Press Room




Bill Gates - George Washington University

December 3, 2008

December 3, 2008

Prepared Remarks by Bill Gates, Co-chair and Trustee

President Knapp and Professor Sesno, thank you for that very generous introduction, and thank you for giving us this chance to gather here at the George Washington University to talk about the future. GW is a top school in many areas: public policy, the arts, politics, and scientific research. In fact, I’d like to acknowledge Professor Peter Hotez, who’s doing inspiring work on tropical diseases here at GW and is an important partner of our foundation.

There are two facts about GW that especially impress me. You rank number one among private universities in the number of students who become Peace Corps volunteers. And second, the biggest employer of GW graduates last year was Teach for America. If young people in America make the kinds of choices that students are making here at GW, we are going to have a great future.

We are meeting at a difficult time for the United States. We are fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re facing climate dangers, trade imbalances, and record deficits. The global financial crisis is costing people their businesses, their homes, their jobs, and their savings. And we have severe budget strain at every level of government.

That is the dominant story in the news. But it is not the defining story of our times. Here in the United States and around the world, we are finding amazing new ways to heal disease, new approaches to teaching low-income children, new techniques for helping farmers grow more food. We’re at the dawn of a technology-driven revolution in what people can do for one another – and these advances are matched with a new passion, especially among young people, for building a better world.

If you look at the stock market, business activity, or budget deficits, things are dark. But if you consider our capacities and opportunities, our passion and vision, the outlook is bright.

We can keep moving toward a world where every child grows up in good health, goes to a good school, and has opportunities waiting—as long as we stay confident about the future, and keep investing in it.

This is what I’d like to talk to you about today—how to keep on course for a bright future.

President-elect Obama and Congress are busy working on a response to our challenges. Their actions will offer a self-portrait of our society—our values, our strategies, and our willingness to invest in the future.

Their first priority is a stimulus package that will spark the economy and create new jobs. That’s essential. Spending is the only way we’ll ever come out of this downturn. And with businesses, state governments, and consumers pulling back, the federal government must step forward.

At the same time, if we’re going to borrow more money to get the economy going again, we need to get the most for every dollar we spend. I was encouraged that President-elect Obama said: “Not only do I want this stimulus package to deal with the immediate crisis, I want it also to lay the groundwork for long-term, sustained economic growth.”

I support this approach. In a crisis, there is always a risk that you take your eyes off the future – and you sacrifice long-term investments for near-term gains. In my view, you have to seek both, and there are two sets of long-term investments that pay dramatic returns.

The first are investments in science and technology. Scientific research will determine what tools we have to solve our biggest problems – in health, information technology, education, energy, or just about any other area. If we keep investing in science and technology, we will discover the tools we need to build a better future.

The second set of investments—and the ones I want to focus on today—are those that fight inequity. These are investments in education, particularly for low-income and minority students; and targeted development assistance—investments that improve agriculture, prevent disease, and promote economic growth for the poorest people in the world.

These investments work. The money the United States spends in developing countries to prevent disease, fight poverty, or create opportunity is some of the best money we spend as Americans. And education reform can work as well. There are teachers doing amazing things with students in some very high-need neighborhoods across America. They should get the support they need to keep a good thing going and help spread it.

It could be hard in these times to keep spending money to develop the potential of people who are poor. They don’t have much of a voice—and frankly, you can get the economy growing again without tapping their talent.

But I want us to have a bigger goal than getting the economy growing again. I want us to expand the number of people who are contributing to the economy and benefiting from it.

The young woman who needs help paying for college, the young man whose charter school needs government support, the children whose parents need AIDS drugs, the poor family trying to farm in Ghana—if we don’t make these people part of our investments, when the economy comes back, they won’t be coming back with it.

In that case, we’ll come out of the downturn in a world that is more unequal, with greater inequities in health, education, and opportunity than we have today. There is just no reason to accept that – not when the world can give more and more children every year a chance to make the most of their lives.

We need to keep investing to improve the lives of the people who have been left out.

And as we make these investments, we have to measure their impact. We have to use this downturn to force a new fiscal vigilance that is more creative and more constructive than simply cutting spending; we have to demand smarter spending. A more equitable world is worth fighting for and paying for—and that’s why we need to make sure we’re getting as much as we can for every dollar.

The greatest antidote to inequity in American life is a good system of public education. For millions of people, it’s what makes the “pursuit of happiness” possible.

There is no question that America has the greatest universities in the world. And we have always provided a world-class education for some of our students. But we have never offered the same opportunity to all our students – and the human costs of that are growing.

