A recent Los Angeles Times editorial suggested that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been characterized by hubris. It has hedged big bets, hoping its efforts would succeed. It’s also suffered failure and for that it’s been criticized as having exercised too much influence over education policy.
Yet, while the Gates Foundation does wield considerable power, it does not have the ability to control the American educational agenda.
For the most part, Gates has supported the pioneering work of others. Small schools, Common Core and teacher evaluation were not started by the Gates Foundation. Its contribution has been to bring these promising ideas within education to national scale and study whether those ideas are working. Today, all but a handful of states have raised standards, and most are actively improving their systems of evaluation.
The Gates Foundation should be praised for its candor and for being one of the few major foundations to prioritize K-12 education, which is too often regarded as the poor little stepsister of higher education. This is borne out by the numbers.
Three billion dollars, the figure the Times states the Gates Foundation has spent on education since 1999, seems like a hefty sum until you learn that colleges and universities received over $40 billion in charitable contributions in 2015 alone.
But what the Times does not acknowledge—but is commonly embraced by the tech industry and increasingly so by philanthropy—is that failure is necessary. It is expected. It is even praised. Because it is a sign that risks are being taken, that you are not merely content to stick to the tried and true.
Only through repeated failure can big breakthroughs happen. And only through vast reserves of confidence can an entrepreneur or organization withstand the disappointment of repeated failure.
Behind every success story are many more which end in failure.
During my former career covering philanthropy, it was rare for any foundation, let alone a grant-maker the size of the Gates Foundation, to admit to failure. In recent years, however, the tide has shifted towards philanthropies accepting failure as an inherent part of their work. Failure, foundations now are coming to understand, is instructive, for it allows them to learn from their mistakes and improve.
Prominent philanthropists from some of the largest foundations in America spoke about “failing well” to the Stanford Social Innovation Review. One funder said a dinner was given to the worst grant of the year. The purpose was not to shame the program officer or program responsible, but to learn about why the grant didn’t succeed.
Education is risk-averse. Take charter schools, for example. With a 25-year track record, and despite comprising many of the best schools in the nation, people are still suspicious of them. Charter schools were founded on the idea that the structure of traditional public education wasn’t flexible or innovative enough to respond to the needs of low-income children. You have policies such as “last in, first out” (aka LIFO) that reward seniority instead of talent. Education does not prioritize out-of-the-box thinking.
So when someone like Bill Gates, an iconic figure in a field defined by risk—someone used to failure yet equipped with the belief that his work will eventually yield fruit—ventures into education, he is seen as an interloper because he wants to devote his great fortune trying to move the intractable.
The foundation is committed to high standards, great teaching, and now, personalized learning. But its team is also humble enough to acknowledge that they underestimated how hard the work is. Rather than denigrating philanthropists, The Los Angeles Times should be thanking them for investing their dollars into a woefully underfunded field.
I’m hard pressed to think of another philanthropist who has devoted so much time and manpower to charity and brought more attention to K-12 education, an area that lags in donations compared to higher education, health care, and religion. I can think of no one else who is as bold—so bold as to have his foundation publicly acknowledge its challenges and seek to learn from them.
And the Gates Foundation’s efforts may yet prove to be wildly successful. Six studies have shown that the foundation’s small schools program in New York resulted in significant gains for students. And despite the backlash that accompanied the Common Core, including the opt-out movement, higher standards have been widely embraced. What controversy has been drawn to the Common Core has been politically motivated with false claims of federal overreach rather than a solid understanding of what the standards actually are.
What the Gates Foundation should learn is the virtue of patience.
While humility and a capacity for self-reflection are important to be successful, so is a healthy degree of arrogance—the arrogance of thinking that the most ambitious and complex problems can be solved no matter how many times you fail.
The Gates Foundation is to be commended for admitting its misses in its annual letters, and it should not be deterred from daring to make more. We may accrue more knowledge of what works through failing than never being brave enough to try.