Gates Foundation launches a new global education strategy

A school for young children in Bangladesh. Photo by: UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

SAN FRANCISCO — On Friday, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched its global education strategy, to provide education systems in India and sub-Saharan Africa with better resources to improve teaching and learning.

Building on its investments in global health and international development, and expanding its work on education beyond the United States, the new global effort has a $68 million budget for the next four years.

In a blog post announcing the strategy, Girindre Beeharry, director of global education at the Gates Foundation, notes the progress the world has made on education over the past 15 years, but explains that expanded access has not translated to better outcomes.

“What we’re trying to do here is stay with the problem a bit longer, as opposed to going to a solution mode,” he told Devex ahead of the announcement. “Instead of saying, ‘This is the answer,’ we are trying to say: ‘It is likely that every country will need to find its own path in solving the education problem.’”

The strategy has four pillars: At the classroom level, the foundation will identify cost-effective approaches to supporting teaching and learning; it will work with partners to assess the causes of poor performance and identify solutions best suited to those needs; it will support efforts to make data on learning outcomes comparable across countries so progress can be tracked over time; and it will seek to understand barriers holding girls back.

Millions of children in school are learning very little, which emphasizes the point that attendance and learning are separate challenges, Beeharry wrote in the blog post.

“Leaving these students behind amplifies inequality, as the learning deficiency is largest among the poor,” he continued in the post. “The learning deficit is also at the root of what worries many governments: A poorly skilled youth population.”

Traditionally, the Gates Foundation’s work on education has been limited to the United States, though Bill Gates, billionaire co-chair of the Gates Foundation, has personally supported education beyond U.S. borders through some of his investments.

Gates, who along with his wife and fellow foundation co-chair Melinda Gates, approved the new strategy, emphasized the importance of investing in education as well as health at a recent event.

“Amazingly, we thought education would be easy, and health would be hard,” he said in an onstage interview. “I won’t say health has been easy, but at least we — in partnership with others — have moved the macro numbers fairly dramatically.”

“We’re saying, ‘Let’s get collectively smarter about education systems and what they need,’ and that’s the spot we’re occupying in this complex ecosystem.”

— Girindre Beeharry, director of global education at the Gates Foundation

In preparation for the launch of this new strategy, Beeharry and his colleagues spent two years on a listening tour. The team’s conclusions closely align with the World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report, “LEARNING to Realize Education’s Promise,” which had three key findings: “Schooling is not the same as learning. Schooling without learning is not just a wasted opportunity, but a great injustice. There is nothing inevitable about low learning in low- and middle-income countries.” 

The book “The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning,” by Lant Pritchett, research director at RISE, or Research on Improving Systems of Education, which is working to drive a shift from a schooling agenda toward a learning agenda, had an influence on the policy, Beeharry said.

“As schools begin to fill, what we see is kids going to school and going through what seem to be the motions of schooling — they have a classroom, they have a textbook, they have a teacher — but after many years of attending school, they are unable to even read and write at a basic level,” he said.

Despite well-intentioned efforts over many decades, education systems have been resistant to solution-led interventions, Beeharry said, so this new approach will focus on understanding what problems get in the way of progress in order to move toward smarter investments in education systems.

“We’re saying, ‘Let’s get collectively smarter about education systems and what they need,’ and that’s the spot we’re occupying in this complex ecosystem,” Beeharry said.

While the Gates Foundation can draw on lessons from its work on U.S. education as it pursues a global education strategy, one of the major challenges with education is that context matters, and rarely does a solution in one context travel well to another geography, Beeharry explained.

In fact, part of the reason the education strategy took so long to launch is that the foundation was cautious about what it could do about this problem, which Beeharry said is “by its nature … complex and local.”

“There are very few countries that you can point to as good examples of having done it well,” he said. “The spot we want to occupy is to help the field develop its thinking and have the ability to think through what tools it needs to bring to that problem.”

Efforts to advance learning outcomes’ success depend on technically correct interventions, a system that is able to deliver those interventions at scale, and a political environment that is supportive of those interventions, Beeharry said.

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.