Today, if a student does not complete a two- or four-year college degree, the chances drop sharply that she will get a job that can support a family. Yet millions of our students don’t make it out of high school. Only 71 percent of American students earn a high school diploma within four years, and the numbers are worse for minorities—58 percent for Hispanic students and 55 percent for African Americans.

In the case of college education, we were number one in the world twenty years ago in the percentage of young adults with a postsecondary credential. Now we’re number 10 and dropping.

Whether we’re in good economic times or bad, the rules that govern the future stay the same. If we have a growing percentage of highly educated young people—schooled in math, science, engineering and liberal arts—we’re going to have a strong economy. Today’s down economy doesn’t mean education will be less important for the future, so a down economy doesn’t mean we should cut back on education.

For the sake of our students, and the good of the country, we need to dramatically increase the number of low-income students who get postsecondary degrees that let them earn a living wage. This will require a jump in the number of students who graduate from high school ready for college. And that, in turn, will demand a much greater concentration of effective teachers in our low-income schools.

Our foundation has been investing in high schools for the past eight years, and our work has shown that even the most vulnerable young people can succeed when they get the right support in school. In schools across the country, we’re seeing results that smash old prejudices about what poor students can achieve. High Tech High School in San Diego, Green Dot Schools in Los Angeles, Aspire High Schools in California, KIPP schools that have spread across the country, and YES College Preparatory Schools in Houston. These schools are doing work that should be talked about everywhere.

As an example, YES schools serve a student body that is 95% African-American or Hispanic. Eighty-eight percent of the students will be the first in their families to go to college. Eighty percent are economically disadvantaged. Yet last spring, for the eighth year in a row, 100 percent of YES graduates were accepted into four-year colleges, including some of the top universities in the country. Ninety-one percent of YES alumni have either graduated from or are still enrolled in a four-year college.
These are not isolated examples. There are public schools and charter schools serving some of the most disadvantaged students in the country, and yet they are recruiting great teachers, making the curriculum more rigorous, using data to see what works, and graduating students ready for college.

Melinda and I visited some schools in Texas last October, and we can’t stop talking about a principal named Cesar whom we met at Houston’s Lee High School. Cesar told us about a student who had come to school as a freshman three years before and refused to say a single word. Not “Hello.” Not even “leave me alone.” He was in a gang, and he was far behind in school. Cesar got very involved with this kid and worked with him every day – and today, this former gang member is a senior, on course to graduate, and planning to go to college. When Cesar came to this part of the story, he broke down and cried. He had worn himself out for that young man. There are a lot of young men like that student, and there aren’t enough schools like Lee High or educators like Cesar.

We have to change that. The evidence shows that the defining feature of a great education is what happens in the classroom. Everything starts from that and must be built around it. Our school systems need to focus much more sharply on effective teaching—in particular recruiting great teachers while supporting higher standards, great instructional tools, and data systems that show what works. These are the changes that trigger the biggest gains for students.

The federal government can make a huge difference here. They can accelerate school reform by gathering and sharing more data on what works, why it works, and how to spread it.

In the 1950s, after the discovery of the polio vaccine, the federal government took responsibility for making it available throughout the country. Today, it’s hard to imagine that the government would not help distribute a low-cost, life-saving medical intervention. Why shouldn’t the government help spread practices in education that are changing lives across the country?

Among other things, the federal government could provide incentives to:

  1. Boost the recruitment and retention of effective teachers.
  2. Align state standards with top international standards and adopt curricula that help students meet them.
  3. Make postsecondary completion a national priority, in part by creating financial incentives that reward college completion.
  4. Build data systems that will help drive evidence-based reform in high schools and colleges.

President-elect Obama and a number of important voices in the House and Senate have expressed support for some of these steps. I hope their support intensifies during this financial crisis. If the federal government becomes a dynamic agent of school reform, it will help bring us out of the downturn better off than when we went in.

In addition, the President and Congress can make education an important part of the stimulus package – above and beyond school construction.

The stimulus bill is likely to include aid to state and local governments. The governments could use a portion of this aid to avoid the higher education funding cuts and tuition increases that they often have to rely on to balance their budgets in a recession. This infusion of federal money would be especially valuable for community colleges, which educate such a high percentage of our low-income college students. Overall, this approach would help make sure that state and local budget pressure doesn't reduce the number of people who get postsecondary degrees during this downturn.

Smart, creative initiatives that encourage postsecondary completion offer the best opportunity to fight inequity in America, while investing in health and development offers us the best chance to fight inequity around the world.

