Gatesian Utopia

Nathan Allen
11 min readDec 21, 2018

There are two primary issues in education: structural friction and delusion. In the U.S., structural friction includes the panoply of standards and funding sources that bedevil much of K12 education. Answering a basic question such as who’s paying for this? is akin to playing Whac-A-Mole with a greased mallet. The structural friction in U.S. K12 is so severe that several of the biggest K12 companies are or will exit the market (some announced and some not, but I’m not making that information public here). Internationally, structural friction often includes cultural and political issues (in most countries, education is a political tool; more on that in some other article). This friction is also why so many ed-tech companies prefer to address non-K12 markets: college, workforce, etc.

If the private education industry can be commended for attempting to lubricate the gears of a very inefficient U.S. K12 ed machine, then it can be castigated for perpetuating delusion. Most educators working in K12 are very aware of the limitations of the system (students, parents, delivery methods, etc.), but the ed-tech (and related) community often behaves like aliens who just arrived, attempting to apply unrealistic solutions to achieve goals tethered to no earthly reality. This fantasia of effort often results in frustration and, as argued below, actually achieves the opposite of the desired result.

About two years ago, the Gates Foundation circulated a draft of their Big Bet. I don’t know where they are now or how they proceeded, and I didn’t provide feedback at the time because my brain exploded. It took a while to clean up that mess. Their argument is an exemplar of the delusion that infects and metastasizes across much of education, particularly among the self-anointed who are here to help.

So what’s the problem? It isn’t that they claim that we need to reinvent education because technology is “Driving growth in many jobs that didn’t exist but now employ millions,” though the argument is specious. As proof that education needs to adapt to a new (tech-driven) world, they list the following new jobs:

Ridesharing driver. (Me: There’s a lot of economic analysis that suggests that such jobs may not be profitable for the driver. I’m not sure I’d target Uber driver production as any kind of K12 objective.)

Offshore wind farm manager. (Me: Some kind of myopia would produce this as an example of a job of the future.)

Millennial Generational Expert. (Me: There have been demographic experts since the 1950s.)

Market Research Data Miner. (Me: Likewise, has also existed since the 50s, and the bulk of data mining hasn’t changed since the 80s. I have a Cambridge Analytica article somewhere on this.)

Big deal? Nope. Ridiculous premise on which to base an argument to transform education? Yes.

If I were to suggest the problem areas to address, it would certainly not be because students may not have the skills to be a Millennial Generational Expert but rather because there exists a desperate need for the following skills:

Basic arithmetic and statistics. Averages, ratios, statistical manipulation and probability surround us — all the time and everyday. Most students graduate without knowing how to approach a proportion. These sorts of basic math skills are genuinely useful.

Civics. Adults get to vote, so you might as well have a clue about how the country operates (and why).

Basic Economics. How the country operates (and why), Part II. Also, how not to commit financial suicide with credit cards and student loans.

Logic. Causation/correlation conflation plagues us. An indicator is not a cause. Large averages have almost no relationship to individual data points (large average results do not denote individual results). I could keep going, but a semester on basic logic, along with economics and civics, would likely heal much that ails us.

Communication skills. Not optional: sentences have a subject and a verb. Optional: other stuff. We’re graduating students who don’t know this. Presumably “Communication skills” includes both sending and receiving.

Very importantly, none of that includes substantial progress in one’s ability to manipulate abstractions, which means it might be generally achievable (which means maybe 50% of the high school population has some meaningful comprehension).


So the formulation of Gates’ premise is: new tech = new jobs requires new education. Here’s their Big Bet [actual quote from their deck]:

“We believe every 9th grade student can successfully master Algebra I.”

Brain explosion.

There is no evidence that such a goal is remotely possible. There is no evidence that you can even get close to that goal. There’s an enormous pile of evidence supporting the conclusion that such a goal is unrealistic, as in “not real” or “ignores reality.”

I’m all for big bets or moon shots. But this isn’t a moon shot, because a “moon shot” is, by definition, difficult but empirically possible. This isn’t the equivalent of some NASA scientist thinking he can defy gravity in the 1950s. He may have thought that but only in the context of the reality of gravity. This is the equivalent of the corpulent tin-foil hat NEET in his basement with a screwdriver and a vast collection of questionable circuit boards thinking he can defy gravity with his anti-gravity machine. Which is also an infinite motion machine. Which is also a toaster-oven. One of these people is making a big bet. The other is a loon.

