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Published in Print: October 25, 2006, as Foundation Shifts Tack on Studies

Foundation Shifts Tack on Studies

Scholars say Gates risks losing valuable findings.

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Five years into an eight-year study of its high school improvement efforts, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is shifting its strategy for evaluating the $1.3 billion grant program.

The foundation’s initiative, which is underwriting change efforts in more than 1,800 schools, is the nation’s largest privately funded attempt to improve high schools. Initially focused on creating hundreds of smaller, more personalized schools and schools-within-schools, the program now encompasses a more complex mix of policy measures to reform high schools.

Gates’ decision to halt the study worries some scholars, who say the field will lose valuable insights into an initiative of historic proportions.

“The evaluation appears to have led Gates to think we don’t need to learn any more about this approach of focusing on school size per se,” said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University. “But there’s never been anything like this of this size and scale outside of government funding, and we owe it to future reformers to come back and finish this.”

Since 2001, the American Institutes for Research, based in Washington, and SRI International, of Menlo Park, Calif., have been evaluating progress in a sample of Gates-funded schools in four districts. But foundation officials told the two research groups last year that they planned to pull the plug on that study. The foundation intends instead to forge a new study plan centered around building a database to monitor educational performance in every school it supports.

The studies conducted to date have not found dramatic gains in student achievement in the experimental schools. But Tom Vander Ark, the executive director for education initiatives at the Seattle-based philanthropy, said that Gates was not altering its evaluation strategy to “paint a rosier picture” of the results.

“We’ve learned a great deal over the last six or seven years,” he said. “We’ve made different kinds of grants, and the sampling strategy we’ve been using has fallen short.”

The trouble with the old strategy, Mr. Vander Ark said, was that the schools sampled no longer represented the foundation’s grant portfolio, which had evolved in response to gaps and problems that researchers were uncovering. A data-monitoring system, he said, would give Gates baseline information on all its schools, rather than just a few, and do it more quickly than the previous study could.

“I actually think we’ll have better information,” Mr. Vander Ark said.

The Gates Foundation underwrites an annual report in Education Week on high school graduation and related issues.

Not Enough Time?

The original evaluation called for tracking more than 70 schools. The sample included start-up small schools, traditional high schools converting into smaller schools, and regular comprehensive high schools to serve as a basis for comparison. Because schools came into the study on a staggered basis, most of the schools involved had been carrying out improvements for three or four years when the evaluation ended this year—not enough time, some experts say, to gauge how effective their efforts had been.

“This kind of change takes five to 10 years to get the full idea of what’s going on,” Mr. Kirst said.

The project has published results so far from three rounds of annual evaluations; a fourth and final report is due out early next month, according to Gates officials.

Signs of Progress

The most recent report found promising gains in reading and language arts, but not in mathematics.

It also pointed to shortcomings in the schools, particularly in math instruction and in the quality of students’ work. It showed that the foundation-backed schools—especially the newer ones—were marked by “close interpersonal relationships, common focus, and mutual respect and responsibility.” Attendance also improved in the start-up schools, though not in those that had been redesigned from existing schools. ("Gates High Schools Get Mixed Review in Study," Nov. 16, 2005.)

Experts credit the series of evaluations with providing valuable insights into what happens over time when educators start small schools or carve smaller learning communities out of larger schools.

“We all said, ‘This is good stuff; you’ve got to keep going with this,’ ” said Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, based at the University of Washington in Seattle. He was among the scholars who advised the Gates Foundation on the development of its earlier evaluation.

“I don’t think Gates’ relationship with the researchers was so inflexible that they couldn’t have changed the sample,” Mr. Hill said.

But Becky A. Smerdon, a principal investigator for the original evaluation who is now a senior associate with the Center on Education Policy at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, said she thought the foundation was shifting gears at an opportune time in the study cycle.

“I do think it was a good time to step back and think about what we’ve learned,” she said. “You don’t need another report that says you need to focus on teaching and learning, because that’s the direction they’re headed in.”

While the new evaluation plan is still in the works, Mr. Vander Ark said the foundation was already working with Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Services, based in New York City, to build a performance-management database to track key indicators, such as graduation rates and promotion rates, in all the Gates-supported schools.

Apart from the database, he added, the foundation wants to conduct more in-depth studies of some of the program’s major grants. ("Gates Learns to Think Big," Oct. 11, 2006.)

“We want to determine whether grantees did what they said they were going to do, and whether that produced the intended outcomes for students,” he said.

A third piece of the effort will be a series of reports synthesizing information from the database and the in-depth studies across groups of similar grants. Those reports might, for example, focus on charter-management organizations or district-level school improvement efforts. The evaluation’s final piece, Mr. Vander Ark said, will be a study to gauge the impact of the foundation’s overall strategy for remaking high school education.

In the process, foundation officials say, they hope to integrate data from the previous studies so that the earliest grantees’ long-term progress can continue to be tracked.

Outside of Standard & Poor’s, no evaluators have been selected to carry out the new study program.

The data-monitoring system at the center of the strategy, though, has some experts concerned about whether the new evaluation will have too narrow a focus.

“When they talk about performance-monitoring, I think they’re talking about how students are doing on test scores,” said Michael Klonsky, the director of the Small Schools Workshop, a nonprofit organization in Chicago.

Any evaluation the foundation undertakes should also pay attention to school climate issues, the extent to which the Gates-funded schools involve the community, and the impact the schools are having on the large, comprehensive schools that are not part of the grants program, he said.

Vol. 26, Issue 09, Pages 1,25

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