With Latest Education Investments, Gates Pivots Again

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, pictured earlier this year, outlined new investments for school networks, curricula, and research and development last week.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates, pictured earlier this year, outlined new investments for school networks, curricula, and research and development last week.
—AP-File/Julio Cortez
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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s announcement last week of huge new investments in K-12 education signals its latest, but not its first, major shift in direction.

Nearly two-thirds of the $1.7 billion pledge will go into helping networks of middle and high schools to scale up best practices, and into improved curricula that match state standards for student learning. It conspicuously leaves behind the foundation’s focus, beginning in 2008, on revamping teacher evaluation, teachers’ career progression, and pay.

It is the latest iteration for a philanthropy that has both had a significant influence on K-12 policy over its two-decades-long involvement in the sector—and drawn harsh criticism for pushing ideas that some see as technocratic.

“You can see it all as part of a coherent vision in which they’re just making technical shifts. But you can also see it as haphazard,” said Rick Hess, a policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, who has written about education philanthropy.

Much of Gates’ past work did prompt major changes to state policy on teaching and standards, but those efforts have not yet shifted student learning across the board. And that may be the bigger insight for K-12 philanthropy in general: Change in American education is often incremental, small, and complex, making it hard to tease out promising practices.

“My sense is that the foundation has had bigger tangible impacts on affecting health outcomes around the world than they have in education, and they’ve been at it for a while,” said Daniel Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington, who has studied issues of teacher performance for more than a decade and whose center has received Gates funding.

“I don’t mean to be singling out the Gates Foundation,” he added. “I think this is just sort of the way it is. It’s hard in developed countries to change well-entrenched institutions.”

Rocky Road on Teachers

Gates’ last major push in the K-12 space was to fund plans from four districts and one group of charters to reorient their teacher-evaluation, -pay, and-promotion systems. By 2013, as Education Week reported at the time, the foundation had spent nearly $700 million, primarily on those grants and on a massive study of how to measure effective teaching, which remains a fruitful source of follow-up research.

(Education Week receives financial support from the Gates Foundation for coverage of continuous improvement strategies in education, and has received grant funding in the past for coverage of college- and career-ready standards implementation. Education Week retains sole editorial control.)

Four years later, early results are decidedly mixed across the sites. (A final study, which includes additional years of student achievement data, will be released in early 2018.)

It’s not the first time that nuanced findings from Gates-funded reforms weren’t immediately headline-friendly. Its small high schools initiative, which dates back to the early 2000s, also had mixed results.

The foundation’s teacher work was far more politically charged than the small-schools work, though, and Gates officials have hinted obliquely that the foundation didn’t quite anticipate the level of ill will its ideas would generate. The push for teacher evaluation—which dovetailed with federal policymaking at the time—quickly alienated many teachers. Key support from teachers’ union leaders, like the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, faltered under pressure from members.

Gates officials have acknowledged some missteps, such as emphasizing the evaluative aspects of the systems rather than their support-and-improve components. Bill Gates himself took to the op-ed pages to point out some unproductive things that school districts were doing in the frenzy to evaluate teachers, like creating new tests for P.E. classes.

And some of the challenges were outside of the foundation’s control, including the high levels of turnover in leadership that are endemic to urban school systems. Less than a year after securing the teaching grant in Pittsburgh, Superintendent Mark Roosevelt left the job; his corresponding leader at the city teachers’ union did the following year. By 2011, Memphis was bogged down by the politics of merging its system with neighboring Shelby County, which would not be complete until 2013.

Sustainability—a theme in Gates’ remarks last week—also proved to be a sticking point. In Hillsborough County, Fla., the district’s new teacher roles and pay system created financial stress for the district.

Gates will probably still be putting millions into teacher-quality efforts in the coming years, but that will not be as comprehensive as the intensive partnerships were, or as singlemindedly focused on teacher performance.

A look at the foundation’s recent grantmaking shows that it continued to make teacher-related grants in 2017, including $2 million for the New Teacher Center to work on teacher leadership; $2 million for the nonprofit Teach Plus, which helps develop teachers as policy leaders; and $1.7 million to the Relay Graduate School of Education to develop a data system for tracking the teachers it prepares.