NASA addresses any gravity problems they have within the context of reality. To attempt to address gravity outside of the context of the science is delusion. This is crucial because (1) ignoring reality gets you nowhere; (2) ignoring reality is expensive; (3) ignoring reality creates an echo chamber in which others are invited to ignore reality; (4) ignoring reality is dangerous for a civilization. (More on that later.)

It gets worse.

The Gates deck then proceeds to its justification:

“In a DOE survey, 80% of High School Dropouts Cite Their Inability to Pass Algebra I as their #1 Reason for Dropping Out.”

Where to even begin with such multitudinous nonsense? Apparently, the Gates Foundation could use a causation/correlation primer.

You may go to the doctor for abdominal pain. And the doctor may discover you have stomach cancer. The abdominal pain is an indicator. Yet if someone in education surveyed you, you’d indicate that “abdominal pain” is the reason you sought medical help. Gates would then sweep in with a big bet on abdominal pain, ignoring the cancer.

Algebra I is a primary indicator for “dropping out” because it’s a clarifying point in a student’s education progress. It’s recent (for a drop-out), transparently difficult, and not vague in the signals it sends; it is the big red STOP sign in front of you.

But people are generally unreliable witnesses (particularly of their own tragedies) and terrible self-diagnosers. You can go back many years and discover a litany of drop-out indicators. The signal starts to become strong by second grade, though it’s possible to go back even further.[1]

Kids perform poorly in algebra for many reasons, starting with the problem that they never really learned arithmetic (check the data), and that they don’t have a firm grasp on manipulating abstractions on any level (check the data), and that these problems appear everywhere across the curriculum (even more so in verbal than in math). The problem is not math and is not ninth grade.

Which circles around to the main point: review the (very massive) amount of research, and you’ll find precious little that demonstrates that any great majority of students can learn algebra (not will or should but can). Finally, what does algebra have to do with producing more ridesharing drivers or Millennial Generational Experts? Of course, the problem isn’t one’s grasp of algebra; it’s one’s grasp on a high school diploma.[2]

Therefore, the problem is that Gates’ Big Bet isn’t big enough. The problem with algebra is that we’re teaching algebra. Why are we stuck on teaching an academic pseudo-core to everyone when the reality is that (1) most do not learn it, and (2) there’s limited positive impact on their lives. No argument in favor of the academic pseudo-core matters: the kids don’t learn it.[3] There’s no evidence that a majority can or will learn it. Millions of teachers and billions of dollars have tried. At what point to you stop blaming teachers, administrators, curricula, schools, parents, funding ad infinitum and actually consider whether your initial assumptions have any merit? At what point do you stop ignoring the most senior education researchers and historians and realize that K12 education was never designed or intended to teach this academic pseudo-core?[4] Algebra is the problem, but not in the way you think it is.

But wait, it gets worse.

The Gates deck repeats and expands its mission later in the deck:

“To transform middle school math instruction to ensure every 9th grade student successfully masters Algebra 1 and loves math.”

Masters and loves? This is perverse.

First, let’s clarify “masters.” I have no idea what that means … and neither do you. “Proficient” on NAEP is usually comfortably above the various “at-level” state and local standards. And “at-level” state standards are just made up — there’s no uniform, objective, reasonable agreement on what exactly that means. So while the entire miasma of terms is a house of cards, let’s assume “masters” is something like NAEP “proficient.” Currently, 67% of U.S. 8th graders are below proficient at math and 65% are below proficient at verbal.[5] Now you should do something that no one ever does: actually look at the math and verbal problems that most 8th graders miss. I’m not going to do that here, but I’m not interested in any arguments that ignore the actual subject matter. You cannot review the math problems that most students consistently (and longitudinally) cannot answer correctly and then assert that you will “transform middle school math instruction to ensure every 9th grade student successfully masters Algebra 1 and loves math” unless you are wearing a straitjacket. It’s as depressing as the surveys that demonstrate the high number of high school students who can’t name the century in which the U.S. Civil War occurred — a bit of information that was presented to them (and they were likely tested on) several times. Everyone focuses on the data, but, instead, for once, put yourself in the shoes of the teacher. Take a look at the rather basic math that most students consistently miss, and then let’s talk about the grand algebra love-in.

