Philanthropy is a fine thing. A good sum of money put in the right place can benefit many people. Commerce is also a fine thing. A small sum of money put in the right place can create goods and services which people want, which can lead to profit which leads to more money being available to create goods and services. Virtuous circle. A man who dies rich is not disgraced. He dies in grace if his companies outlive him, and continue to provide things that people want.
This leads to an interesting question: did Bill Gates do more good for the world by founding Microsoft or by founding the Gates Foundation? Probably the former, I would estimate. I say that without being a fan of Microsoft’s products, which have often exasperated me, but just as a cool calculation about the long-term impact of readily accessible business and household programming power, which made computation accessible to billions of people. Tim Berners-Lee and Vincent Cerf could claim greater impact, and with consummate flair Steve Jobs packaged components into the right combination for the ultimate portable communication device (he knew our limitations), but much earlier than that Microsoft had turbo-charged the computer revolution, and pushed Apple aside in the business world, by a country mile.
Now Bill Gates is doing good works, and why not? His 2019 letter is just out.
It deals with 9 topics: Africa being the youngest continent (fastest growing population); DNA testing might prevent premature births (but they may be due to racism); the world’s building stock may double by 2060 (global warming); data may be sexist (not enough suitable data collected on women); helping teenage delinquents cope with their anger; a nationalist case for globalism; flush toilets (sanitation world-wide); textbooks go digital; mobile phones help poor women;
Frankly, apart from Bill’s day with teenage miscreants, there is little about education in this letter.
In fact, the education stuff is in his 2018 letter.
We made education the focus of our work in the United States because it is the key to a prosperous future, for individuals and the country. 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. And the statistics are even worse for disadvantaged students.
To help raise those graduation rates, we supported hundreds of new secondary schools. Many of them have better achievement and graduation rates than the ones they replaced or complemented. Early on, we also supported efforts to transform low-performing schools into better ones. This is one of the toughest challenges in education. One thing we learned is that it’s extremely hard to transform low-performing schools; overall they didn’t perform as well as newly created schools. We also helped the education sector learn more about what makes a school highly effective. Strong leadership, proven instructional practices, a healthy school culture, and high expectations are all key.
We have also worked with districts across the country to help them improve the quality of teaching. This effort helped educators understand how to observe teachers, rate their performance fairly, and give them feedback they can act on. But we haven’t seen the large impact we had hoped for. For any new approach to take off, you need three things. First you have to run a pilot project showing that the approach works. Then the work has to sustain itself. Finally, the approach has to spread to other places.
How did our teacher effectiveness work do on these three tests? Its effect on students’ learning was mixed, in part because the pilot feedback systems were implemented differently in each place. The new systems were maintained in some places, such as Memphis, but not in others. And although most educators agree that teachers deserve more-useful feedback, not enough districts are making the necessary investments and systemic changes to deliver it.
To get widely adopted, an idea has to work for schools in a huge variety of settings: urban and rural, high-income and low-income, and so on. It also has to overcome the status quo. America’s schools are, by design, not a top-down system. To make significant change, you have to build consensus among a wide range of decision makers, including state governments, local school boards, administrators, teachers, and parents.
Melinda Gates said:
When economists describe the conditions under which countries prosper, one of the factors they stress is “human capital,” which is another way of saying that the future depends on young people’s access to high-quality health and education services. Health and education are the twin engines of economic growth.
Human capital can also refer to how bright people are, given only reasonable health and education. The phrase is often used as a coy way of commenting on the quality of the people. Boosting health and education gives early gains which plateau pretty fast. The first $5000 has a big effect, but at about $15000 not many more gains are found.
The Economist says:
Some [problems] require the exercise of ingenuity and discretion by small teams (eg, inventing a new vaccine); some demand the programmatic mobilisation of legions of people (immunisation drives). Others require both.
Improving education falls into this third, difficult category. It is not a problem that a small team of brilliant people can crack. Nor can a good education be delivered, like a vaccine, by following a strict protocol to the letter. Instead it requires legions of teachers to respond thoughtfully and conscientiously to pupils’ needs. Mr Gates left his BAM (Becoming a Man) circle wishing every classroom could emulate its intimacy and respectfulness. But that is hard to bottle.
Well, The Economist is championing a very traditional view. Some people have proposed proposed brilliant short cuts to learning, and some of them might work, although most of them haven’t.
Doug Detterman tracked these intelligence-boosting notions for over 50 years, and found them a perpetual disappointment.
Others propose more pedestrian and strict protocols followed to the letter, because those have traditionally worked throughout the ages, mixed with rewards and punishments. A very well thought out sequence of instruction should be instructive to the average pupil. Doing standard teaching well has much to commend it. However, it does not annul individual differences.
