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Bill Gates: Billion Dollar Lessons

The Global Development Outlook: William H. Gates III speaks
A decade into his record-breaking education philanthropy, Bill Gates talks teachers, charters—and regrets.

“It’s been about a decade of learning,” says the Microsoft co-founder whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now the nation’s richest charity. Its $34 billion in assets is more than the next three largest foundations (Ford, Getty and Robert Wood Johnson) combined, and in 2009 it handed out $3 billion, or $2 billion more than any other donor. Since 2000, the foundation has poured some $5 billion into education grants and scholarships.

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One of the foundation’s main initial interests was schools with fewer students. In 2004 it announced that it would spend $100 million to open 20 small high schools in San Diego, Denver, New York City and elsewhere. Such schools, says Mr. Gates, were designed to—and did—promote less acting up in the classroom, better attendance and closer interaction with adults.

“But the overall impact of the intervention, particularly the measure we care most about—whether you go to college—it didn’t move the needle much,” he says. “Maybe 10% more kids, but it wasn’t dramatic. . . . We didn’t see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that.” Still, he adds, “we think small schools were a better deal for the kids who went to them.”

The reality is that the Gates Foundation met the same resistance that other sizeable philanthropic efforts have encountered while trying to transform dysfunctional urban school systems run by powerful labor unions and a top-down government monopoly provider.

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“Behind this core curriculum are some very deep insights. American textbooks were twice as thick as Asian textbooks. In American math classes, we teach a lot of concepts poorly over many years. In the Asian systems they teach you very few concepts very well over a few years.” Nor does he see the need for competition among state standards. “This is like having a common electrical system. It just makes sense to me.”

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