When funders fund stuff we know better than they do, it’s painful to think of the opportunity costs. Stuff I know includes math and literacy education, and I’ve found Bill Gate’s endeavors here downright excruciating. Adding injury to the opportunity costs is the damage done to America’s school children. (See, for example, Emily Hanford’s recent exposé on Balanced Literacy.)
Here’s my original OILF post on this phenomenon.
Fund what you know
One of the most common pieces of advice given to would-be writers is “Write what you know.” Substitute “write” with “fund,” and you get something that many more would-be philanthropists need to hear. This is particularly true of a brand of super-wealthy gift-givers whom Diane Ravitch, in her latest book, dubs “venture philanthropists.”
Consider, for example, Bill Gates. How well does he know the issues in k12 education? Judging from the many millions of dollars that he has wasted on ventures that often only make matters worse, not very well at all. Included in his projects are the misbegotten School of the Future in Philadelphia, which emphasized technology over curriculum; the Blueprint program in San Diego (discussed at length in Ravitch’s book), which mandated balanced literacy throughout San Diego’s schools and also featured Reform Math; and, most recently (thanks to Barry Garelick for alerting me to this one), an online math education project with Pearson Publishers, the publisher of the infamous Investigations Math curriculum, among the worst of the Reform Math programs.
If only Bill Gates were to take a close look at balanced literacy (or at how parents feel about it vs. other reading programs when it comes to spending their own money) or to compare Reform Math problems with traditional ones (for example here), he might direct his funds elsewhere.
Instead of funding what he knows, Gates appears to be relying on the advice of “experts.” The problem is, if you’re a famous outsider seeking advice on where to direct vast sums, hundreds of people will try to advise you, and only the most well-connected insiders will reach you. Even if you try to hear out everyone, unless you know the issues, you won’t be able to assess competing claims, and so you will default to those with the most connections and credentials. In education (among other arenas), this is a very bad idea.
Instead of funding what he knows, therefore, Bill Gates is merely further enabling the mainstream Constructivist forces that miseducate everyone, and that particularly disadvantage the more analytical, left-brained students. To the extent that rumors about Bill Gates having Asperger’s Syndrome are true, his involvement in education has, ironically, made school in general, and math in particular, decreasingly hospitable to his fellow eccentrics on the autistic spectrum.