I do not rate The Economist as a good source on the question of intelligence and the effects of early education:
Consider the unwieldiness and impracticality of “legions of teachers to respond thoughtfully and conscientiously to pupils’ needs”. This is a prescription for schools being a cottage industry providing Saville Row suits for every shape and size of intellect. Really? Are reading, writing and arithmetic so idiosyncratic that instruction must be tailored to each individual? It is like saying that every computing problem is different, and must have its own operating system. Surely some instructions can be grasped by most students?
Bill Gates is a practical man, and is working with the old system, though new schools seem to be giving better results. Do these new schools use different techniques, different teachers or different students?
Many of the educational changes which struck Bill Gates as perfectly reasonable haven’t worked, or haven’t worked yet. Bill remains optimistic, and optimism is a core requirement of entrepreneurs. I have met and worked with some, and they can keep their spirits up while all the apparently objective facts are against them. One very successful entrepreneur I talk to from time to time listens to me and frequently replies: “that is a counsel of despair”. Quite so.
So, why have vaccinations worked and new teaching not? Bill rehearses a familiar view, arguing that more time and effort is required for results to show themselves. Perhaps so. Turning around institutions takes time. If you cannot turn around a business it fails before long, but state enterprises can last far longer, hence the time scale for improvement might be more than the 10 years which Bill is celebrating. Still, one has a lurking feeling that a new and improved teaching method should have an impact within a term, or at most a year. How could it not? If the technique is any good then students will learn faster, and will do better at end of term exams. Indeed, that might be the best measure, since end of year examinations might involve some forgetting, but re-learning will probably be much faster if the subject was well-taught in the first place.
Bill does not allow himself a seditious thought: perhaps some people learn much faster than others, and always will. Take Bill Gates himself, for example. He was hardly a college dropout, as he is so often portrayed, for the comfort of those who really drop out. He surged forwards and thus out of education because he realized he was capable of entering a bright new exciting field, and did not want to lose out to the competition by tarrying with his studies. He had the wit to build a business with a partner who had abilities Bill did not possess to the same degree. You might say he graduated very early, and Paul Allen was his graduation certificate.
So, why cannot he see that he learns faster than others, and that even those less bright than himself can still learn faster than others far less bright than himself, and so on downwards? It is all there, based on Army training data and summarised by Linda Gottfredson: brighter people learn faster, and can apply their learning more widely and successfully in new circumstances.
This ability to learn fast and apply learning in new circumstances makes them worth hiring. Bill knows that. When Microsoft wanted to set up overseas offices, Cambridge and Peking were chosen. In China Microsoft recruited staff who in terms of intellect were one in a million. On arriving for their first day at the Microsoft office the successful hires wryly found that they had fallen from being “one in a million” to simply “one in 1300”.
Why does he apparently forget all that? Why did he not set up shop in Lagos? He did not choose his brilliant staff primarily by the primary and secondary schools they attended, but by their coding skills. If I remember correctly, Microsoft in China eventually moved from a big testing program to a process whereby the top coding tutors recommended only their very best students for detailed testing prior to hiring by Microsoft.
Why is it that Jensen’s detailed examination of compensatory education does not figure in Bill Gates’s conceptual world? The thesis is not difficult to understand. Education has limits, and the students are a large part of those limits.
Arthur Jensen (1969) How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement. Harvard Educational Review: April 1969, Vol. 39, No. 1, pp. 1-123.
Bill Gates has met Arthur Jensen (in the form of a brick wall) merely because the latter had studied the facts more closely than the former. Jensen simply looked at the results claimed by extra teaching programs and found them wanting. An incredible 50 years have passed, and his main finding has held up: you cannot boost intelligence and scholastic attainment by compensatory education. Those extra interventions (mostly pre-school) give at best temporary advantage, which does not generalize and does not last. (There is one recently-discovered possible exception: staying at school for more years).
Jensen did not propose a counsel of despair. He knew kids had limits. He said that children should be offered an educational cafeteria, where they could receive an education closer to their interests and abilities. They should not all get the same set meal. He was very liberal about that, and was at pains to explain that every child could learn, though not at the same pace.
Jensen was clear in 1969 that compensatory education had not boosted student’s intelligence and scholastic ability. The subsequent years have largely confirmed his evaluation of the facts. On a broader canvas, the current estimate of how much education contributes to individual differences in scholastic attainment is 10%. That 10% covers both school and teachers. Selecting your students has more impact than selecting your teachers.
Bill Gates is doing good work, and mostly getting good results. If he reviews the literature then he might rein back a little on searching for techniques which reduce individual and group differences, and might just encourage kids to stay another year at school. Some of the instruction might help them. However, my real suggestion would be to get them out of school and train them on Microsoft Excel, which would make them useful sooner. (Yes, I know, VisiCalc in 1978, Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983, Excel not till 1987).
Finally, one has to question why people persist with an approach which was not working in 1969 and is still not working 50 years later.
P.S. I do not know if Bill Gates ever met Arthur Jensen, but we do not live by flesh alone, but also by our creations.