At least some experts, like Goldhaber, aren’t sure that now is time to ease up on teacher evaluation. Although he agrees that efforts to reform teacher evaluation have not been led to significant changes in many places, he noted that there is some evidence, as in the District of Columbia, that rigorous evaluations can improve both teacher performance and boost student learning.

“I think people have learned that politically it’s very tough to influence evaluation, but I also believe that evaluations are sort of the linchpin to leveraging lots of other change in education,” he said. “So it may be moving away from that field is learning the wrong lesson.”

A Focus on Curriculum

To be sure, the foundation’s focus on standards and curriculum isn’t new, either. It offered key support for the development and implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and for many other groups that have developed instructional supports and lessons. But the new announcement signaled a significant increase in this kind of grantmaking.

Those reading the tea leaves might already have spied the foundation’s growing interest in curriculum and networked school improvement. For example, in October 2016, the Gates Foundation made an eye-popping $10 million grant to the Khan Academy, an online teaching and learning platform, to develop “digital instructional content” and tools for teachers.

It also hasn’t gone unnoticed among education leaders.

“As I have learned from hundreds of school visits each year, Gates also recognizes that teachers need real curriculum support and professional development to build on the standards,” the AFT’s Weingarten said in a statement following the announcement.

Like the teacher-evaluation work, the common core has proved remarkably controversial, with some states backing off or renaming the standards. About 35 states still use some form of the standards, however.

The foundation’s new direction brought cheers from advocates who have long called for a greater focus on high-quality curricula that are easy for teachers to use. Robert Pondiscio, the vice president for external affairs at the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is one of them.

“I get the sense that they learned from their mistakes,” Pondiscio said. “I do feel like we’re having a bit of a curriculum moment right now. Let’s be honest, a lot of the things we’ve tried under the banner of ‘ed. reform’ haven’t worked or have been disappointing, and those who have said, ‘It’s the curriculum, stupid,’ are getting more attention.”

It makes sense for the foundation to pair a newfound focus on curriculum with one on networks of schools, Pondiscio added, noting that some of what sets apart New York’s Success Academies—an academically high-flying, if controversial, New York City charter school chain—is its use of a common curriculum across its schools. And other networks, like the Knowledge is Power Program, have been experimenting with developing and sharing curriculum within their networks, rather than having teachers continually remake lessons on their own.

The new Gates investments won’t be limited to charters, but will also fund networks of traditional schools and districts. California’s CORE districts, for example, banded together to hone improvements to students’ social-emotional learning.

On Monday, the foundation released a request for information hoping to gather feedback from groups interested in applying for a new grant. It will use that to craft its request for proposals in early 2018. A major focal point will be funding “intermediary organizations” to launch networks of secondary schools in the summer of 2018, the document says.

The details remain hazy, but it appears that the foundation will also draw on the concept of improvement science, using the networks to test out different approaches to solve problems.

Donald J. Peurach, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s education school who has studied networked improvement, called that aspect of the grants very promising.

“It recognizes a need that improvement will require breaking out of conventional, hierarchical bureaucratic structures,” and into new types of relationships, he said.

He cautioned, though, that the foundation’s newfound enthusiasm for continuous improvement could collide with the impact of the accountability movement.

“This whole space still expects quick return on investment,” he said. “What we’ve learned about how this plays out is that it’s a lot harder to do well than many people expect.”

Many observers point to the imprint of Robert Hughes, the philanthropy’s relatively new director of K-12 policy, on the foundation’s latest chapter. As the former president of New Visions for Public Schools, a New York City nonprofit, he helped to manage a portfolio of more than 70 district-run public schools and charters that developed tools and practices and shared them across schools.

Hughes was not immediately available for an interview.

By investing in smaller-scale projects, the foundation also seems to want its investments to be able to stand on their own two feet. Take, for example, the foundation’s recent $2 million grant to the teacher-training arm of the Aspire Public Schools, a charter network.

The grant is to “help seed and scale a new type of graduate school of education that will be able to operate without significant, ongoing philanthropy,” the abstract of the grant on the Gates website reads.

Vol. 37, Issue 11, Pages 1, 13

Published in Print: November 1, 2017, as With Newest Grants, Gates Pivots Again
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