But wait, it gets worse. Part II.

The deck belabors “Mindsets and Motivation.” There are several slides devoted to this topic. And there’s a specific reference to “motivation calibration,” which is the rather commonsense observation that if you wish to motivate someone, you need an objective that appears to be reasonable/achievable.

Spend some time on those NAEP questions that most 8th graders cannot answer correctly and then tell me that “everyone will master and love algebra” is a well-calibrated objective for 9th graders. Oh, you’ll fix 8th grade math, too? Well, keep in mind that 60% of students are below proficient in 4th grade math. You’ll fix that, too? Ok, then what about the 65% of students who aren’t proficient at 8th or 4th grade reading? You do know, of course, that at a foundational level, they’re both testing the same thing (psychometricians refer to these results as g-loaded). I’m glad to know that you’ll fix all these problems because up until now no one has really been trying. Thanks! (Repeat: the problem is not math and is not ninth grade.)

But wait, it gets worse. Part III.

What happens when you give a group of students an entirely unachievable objective? What happens when you tell students that everyone can do it and everyone can love it, and they can’t do it and don’t love it? It’s humiliating and depressing. The students feel like failures and oddballs. To be clear: the Gates “Big Bet” is nothing short of psychological warfare. If you want a bunch of depressed kids who act out, aren’t socially well-adjusted, and drop-out, then give them unrealistic (“master”) and ridiculous (“love”) goals.

Maybe the problem isn’t that teachers, administrators, schools, parents, curricula and trillions of dollars have comprehensively failed to deliver over the decades. Maybe the problem is you. Developing group psychosis around a perception of reality and objectives is problematic but inflicting your group psychosis on the young is tragic. No one cares about the mad-hatter in the basement working on his anti-gravity-toaster-oven until he’s got a few billion dollars at his disposal, particularly when those billions are targeted at the young.

But wait, it gets worse.

There’s so much more. In the next article: Why are so many in education given to delusion? In fact, delusion, particularly around objectives, has afflicted us since the late Victorian Era, but rest assured that Karl Marx is mostly to blame (and Carl Linnaeus, and, well, Victorians in general). Cultivating a sense of humiliation and defeat among the nation’s youth may seem dangerous enough for one billionaire dilettante, but ignoring reality is dangerous for a civilization … and Gates is not alone.

[1] Q: what’s the primary indicator that a student will graduate K12 illiterate (at HS level)? A: they arrived to kindergarten illiterate (at kindergarten level). Remarkable that anything and everything a school does in the intervening thirteen years has less of an effect. And no, I don’t blame the teachers or the curriculum or the administrators or Russian hackers.

[2] Not the point of this article but the solution is to make the requirements for a high school diploma meaningful for students. Generally, studies show (and the informed argue) that genuine high school level math is relevant for maybe 15% of the student population (some argue it’s more like 10%, but I’m being optimistic).

[3] Math and verbal skills, particularly beyond early childhood, require a lot of abstract manipulation; all the evidence suggests that statistically significant longitudinal improvement of abstract manipulation skills is a hopeless endeavor, so let’s forget it. Instead, take a look at something that, at a basic level, is fairly fact-based: civics/history (not a lot of manipulation of abstractions but rather fact input/recall). Now look at the data — not the delusion, the data — for high school graduates. They don’t know basic civics at any reasonable level. Now look at the data for college students — a high-achieving subset of the previous dataset — and they don’t know basic civics/history … about their own country. When most students can’t identify the significance of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or identify the century of the Civil War or list the U.S. allies in WW2, then it’s delusional to think they’re going to ‘master’ functions or the quadratic formula. Keep in mind, all students were provided that information about George Washington and the Civil War and WWII— likely ad nauseum — while in school. They just didn’t remember.

[4] You can start with the scholarship of David F. Labaree and work from there.

[5] Go ahead, check it out for yourself.

About Nathan Allen

Formerly of Xio Research, an A.I. appliance company. Previously a strategy and development leader at IBM Watson Education. His views do not necessarily reflect anyone’s, including his own. (What.). Nathan’s academic training is in intellectual history; his next book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense….