Professional Development

Gates Announces $15M in Professional-Development Grants

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 24, 2013 3 min read
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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is expanding its already significant teacher-quality work to include on-the-job teacher training.

Its education wing today announced the awarding of more than $15 million in “Innovative Professional Development” grants over a three-year period. The funds will be split among the Fresno, Calif.; Long Beach, Calif; and Jefferson County, Colo., districts, with each receiving about $5 million.

Using their grants, the districts will be expected to create new systems for professional development to deliver better-quality content and make use of new models of delivery such as in-class coaching, video, and online or blended learning. They’ll also be asked to build both the collective learning of teachers, and to deliver personalized help for each teacher’s own needs.

(For context, it’s worth mentioning that, in PD circles, there’s been a lot of discussion about “individual” vs. “collective” improvement. Popular PD models, such as grade- or district-level teacher teams, have bumped up a bit against the deeply individual focus of new evaluation systems.)

The work grew out of Gates’ support for implementing the Common Core State Standards through efforts like the Literacy Design Collaborative, said Carina Wong, the deputy director of Gates’ college-ready team.

“What we started to see was how powerful teacher’s voices were when they were at the center of those tools and how much they wanted to collaborate,” she said. “And we started thinking about things like, ‘How digital can we go? How data-driven can we get? What’s the next phase of supporting teachers? What’s an innovative, intelligent way to start thinking about PD?’ ”

The districts will be expected to track the cost and efficacy of their new PD options (two big problems I’ve written about before), and to share lessons learned with other districts. This will include new ways of using teacher time: At least one district has promised to revamp its schedule so as to provide teachers with a full day of professional learning each week.

The foundation’s theory of action is probably best summed up by this graphic.

Five districts in all got planning grants with which to pitch their ideas to the foundation; teachers made up at least half of the team that designed each district’s proposal. Two other districts, New Haven and Bridgeport, both in Connecticut, didn’t receive funds this go-around but could qualify later, Gates officials said.

Meanwhile, this isn’t all Gates has up its sleeve regarding professional development. A quick look at Gates’ grantmaking shows that the foundation also has invested in a number of specific professional-development platforms, including a $965,000 grant to LearnZillion and a $6.7 million one to TeachingChannel, both of which host video lesson exemplars for teachers. Wong said the foundation wants to help improve the quality of tools and services offered in what’s historically been a fragmented and somewhat parochial PD marketplace.

The field’s reception of these ideas will be important to watch. Many educators have criticized the foundation’s seeming emphasis on measuring teacher quality over supporting teachers in improving their craft. There are probably some who will be uneasy about Gates’ continuing interest—and influence—in the teacher-policy world.

I’ll be reaching out to the districts to gather more details from them in short order, so stay tuned.

(The Gates Foundation provides operating support to the nonprofit that publishes Education Week and underwrites coverage of business & innovation topics. Education Week retains full editorial control over this coverage.)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.