But I can change, I can change, I can change, I can change
I can change, I can change, I can change
If it helps you fall in love (in love) – LCD Soundsystem

In a speech at the Council of the Great City Schools last week, Bill Gates announced that the Gates Foundation’s “education efforts are evolving.”

“Evolving” – according to his speech at least – means developing curricula, supporting charter schools, and focusing “on locally-driven solutions identified by networks of schools, and support[ing] their efforts to use data-driven continuous learning and evidence-based interventions to improve student achievement.”

“Evolving,” we’re supposed to gather, means “improving.”

I spent some time this summer going through all the foundation’s education-related grants, which I’d contend have always changed over time as Gates and other education reformers and policy makers have altered their focus and their beliefs. Some initiatives have been there from the start, no doubt. “Personalized learning” is one of those, and it was notably absent from Gates’ speech – as either an ongoing or former effort. (Perhaps “personalized learning” is something Gates thinks the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is going to take care of. Perhaps that is how venture philanthropy is evolving – by adding new tech CEOs to the handful of billionaires dictating education policy.) But there many, many other projects that have been funded then abandoned – and not just the high profile ones like the small schools efforts or inBloom, the $100 million data infrastructure project.

“Evolving.” Now we must watch and see what the Gates Foundation really will pay for in the coming years. What will count as “evolution” in the eyes of the foundation and the press? The Gates Foundation is the most powerful force in shaping the national conversation about education (and funding the direction that conversation takes), and so any “evolution” isn’t simply going to involve the Gates’ grants and investment portfolio. All this is about the future of education and education technology more broadly. What will change?

“Evolving” – most of the press on Gates’ announcement have taken the man at his word. He’s (often) the richest man in the world – I guess that’s what happens with all that wealth and status and philanthropic hustle. We believe him. And a lot of the press has run with the headline about the foundation’s commitment to spend $1.7 billion on education in the next few years – many describing it as an investment in “public schools.” That would, indeed, be a shift as much of the $15 billion Gates has put into education projects and programs since the organization was founded has gone to companies not schools (and that’s not counting the Gates grant money that schools have been awarded and then directed to companies too).

“Evolving.” Why make this speech now? Why does Gates want to project a willingness to learn? (I mean, other than everyone’s supposed to have a “growth mindset” these days.) Does Gates wish to differentiate himself and his organization from others in education reform? (And do others in education reform wish to differentiate themselves from the Trump Adminstration?) Who cares if you’re “evolving”? The damage is done. “Evolution” doesn’t undo that.

Audrey Watters


Audrey Watters


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