Q&A: The Gates Foundation's new education strategy

An employee walks past a sign at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation campus in Seattle, Washington. Photo by: REUTERS/Marcus Donner

LONDON — The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made its first grants in the global education space, with a focus on data, evidence, and other tools to help improve learning outcomes.

The foundation announced last year it was entering the global education space with an initial budget of $68 million over four years, as low-income countries struggle with what the World Bank has called a global “learning crisis” — meaning that many children are either out of school, or in school but learning little.

“We’ve been loosely calling it a public goods strategy … by which we mean data, evidence, approaches, tools, innovation and less about saying let’s go to country x and solve it,” Girindre Beeharry, director of global education at the Gates Foundation, said.

The first set of grants and partnerships, including an education policy dashboard launched last month, implemented by the World Bank with co-funding from the United Kingdom Department for International Development. They are broadly aimed at helping policymakers and education actors improve learning outcomes across mainstream school systems in India and two countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which are yet to be selected.

Devex caught up with Beeharry to find out more. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The money — $68 million — is not a lot by the foundation’s standards, or compared to what is spent by other global education donors. What do you hope to do with it?

It’s a tiny amount of money and the reason for that is we really think that a lot more needs to be done in terms of figuring out what to do. We are asking ourselves what can we produce that is scarce in the education community that will allow people who either run programs themselves, or advise governments on how to run them, to do their own work better. Also, big donors like the World Bank have limited funding for cross-cutting global good projects. That’s why even a modest amount of funding for that is important.

You did a lot of research before deciding on the strategy and making the first grants. What did you discover during that time?

The biggest knowledge gap is how do you get learning to happen at scale. It’s hard to find countries that have done well and where you find them, it’s hard to work out what they have done precisely to get to that point.

“The biggest knowledge gap is how do you get learning to happen at scale.”

— Girindre Beeharry, director of global education, Gates Foundation

We also see that singular interventions can work under lab-like conditions, but don’t maintain their effect when mainstreamed into public schools systems. So, we want to work on understanding why systems operate well and others not, even when they look the same from outside.

Can you give some highlights from the new portfolio?

Most of the strategy is about learning. We are looking at it from a global angle which is about political salience and creating some element of visibility into this issue.

That includes work with UNESCO Institute for Statistics on the learning outcomes indicator 4.1.1 [under Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education] which gives you a sense of whether learning is happening. Some countries are now producing this data, but it’s coming from many different sources. So the support we are giving to UIS is to create robust methods to equate and compare those tests and get a better sense of how a country is doing in terms of teaching kids to read and write.

The dashboard is with the World Bank and there the idea is to help policymakers respond to the learning crisis by giving them a suite of indicators … to get a better handle on what they ought to be focusing on and move us away from simplistic policy prescriptions.

At the country level, we have a bunch of research questions, such as what is impeding girls from participating in school, particularly at secondary level in sub-Saharan Africa, and how do you tackle that issue. We are also interested in learning about good practices in engaging nonstate actors, that in many countries make up for a large proportion of the provision of schooling.

We are interested in expanding the literature on positive deviants. What are the geographies, at similar levels of income, that buck the trend of low learning and what can we learn from them? We have given the Center for Global Development a grant to partner with local researchers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa to try and answer these questions.

On the classroom practice piece, we’ve made a grant to RTI International to ask what does good classroom practice look like … and what does it take to scale the effective models up.

On ed tech, we are potentially going to join the DFID-funded £20 million ($25.6 million) EdTech Research and Innovation Hub which is taking more of a market lens to the problem. We are asking, “how do you work with mission-aligned companies that are developing products to make them useful in the classrooms we care about?”

We are also partnering with a foundation in India, the Central Square Foundation, to develop public good specifically targeting learning in two states in India. We are talking with philanthropies in Africa to see if we can find a similar partnership there.

Is the Gates Foundation likely to become a bigger education funder in the future?

There’s a great appreciation for the value of education at the foundation but far less understanding of the role we could play in a crowded world of donors.

“The real game is how to get domestic [education funding] to be better spent.”

Currently, we see our role as supporting existing organizations. After all, the real game is how to get domestic [education funding] to be better spent … so we are asking how can we help those who are spending big money — whether it’s the donors or countries — to get more aware of the issues and how to address them.

But while public health is interesting [for the foundation] because of our understanding of the theory of change, here the nature of the work is more complex. There is no easy advocacy, policy agenda or prescription of what to do and so it’s harder for us to imagine playing a large funding role.

Does the foundation’s hesitance have anything to do with its negative experience funding education in the United States? [In 2009, the foundation launched a project to improve teacher effectiveness in low-income schools in the U.S., which proved unsuccessful.]

The U.S. lesson is that there are no easy solutions. You have to think hard about the context in which you’re operating and political economy.

But the work we’re trying to do here is starting from a very different point … we are working to understand systems that are much less capable and so the levers, the questions, the kinds of solutions that are effective are likely to be very different.

We see our role as evidence building, not solving complex problems that are best left to local actors who understand what is feasible in their administrative and political contexts.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.