Last February, in a speech in Washington, D.C. that drew 45 of the nation's governors as well as a hefty sample of the nation's education policy elite, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates issued a jeremiad on the state of the American high school, arguing that this venerable institution is obsolete and a threat to the nation's economic and political well-being. Declarations that public education in general and high schools in particular turn out badly prepared graduates, perpetuate inequities, and generally operate in ways that run counter to the nation's interests have become almost commonplace. But coming from Gates, whose prodigious wealth and aggressive tactics have become one of the nation's best-known narratives of entrepreneurship, the words took on new meaning. Stories in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and many other newspapers, most written not by education reporters but by Washington-based political and legislative correspondents, reported Gates's assertions in an unquestioning, almost awestruck tone that made one thing clear: if high schools are bad enough for Bill Gates to declare them a disaster, then it must be so.
It was publicity that even the world's richest man could not buy.
But Gates's standing to speak authoritatively on the issue rested on more than his wealth, celebrity, and business acumen, or even his company's need to hire well-trained workers. Through the efforts of his richly endowed Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates has become an unparalleled force who is not only sounding the alarm about America's high schools, but is also putting forth, and financing, a range of specific solutions. Since 2002, the Gates Foundation has allocated more than $1.2 billion toward creating about 820 new high schools and breaking down about 750 large, comprehensive high schools into smaller, more focused, more intimate academies that aim to send far more students off to college prepared to succeed. The foundation is also the lead partner in a $125 million experiment in "early college" high schools, which are designed to enable 9th graders to get their high-school diplomas as well as two years of college credit, all within four or five years. To increase the impact of its initiatives, the Gates Foundation has involved 13 other foundations and is working with more than one hundred intermediary organizations in two hundred cities located in almost every state. The foundation's goal is ambitious: to improve the national graduation rate to at least 80 percent, from about 65 percent, while increasing the likelihood that all high-school graduates are college-ready. So, more spending, in more places, is likely on the way.
The Money Pours In
American philanthropy, by local and national foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals, has played many important roles in K-12 education: creating new schools, underwriting research, funding scholarships, testing hypotheses, generating new curricula, invoking ideals, setting agendas, bolstering training, and building a case for policy changes. Foundation money is so widespread, and so sought after, that few in education are unaffected. Indeed, institutions with which both this author and this journal are affiliated receive support from several foundations mentioned here.
Nothing about this is new. Thousands of schools for African American students across the Jim Crow South were built with the backing of the Rosenwald Fund, one of the earliest and most important foundations in education; philanthropist Grace Dodge founded Teachers College, now at Columbia University, in 1887, which led to training of teachers in pedagogy; the Ford Foundation was involved in promoting the employment of classroom aides, National Merit Scholarships, and the development of Advanced Placement curricula and tests; the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards grew out of work funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, which also funded the Educational Testing Service to develop objective ways of measuring academic merit, which led to the SAT. …