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Professional Development

Gates Giving Millions to Train Teachers on ‘High Quality’ Curricula

Focus is on highly-rated models, tools
By Stephen Sawchuk — January 07, 2019 | Corrected: January 08, 2019 6 min read
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates stands with his wife, Melinda, in this 2018 photo. The foundation that bears their name plans to invest in new models for training teachers on curriculum tightly aligned to state standards.

Corrected: A previous version of this article misspelled Megan Tompkins-Stange’s name.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation plans to invest in professional development providers who will train teachers on “high quality” curricula, the philanthropy announced this afternoon.

The announcement fleshes out the curricular prong of the education improvement strategy the influential foundation laid out in late 2017, a major pivot away from its prior focus on teacher performance.

The investment, at around $10 million, is a tiny portion of the approximately $1.7 billion the philanthropy expects to put into K-12 education by 2022. Nevertheless, it’s likely to attract attention for inching closer to the perennially touchy issue of what students learn every day at school.

Who Else Has Gates Funded on Curriculum?

Apart from its newly announced grant competition, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has long supported some curriculum providers and quality-control groups. Here’s a look at what it funded in that category in 2018.

RAND Corp.
$349,000
To support curriculum

Open Up Resources
$667,000
To support capacity-building

Pivot Learning Partners
$1.23 million
To support instructional materials

Illustrative Mathematics
$2.85 million
To support student learning and teacher development

EdReports.org, Inc.
$7 million
To provide general support

PowerMyLearning, Inc.
$500,000
To explore connections between tier one and supplemental instructional resources

Achieve, Inc.
$999,548
To increase availability of high-quality science materials

State Educational Technology Directors Association
$299,752
To support state education leaders in their selection of evidence-based professional development and quality instructional materials

Source: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grants database

Gates officials emphasized that the new grants won’t support the development of curricula from scratch. Instead, grantees will work to improve how teachers are taught to use and modify existing series that are well aligned to state learning standards.

“We want to identify the content-specific professional development services, products, and models that are working really well for young people, and also study the attributes of those solutions that make them effective so we can share that learning with the field,” said Bob Hughes, the foundation’s director of K-12 education.

The grants build on the foundation’s earlier support for shared standards, notably the Common Core State Standards. All grantees, for instance, would have to orient their teacher training around a curriculum with a high rating from EdReports.org, a nonprofit that issues Consumer Reports-style reviews, or on similar tools developed by nonprofit groups like Student Achievement Partners and Achieve.

Those tools were directly crafted in the wake of the common standards movement with heavy support from the Gates Foundation.

EdReports has received more than $15 million from the foundation since 2015, while Student Achievement Partners has received about $10 million since 2012. Achieve has received various Gates grants since 1999, most recently $1 million in September to support its reviews of science lessons.

Education Week has received Gates Foundation funding in the past for capacity-building and for covering specific topics, including academic standards and school improvement, but does not currently.

Two Trends

Gates’ latest request for proposals will fund partnerships of professional development providers and schools. It’s open to groups in California, Florida, Georgia, New York, and North Carolina that must work with teachers in secondary schools serving a student population that’s at least 50 percent black, Latino, low-income, or learning English. Districts serving at least 50,000 students can also apply.

All of the grantees will focus on middle or high school math or English/language arts, or middle school science.

In addition to orienting the training around a high-quality curriculum, grantees will have to show that they can sustain their efforts after the grants end. They’ll also participate in a research study. The foundation envisions making up to 10 grants of $1 million apiece.

Gates’ investment comes in the middle of two diverging national trends in curriculum that have been unleashed, respectively, by the common-standards movement, and by an explosion of online, downloadable, and often teacher-made lessons.

The first trend—the one Gates is most associated with—is affiliated with the proponents of shared standards. Its focus is improving the alignment of curricula to standards, the overall coherence of curriculum across grade levels, and helping educators make better curriculum selections in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

Conversely, the other curriculum trend has been fragmentation. Millions of teachers cobble together lessons from Pinterest, Twitter, and online collections offered by a motley crew of for-profit companies, nonprofits, and teachers’ unions. For instance, a nationally representative 2017 survey from the RAND Corp. found that 60 percent of math teachers had used materials from the for-profit Teachers Pay Teachers, which allows teachers to post and sell their own lesson plans.

The recent popularity of so-called personalized learning has further atomized curriculum at the classroom level, with students in the same classes sometimes accessing different content based on interest or need. (Gates has also funded some groups supporting personalized learning.)

Linking Curriculum and PD

The funding announcement also comes as a number of recent reports conclude that teacher training suffers by focusing on general teaching strategies rather than on how to use a specific curriculum.

One proponent of a stronger link between the two is David Steiner, the executive director of the Institute of Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University.

“No ed. school has a course on assembling your curriculum on the internet. We have got to change the mind-set around curriculum, because that is damaging to kids, there’s just no question. It’s very, very difficult to create a coherent curriculum over months and years,” he said.

Steiner’s group does not directly receive Gates funding.

So what would a partnership like the one Gates envisions look like? Possibly it’s like the ones that PD provider LearnZillion is now pursuing. Initially created to host a looser collection of lessons, LearnZillion now offers districts a free common-core-aligned middle school math curriculum and services to help teachers understand how to use it effectively.

CEO Eric Westendorf said he sees the new grants as a natural progression for Gates. After its focus on teacher evaluation and standards, the time is ripe for a focus on teaching materials.

“There’s been this assumption ... that if we put something that’s a B- in a good teacher’s hands, they’ll do something wonderful with it. I think that’s now been challenged,” he said. (The organization currently doesn’t receive Gates funding.)

It’s unclear whether Gates’ new efforts will be met with the same level of resistance that complicated its prior work on standards. Some educators said that they’d welcome the help.

“A curriculum can be rated highly, but still require a lot of work,” said Mark Anderson, a former special educator who now trains New York City teachers in the city’s Bronx borough. He recalled putting a popular curriculum’s lesson plans up against his school calendar and realizing they would never fit without adaptations.

“You can’t just do it out of the box; any curriculum you have has to be modified.”

Political anger over the common core has noticeably subsided, possibly because some two dozen states have renamed, replaced, or tweaked the standards since their 2009 launch. (Most states’ instructional expectations continue to share significant DNA with the common core.)

But in linking the grants to a curriculum rated “high quality,” the foundation is implicitly making a values judgment about materials not all educators are likely to share.

Among teachers, “there’s still a huge resentment and backlash to the [common-core] standards, so if we’re saying this is specific PD around a curriculum that’s standards-aligned, there could be some reaction to that,” Anderson said. “But my sense with teachers is that there’s those vocal few online who kind of dominate, but on the ground most teachers, if you give them something that’s going to help their work, they’re pretty appreciative and don’t care where it comes from.”

Megan Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Michigan’s Ford School, sounded a dual note of optimism and caution about Gates’ curriculum-improvement aims.

“The great power and pitfall is that they have this capacity to act as the idea-broker: to adjudicate types of curriculum, and what’s high quality and what’s not,” she said. “They should just be mindful of ensuring they’re engaging with people on the ground who are going to be affected by this. That was the thing that was most criticized in their last few big bets.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2019 edition of Education Week as Gates Foundation Grants to Train Teachers on Curriculum

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