Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Re-inventing America’s Schools


It was recently announced that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had created a two billion dollar charitable trust aimed at addressing two issues: homelessness and high-quality schools in underperforming areas. His educational initiative is called the Day 1 Academies Fund. 

He plans to launch and operate a network of high-quality free Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities. Bezos stated that the charitable trust will “create opportunities to learn, invent and improve, using the same principles that have driven Amazon's growth.”

(The following is my imaginary conversation with Jeff)

WELCOME to the education party, Jeff! 

You wanna help make America’s schools better?! You’re literally preaching to the choir in this room! Two billion to spend? WOW! 

You wanna help make America’s schools better?! You’re literally preaching to the choir in this room! Two billion to spend? WOW!

It seems like you might be staying awhile, so take off your coat and let me introduce you around. Don’t try the bean dip, it was repurposed from today’s lunchroom, which was repurposed from last week’s mystery taco day. Hungry? No worries, since lunch room improvement initiatives were rolled back, we got plenty of white bread and non-whole grain foods. Thirsty? You can wash it down with a sugary and caffeine-filled Monster energy drink from one of our vending machines.

Let’s make the rounds shall we? There are some people you may want to meet. They’ve been where you are and might have some good advice for you.

Oh, there’s Mark. HEY, MARK! Yep, he joined our club in 2010 when he gave two hundred million dollars to the Newark Public Schools. Impressive right? Well, it turns out that it was a five-year only project that yielded no measurable gains in student performance. Is he upset about that? Naahhh. He didn’t even participate in the project other than to close it down in 2016. He’s fine with it, but don’t mention anything about the elections, or Russia, he’s super touchy about that.

Wait, there’s Billy. Have you met Billy? He’s a swell chap that can rock a v-neck sweater like no one I know. Yeah, he’s all in on education. Since 2009, he and his wife Melinda have given over 215 million dollars to standardized testing and teacher performance initiatives. It turns out the premise that paying teachers based on student test scores was a faulty one and had no measurable impact. He doesn’t see it as a failure though as he said, “We now know what doesn’t work.” Such a positive outlook after so much money spent. He could have used that to improve Windows Vista or the Zune.

Ohhhh, look over there, in the corner, it’s the Waltons. No, they're not an acapella group! They're the board of directors for the Walton Foundation, or as you may know it, Walmart. They have dumped a ton of money into education and even produced the politically charged and profit oriented film Waiting for Superman

Hey guys, I want you to meet my new pal Jeff. He’s about to join our club. Can he get a t-shirt too? Only if he gives his money to charter schools? Ooooooohhhh, you’re not interested in public education? Good to know!

I am proud of you, Jeff. You are literally putting your money where your mouth is and are wanting to make a difference. It’s not every day that someone makes a gesture of this magnitude. I wish all billionaires followed your lead, and I mean that.

BBut keep in mind that by choosing to sacrifice salaries for a sense of purpose, teachers put their money where their mouths are as well. And while there are some exceptions by in large, America’s public schools are already more like Amazon than you might think. For instance:

  • 85% of your deliveries are successfully received and kept. Well, 85% of our students graduate.

  • In non-distressed areas (not an inner-city), your delivery rate is well above 90%. So are our graduation rates.

  • 67% of Amazon clients upgrade to Prime, similarly 69% of our students upgrade to college.

  • The average Amazon product rating is 4 stars, and 82% of people approve of their local school (4 stars).

  • Amazon operates massive data farms, we operate massive campuses.

  • Do you need to hire an additional 20,000 employees? So do we!

  • Lastly, Amazon seeks to be everything to every consumer, we are charged to be everything for every child

See, we’re not so different, but keep in mind that you can’t overnight academic success. Kids are not packages and schools are not fulfillment centers.

Anyway, Jeff, it’s been great getting to know you. I wish you all the best in your new endeavor, but I've got to run, my shift is over. Member of this club? NOOOO, I'm a server. This is my second job. I teach during the day.

Welcome to the club, please stay and mingle. There are lots of people to meet, but their stories are pretty similar. Spend lots, learn little. Be sure to bring a friend next week! Requirements? Well, being super-wealthy and having no experience with education is a good start…

Good luck, see ya around.

(end of my made up conversation)

Okay, back to reality.

Listen, I am glad that wealthy individuals are wanting to make a difference and invest in education. Really, I am.

But, it’s important to know that educational institutions can’t be governed by the same principles, values, and metrics that guide a for-profit business. The issues our schools face are complex and require a deep and nuanced understanding of student achievement and teacher development.

It should also noted that most of America’s schools are remarkably successful and are run by people as competent and successful as Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. The ones that do struggle are almost always located in struggling communities, You cannot fix the problem without fixing the community. 

But most important of all, for our schools to rise to their truest potential we must trust, respect, and value these institutions for what they are, protectors of our youth and developers of our future.

Something to think about. Have a great week.