Wishy-Washy Thoughts on Gates

Friday, July 6, 2012
I'm no Diane Ravitch.  If I were, I'd use this blog to bravely state my concerns about the direction the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is heading with educational policy. I'd follow her lead and ask hard, pointed questions about the role that people with money play in driving major decisions in a democracy.

But I won't.  Because while I'm tenured, I am still fearful.  I have receiving more than $1 million in support from the Gates Foundation for my research on financial aid, and I am grateful for it-- and in need of much more.  That's the honest truth.  It's harder and harder to find funding for research these days, and while my salary doesn't depend on it, getting the work done does.

So I won't say all that Diane just did.  Yet I have to say something, and as I wrote recently, I always attempt to do so.

Her questions deserve answers.  And they should be asked of the higher education agenda as well.  Why the huge investment in Complete College America, an outfit that is pushing an end to college remediation unsupported by the work of top scholars like Tom Bailey?  Why the growing resistance to funding basic research in key areas where massive federal and state investments persist absent evidence of effectiveness? Why sink $20 million into performance-based scholarships, based on a single tiny randomized trial in one site?

I'm sure there are good answers out there.  It's not the first time I've asked these questions.  And perhaps unlike Diane, the time I've spent with the Foundation has imbued me with some confidence that there are very smart, well-meaning people inside the place-- people I like quite a bit.  There's also a lot of turnover, and the outfit is a bit gangly in some areas, kinda like a teenager.

Actually, that's exactly it. The Foundation is one heck of a powerful adolescent.  And maybe that's ok, as long as it recognizes its stage in life, and continues to seek expert advice and wisdom.  Adolescents are good at asking questions and not so great at listening. That's something to work on. Places like the William T. Grant Foundation are full-fledged adult foundations who make smart and highly effective investments daily.  I'd love for Gates's ed portfolio to seek advice and hear from them.  It'd make a world of difference.

Have I just torpedoed my own chances for future support?  Well, I guess only time will tell....