By Abigal Hess | 13 February 2018
Every year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spends almost $500 million on education initiatives in the United States.
In their 10th Annual Letter, released today, the billionaire philanthropists answered 10 of the toughest questions they get asked, one of them being: “What do you have to show for the billions you’ve spent on U.S. education?”
Their answer? Not as much as they’d hoped.
While the foundation has had considerable success with international initiatives, their work towards their biggest domestic cause has been less fruitful than they had anticipated. For instance, their eponymous foundation has spent billions on vaccination initiatives for children in developing nations, which has lead to a decrease in diseases like polio and malaria and an increase in child life expectancy.
“We’ve spent $15.3 billion on vaccines over the past 18 years. And it’s been a terrific investment,” writes Melinda. “Better immunization is one reason why the number of children who die has gone down by so much, from almost 10 million in 2000 to 5 million last year.”
When it comes to improving the American education system however, the powerful couple has seen less quantifiable evidence that their investments are paying off.
“Unfortunately, although there’s been some progress over the past decade, America’s public schools are still falling short on important metrics, especially college completion,” writes Bill. “And the statistics are even worse for disadvantaged students.”
The Gates have been giving to American education initiatives since 2000, and according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the 6-year college graduation rate for American college students has hovered around just 60 percent for decades.
Broadly, the couple has expressed that their primary domestic goal is to address educational inequality for students of color and low-income students, but achieving this objective has proved more difficult than they expected.
The pair said that they have learned several lessons about the state of American education system. “It’s extremely hard to transform low-performing schools,” says Bill.
They also found that improving the quality of teaching did not have a substantial impact on student outcomes. Third, they learned how difficult it is to develop educational policies that serve a wide range of students and how challenging it can be to gain consensus from a wide range of decision-makers including state governments, local school boards and parents.
In October of 2017, the couple announced plans to spend $1.7 billion on curriculum improvements, data collection and research for K-12 education. Based on the most recent letter however, it seems as if the duo may be reassessing their approach.
“We haven’t decided how what we’ve been learning might affect our giving, but it has certainly had an effect on us. We will share more about our approach when we have settled on a strategy,” says Bill.
And while the Microsoft co-founder admits that the they “haven’t seen the large impact we had hoped for,” the couple remains dedicated to improving the American education system.
“We love our country and care deeply about the people who live here, so we are also committed to fighting inequities in the United States,” writes Melinda. “All the evidence, including our personal experience, suggests that education is the key to opportunity.”