Nicholas Kristof’s thought-provoking column in the July 19 New York Times, “Bill and Melinda’s Pillow Talk,” is mainly about the tremendous progress the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made in transforming health and nutrition for the world’s poor since its founding fifteen years ago. Unfortunately, the Foundation’s investment in improving K-12 education in this country hasn’t generated a comparable return, according to Kristof, who quotes Bill Gates as saying, “There’s no dramatic change.”
Reading Kristof’s column in the Sunday Times got me to thinking about the totally unjustified and just plain stupid decision the Board of the Hillsborough County Public Schools made last January to fire one of the country’s truly outstanding educational leaders, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia (see the January 22 post at this blog, “Averting Needless and Costly Partings of the Ways:” http://bsi.powerpoint3.com/?p=77 ). One of the reasons this wrong-headed decision was so perplexing was that MaryEllen had been instrumental in obtaining a $100 million grant from the Gates Foundation to foster effective teaching in the district, and she was doing a great job guiding implementation of the Empowering Effective Teachers Initiative. Without question, firing MaryEllen jeopardized progress in this wide-ranging educational reform effort in the Hillsborough County Schools, making a powerful return on the Gates Foundation’s investment much less likely – at a potentially huge long-term cost in terms of unrealized student achievement.
If a significant dollop of the HCPS Empowering Effective Teachers Initiative grant had been dedicated to fostering a rock-solid working relationship between MaryEllen and her Board of Education, could the Board’s disruptive and irrational decision have been averted? Quite likely, in my opinion, and it certainly would have been worth the effort. I wonder if other Gates-funded K-12 reform initiatives around the country have paid adequate attention to the central role of a solid board-superintendent partnership in achieving fundamental educational reform. If not, perhaps now’s the time for planners at the Gates Foundation to go back to the drawing board.