Two years ago, Melinda and I visited an AIDS clinic in Durban, South Africa. I remember talking with patients and doctors while I watched the daily work of the clinic. People who showed up were welcomed by the staff. They were able to get counseling. They were able to get antiretroviral drugs. Everything seemed smooth and normal, and then it struck me: this is a compete change!

A decade ago, when Melinda and I went to sub-Saharan Africa, it was totally different. Mothers sat with their sick children in dirty, crowded hallways—trying to get the attention of health workers who were understaffed and overwhelmed. The health workers had no medicine, and they knew the children had no future.

What accounts for the difference? The number of people receiving antiretroviral treatment increased from 400,000 in 2003 to 3 million in 2007. This money is not just saving lives; it’s saving children from becoming orphans. Parents are now living to take care of their children, send them to school, and help them grow up.

This huge change came in part from an infusion of American tax dollars—through PEPFAR and the Global Fund. President Bush and Congress knew how much the American people would care and would want to help—and they knew how much our help would mean to the people who get it.

This past summer, during the presidential campaign, candidate Obama made a commitment to build on this record. He pledged to double U.S. foreign assistance to $50 billion by 2012. For someone in my line of work, that was an extraordinary thing to hear.

Since then, of course, we’ve been hit by the financial crisis, which has opened up a huge budget deficit and changed some people’s view of what we can afford. But this crisis didn’t reduce people’s need for assistance; it increased it. If we can support the president as he stands by his pledge to the poorest nations—even in the face of our own financial crisis—it will make a phenomenal statement about the kind of partner America plans to be in the world.
Of course, the point isn’t only to enhance America’s reputation in the world—that’s a by-product. The point is to improve lives.

Development assistance can accomplish amazing things. The percentage of people in developing countries living in extreme poverty has fallen from more than 30 percent in 1990 to under 20 percent today. We are within reach of the goal of cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015. Measles deaths are down more than 90 percent in Africa. Malaria deaths are down 50 percent in key areas of Asia and Africa. A malaria vaccine candidate is now demonstrating that it can help protect young children from the most deadly form of the disease.
 If we keep pushing, we can make huge gains. I’m talking about more than reducing poverty or preventing disease. I’m talking about helping countries ultimately end their dependence on foreign assistance—so that more people can live healthy, productive lives without support from the U.S. or other donor governments.

Sixty years ago, the biggest infusion of foreign assistance came from the United States to Europe and Japan. Today, Europe and Japan need no aid, and more countries are joining this group. South Korea, China, Mexico and Brazil have all graduated from aid dependency—and every poor country wants to follow in their footsteps.

These are all important reasons to keep investing in development assistance. But there is another. I am a big supporter of development assistance because I am convinced that the improvement in human welfare per dollar spent is far higher on this money than on any other dollars the U.S. government spends.

So if you believe that fewer children should die, and there should be less human suffering, you should support this kind of development assistance.

That doesn’t mean we should indiscriminately support all foreign assistance. Some programs should be expanded. Some should be ended. The administration needs to figure out which is which. They should coordinate programs, demand more accountability, and insist on evidence-based decisions. We need to make the most of this downturn and the budget scrutiny that comes with it to ensure that these life-changing investments make the biggest possible impact for every dollar.

In my view, inequity is the most harmful force in the world – not just because it leaves people in misery, but because it wastes human potential and undercuts society's best chance to solve its own problems. As you begin to solve inequity, you decrease the number of problems, and increase the number of problem-solvers.
That’s why I believe some of the highest-leverage, long-term investments come from improving public education, especially for low-income and minority students, and increasing development assistance for the poorest countries.

In the U.S., this will help more students get effective teachers, graduate from high school, complete college, and find jobs that let them support a family.

In the developing world, it will mean more gains against AIDS, malaria, and TB, new advances in agriculture, and more support for businesses, for schools, for trade. It will mean giving people the chance to end dependency, and make the most of their lives.

I know it’s not always easy to see this—especially with so many people suffering—but we’re in a time of great opportunity. Difficult times can launch great ideas. In the 1970s, when the stock market had lost half its value, inflation was in double digits, and America was anxious about its future, people kept investing and innovating, and launched the information technology revolution.

Whether we’re talking about advances in technology or innovations in education or disease prevention—long-term strategic interests do not disappear in an economic downturn. Developing the talent of our young people, addressing poverty, preventing disease is always smart, no matter what the budget outlook. We’re making progress. We’re on the verge of breakthroughs. We can’t flinch during this downturn. We need to keep keep on course for a bright future.

Thank you.

December 3, 2008
During a major policy address at The George Washington University, Bill Gates urged the incoming Obama administration and new Congress to renew America’s commitment to expand opportunity in the United States and in the developing world.
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