Education Learning Forum
October 7, 2015
It’s a pleasure to welcome you all to our hometown. Technically, we’re in Bellevue, not Seattle, which always makes New Yorkers laugh. Apparently, Bellevue is a famous psychiatric hospital on First Avenue. I guess saying “welcome to Bellevue” is not something you want to hear if you’re from New York City.
This morning, I’d like to talk about why Bill and I do the work we do. We started the Gates Foundation 15 years ago for one simple reason. We believe that all lives have equal value.
You know how when you start dating someone seriously, one of the items on the checklist is whether your values line up? Ours did, and that credo—that all lives have equal value—is the way we’ve always expressed our shared moral view of the world.
It follows that all people—no matter where they come from or what they look like—deserve a chance to try to make their dreams come true.
But it is also obvious that, while all people deserve that chance, not all people actually have it. When we looked around us, we saw that there was a wide gap between what we believed and the reality of billions of people’s lives.
So we decided that since we were so fortunate to have the resources we have, it was our duty to try to help fill some of that gap.
But how? You can’t just make a few grants and achieve equity. We needed to know how a foundation could intervene to help the most.
So we looked inside ourselves to find out what we were passionate about.
We looked outside—at the evidence—to determine what might make the biggest difference.
And we studied what other philanthropies had done in the past, so we could understand the unique role a foundation had to play. We are acutely aware that, although we’re very large by foundation standards, we’re tiny compared to the size of government and the private sector. So we had to be thoughtful about the specific things that are appropriate for foundations.
Globally, we settled on health. We agreed that the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of the poorest people in the world is the overwhelming burden of disease they carry. If you aren’t healthy, you can’t learn, you can’t work, and you can’t realize your full potential. The best way for us to help people in the developing world lift themselves out of poverty, we decided, was ensuring that they get a healthy start in life.
In the United States, though, our passion and the evidence led us straight to education.
Bill and I are both learners. In Bill’s house when he was growing up, his parents actually had to make a rule against reading at the dinner table.
When I was young, I was helping my parents with some basic accounting related to a real estate side business they ran. Actually, that business was the college fund for my siblings and me. It was in this capacity that I happened to learn one of the first spreadsheet programs. I spent the next 15 years fiddling around with computers and software. I studied computer science in college and started my career at Microsoft, and I guess you could say the rest is history.
Bill and I both believe in the truism that “Who we become as adults is based on what we learn when we are young.”
On top of this natural curiosity, Bill and I both come from families that explicitly value formal education. Bill tells stories of being forced to stand outside during rush hour wearing a sandwich board in support of a Seattle public schools tax levy. I spent dozens of hours volunteering at a school in a tough part of Dallas, seeing first-hand how inadequate these students’ education was.
So when we started to think about how we wanted to use our resources in the United States, education was our instinct. The scholarly literature told us the same thing our guts said. In the United States, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of poor people making their dreams come true is education.
The point of public schools, which by the way are an American invention, is to give every child access to knowledge that they can convert, through hard work, into success.
Education is a bridge to opportunity. It’s a long bridge, especially in today’s America. It starts with early childhood education, and it winds is way all the way through postsecondary education. But on the other side—that’s when all young adults should be able to make their dreams come true.
However, if some children get a great education and others don’t, then this institution that is supposed to be the great equalizer becomes the opposite—yet another barrier to an America in which all lives have equal value. As far as we are concerned, stakes don’t get any higher.
The next question was how to help. In a minute, Bill is going to describe many of the specifics of the strategy we’ve pursued. I want to explain part of the process we followed to get there.
Bill and I both love data. We are proud to be nerds. But data doesn’t only mean numbers. And loving data doesn’t mean coming up with a strategy by sitting in a library. There is quantitative data, yes, but there is also qualitative data. And we’ve spent 15 years trying to gather as much of both as we possibly can.
We have travelled north, south, east, and west, visiting dozens of schools and talking to hundreds of students and teachers and administrators. We’ve been to New York, LA, Chicago, and Houston. We’ve been to the Rio Grande River Valley in Texas. Here in Washington State, we’ve seen early childhood learning centers, grade schools, middle schools, high schools, and colleges.
What we see on those trips, and what we hear from the people we meet, is always baked into our strategy. You know that our strategy focuses on teachers—giving them the support they need because effective teaching makes the biggest difference. There’s statistical evidence to support that, and Bill will get into that. But there’s also the qualitative evidence we’ve absorbed over the years of what stands out when you’re in a great school. And what stands out is teachers and teaching.
I remember the first trip I ever took to see a high school, in Boston, near a public housing project. We were scheduled to meet with the principal first thing in the morning, but he was late. When he finally got there, he apologized profusely and said that he was working with the police to make sure the drug dealers didn’t harass the students on their way to school.
But—and this is the thing that I’ll never forget—no matter what was going on outside the doors, inside the doors, that school felt safe. Not just safe from violence, but like a safe space where students could learn together. And that was because of the principal and the teachers.
They gave tough love. I remember being astounded that many teachers gave the students their cell phone numbers, in case they needed something after hours. The other side of the coin, though, was that they expected the students to work hard and push themselves. That seems to be part of the formula in all the phenomenal schools we’ve seen: immense caring paired with very high expectations.
Some years later, Bill and I visited KIPP Houston. Now, I’m from Dallas, so I don’t like anything related to Houston, but I made an exception for KIPP because it was so impressive. I recall a roundtable conversation with a group of teachers. One experienced teacher told us that the most exciting thing about working with her peers at this school was learning all the things she didn’t know. She said it was important for teachers to feel the way students sometimes feel—challenged and even a little bit adrift, because they are grappling with new ideas.
It’s fashionable in business circles these days to talk about the importance of failure and what you can learn from it. As a former businessperson, I can tell you that’s easier said than done. This teacher was the best example I’ve ever seen of that mantra in action.
Just recently, we visited a school in Eagle County, Colorado. I spoke to a student, Josh, about his experience, and he kept talking about his teacher, Mr. Knight. He said, “I struggle with writing. Mr. Knight makes me try, he comments, I try again, he comments, again and again and again. He believes in me.”
Josh even said, “Mr. Knight is the smartest person in the world.” I joked that he shouldn’t tell Bill that. But just to see in the face of this young man the difference that his teacher had made in his life—it’s the kind of experience that motivates us to keep going.
And sometimes, we need motivation, because the work is hard. I feel comfortable saying it’s the hardest work we do at the foundation. Global health is hard. For example, we’re working with partners to deliver vaccines that have to be kept cold to the remotest places on earth. But this is actually harder than that.
When I reflect on how hard it is, though, it brings me back to my respect for all of you in this room. The work is a challenge for Bill and me, but we don’t spend every day, all day on it like you do.
The job is big. The job is complex. The job is critical. We will continue to push for equity through education in the United States for many years to come. You will continue to make it your daily lives, to be in the trenches. And for that you deserve our support and the deepest gratitude of every single American.