we would narrow down and really just work on high school reform.

Bill It comes out of asking: What is the most important issue to the U.S. in terms of renewing the kind of great opportunities that lots of people have gotten, including Melinda and myself? We had great education and that's led to a country that's been very innovative and created lots of jobs. Yet when you look at it, you think the broad excellence we need and the changes we need aren't necessarily going to happen.

In fact, if you look at things like math and science and the relative ranking of the U.S., you'd say, "Wow, that's of great concern." It's a system that a lot of resources are put into. Education's a big part of the economy. And yet the outcomes you get are so drastically different, depending on how well it's done.

On what they hope to accomplish with their education philanthropy

Bill If you're in high school, your education should be fun and interesting. We call it college-ready. That is, you're not disaffected or dropping out, or distracted by non-educational things. You really are being engaged by all these interesting things you can learn.

And so we mostly focus on high schools. That's where the U.S. goes from being pretty decent to being pretty bad relative to other developed countries. And it is an area where there hasn't been much in terms of taking successes and getting them well understood and getting them to be used broadly.

On the importance of creating environments where students develop bonds with teachers

Melinda We thought relationships were important. That is so borne out, kid after kid. I walk into a school building and talk with a kid, and in the first five minutes, they say: "At my previous high school, nobody knew me. No teacher knew my name. No adult knew my name. No administrator. It didn't matter if I didn't show up. In this school, the teacher gave me their cell phone number. I can't believe they gave me their cell phone number."

And those teachers care deeply about them.

On the problems with big, comprehensive high schools

Bill It's very likely that we'll say the idea of pooling together two or three thousand students into one pool academically is a mistake. It creates a specialized social structure and a level of distance between the students and adults that we recommend against. I think that's very likely. But we're not at the point of being able to say that it's absolutely proven and a terrible mistake and it should change overnight.

On the challenge of converting big high schools into a handful of smaller ones

Bill We can get better about conversions. We feel we need to learn how to do conversions. We're going to be more picky in the next couple of years about what things have to be in place before we back a conversion, because where we really backed off on the criteria just to get to more places, we've decided that's not worth doing. And we still think we can get out to the fifty or hundred or so high schools we need to get broad experience.

On the importance of creating challenging studies

Melinda The curriculum is harder than we thought it would be. We're still figuring it out. We know it's very, very important. I think we thought that if we get the schools set up, and if they have the right relationships and they start to make themselves more relevant, we thought they would figure out the curriculum. But we're starting to realize that we need to give more help, more training for the teachers, more support in curriculum.

On recent studies, funded by the Gates foundation, that found that math results at schools receiving money from the foundation are lower than at traditional high schools

Melinda One of the things we have to look at is what is it about the teachers today and the curriculum today that's making math not successful in these schools? We just recently had those results. The best thing the foundation can do is really look at that and talk with our partners and say: "Do we need to change something about how we're helping teachers teach math? Do we need to help change the curriculum in the schools?"

But that is what I think the unique role may be with the foundation: We're not afraid to take those results and publish them broadly and tell everybody: "Yep, here are some things we're finding. Let's have a conversation about it and now, let's figure out how to solve it," as opposed to hiding it and saying: "Well, let's not worry about math and science and kind of act like it's working."

On powerful visits they've had with students

Bill There was a kid whose peer group had told him not to go to High Tech High [in San Diego], that he should stay in the neighborhood school, and that it wasn't cool to be off doing this thing. And yet he had his mom really encouraging him. So he said, "Okay, for a year I'll go ahead and do it." And it changed his value system of what was cool. He was willing to turn to his friends in the neighborhood and say, "No, no, really, I'm sorry you're not getting a chance to do it, but it's pretty neat."

Every kid you can draw in starts drawing that many more kids in. This kid was obviously very bright and it would have been a huge waste if he hadn't thought of himself that way. Anybody can imagine not being in an environment where you're encouraged. You can take your intelligence and use it to break the rules or rebuild motorcycles and not go and learn math. Your energy and intelligence can be diverted in many ways.

And once you're off the learn-math-and-science track, it's not likely you'll get back on it. The fact that they're tapping into what those kids can do and so, in a systematic way, they're getting the same opportunity I had, that's very exciting. And in some ways, it's a better education. It's exciting. I'm always energized after I go to High Tech High.

Melinda I talked to a kid at [César Chávez Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C.] who told me: "My aunt signed me up for this school. I didn't want to come." He was a senior. He was getting ready to go to Columbia.

And he said: "I read Don Quixote. I never would have thought in my whole life that I would read Don Quixote in Spanish." And this kid was off to Columbia the next year. He said he didn't even have his sights set on high school.

On why they will succeed in reforming U.S. high schools where so many others have failed

Melinda I'm hopeful with the foundation, because we do have this voice in the U.S., that we can help people have those conversations and continue to spotlight the issue. It's not like we're a politician where we come into it and we work on it for four years, and then, guess what, we're voted out of office. This is something we are committed to and that we're going to stay after for a long time. You come to talk to me in 20 years, and we'll still be tackling this problem. Now, hopefully we'll be chipping away at it and making a difference as we go.

The other thing to understand about the foundation is that it's a lot like Microsoft in the sense that we do expect results. We are going to measure things as we go along. We are going to make changes. Sometimes you get other people who come in and do small pieces of this, and then their money's spent and they go away. They don't stop to say: "What did we learn here and how do we change or how do we replicate that in a new way somewhere else?"

On whether they feel frustrated that they have yet to find a formula for converting existing comprehensive high schools that works

Melinda I have days of frustration. I wish it were easier to make changes that can help kids succeed. I worry about the kids that are slipping through the cracks today and the ones that will be slipping through next year and the year after that.

But I think one of the things Bill and I have in common is that we're optimists. You can travel to developing countries or failing schools and feel crushed by what you see, or you can see the things that are hopeful, and walk away determined to do more. Bill and I have made a conscious choice that we're in this for the long haul, and so whatever frustration we feel, and we do feel it at times, we're going to channel that frustration in productive ways.

On how their work with the foundation has made them feel.

Melinda I feel humbled a lot. Every time I go on a learning trip -- whether it's to a slum in Bangladesh or Kenya, or to a struggling inner-city school in the U.S. -- I feel profound respect for the people who live and work in that environment every day -- and that humbles me.

I feel humbled by the moms who live in such dire conditions and yet manage to scrape together money for their child's education, daily food, or medication. I feel humbled by the volunteers who dedicate their lives to living with the impoverished. I feel humbled by the fantastic teachers who work in the American school system giving their all so that the children in their classes have a chance to succeed.

I carry these memories, thoughts, and feelings from these field trips with me daily as we move through our work back at the foundation in Seattle. While feeling humbled by the people whom I've been with on these trips, at the same time, I also know that expectations for the foundation's work are high. On the one hand, that's great, because high expectations encourage the people we work with, especially our partners and foundation staff, to set high goals and work hard to achieve them.

On the other hand, we can't possibly do this work fast enough or well enough. In the developing world, kids are dying every day from diseases that are utterly preventable. Here in the U.S., kids are dropping out and slipping through the cracks every day. We are making progress, but we want to make more progress, and we want to make it faster.

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