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Does the Bill Gates approach to education work for peacebuilding?

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Mark Humphrey/AP

(Read caption) Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates answers questions during a news conference on Nov. 4 in Nashville, Tenn. Gates visited Tennessee to get a firsthand view of an overhaul in the state's education system that they helped encourage with their foundation's $90 million grant to Memphis schools.

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In a NYT article about Bill Gates' venture into teacher evaluation, I'm stuck on this sentence:

Researchers and educators involved in the project described it as maddeningly complex in its effort to separate the attributes of good teaching from the idiosyncrasies of individual teachers.

Why Gates investing $335 million in trying to separate those two things? Because he wants to find the generalizable lessons of good teaching. He tells the Times:

What’s unbelievable is how little the exemplars have been studied. And then saying, ‘O.K., How do you take a math teacher who’s in the third quartile and teach them how to get kids interested – get the kid who’s smart to pay attention, a kid who’s behind to pay attention?’ Teaching a teacher to do that – you have to follow the exemplars.”

The assumption is that the 'exemplars' do something other teachers don't do but can learn how to do.

It's the same thinking behind the UN Peacebuilding Commission, which I spent my summer following around. The operating philosophy there is, "Let's add ingredients we think are often missing after conflict – money and attention – and test theories we have about what helps keep conflict from coming back, so that we can apply the successful ones in other countries."

I looked at rather a lot of PBC programs, on paper and in the field. The ones that worked were unreplicable. Or at least, the only thing replicable was, "Know the actors, context and history, and do something that seems important in those circumstances."

Why not give a little stage time to the idea that success may be about idiosyncrasy? That success is not a generalizable set of actions we can study, in order to build a universalizing theory about "this thing that works," in order to replicate that thing elsewhere? It would require humbler – more realistic? –expectations of what money does, but maybe it would help us use the money better.

Jina Moore is a freelance reporter based in Kigali, Rwanda who blogs here. You can follow her on Twitter at @itsjina.


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