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Gates’ New Approach Gets Good Reviews

November 12, 2008 6 min read
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In unveiling its new strategy for education grantmaking here this week, leaders of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation assured those in attendance that they wanted honest feedback on their new direction.

Judging from the outpouring of reactions from the roughly 130 people gathered for the Nov. 11 announcement—including the superintendents of several big-city districts, leaders of key nonprofit groups the foundation has backed, teachers’ union leaders, and others—the foundation is likely to receive no shortage of opinions.

After committing some $2 billion this decade to the cause of improving the nation’s high schools, the foundation intends to refocus its grantmaking efforts in that realm on three pillars: identifying and promoting higher standards for college readiness, improving teacher quality, and fostering innovations to aid struggling students.

Also, the foundation announced a major new effort to expand its work beyond high school into postsecondary education, suggesting that this was a natural outgrowth of its work to date. (“Gates Revamps Its Strategy for Giving to Education,” Nov. 11, 2008.)

In her speech at the gathering, Melinda Gates prefaced her remarks by saying that the foundation is “counting on your candid opinion,” adding that “this work will not succeed without your support and your partnership.”

And Vicki L. Phillips, the director of the foundation’s education division, said the Seattle-based philanthropy planned to hold three regional meetings—in Chicago, the District of Columbia, and Seattle—with grantees in the coming months.

Those at the Nov. 11 gathering, many of whom receive grants from the foundation, generally offered an upbeat assessment of the plans, along with a smattering of questions and concerns.

“I think it’s really quite remarkable to see a foundation that is actually in many ways looking at things very systemically, because usually foundations take off a small bite of whatever their slice is,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, a teacher-quality expert and education professor at Stanford University whose work on redesigning schools has been supported by the foundation. “It’s really a pretty systemic look at the whole picture, and I think that’s really encouraging and important and necessary.”

Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that has been heavily supported by the Gates Foundation, praised the foundation’s plans to expand its work on teacher quality and standards, as well as its newfound emphasis on helping to develop better curricula and teacher support tools to make those standards a reality.

“I came frankly a little skeptical, but I was actually quite impressed with the [secondary education] strategy that they laid out this morning, more impressed, frankly, than I was prepared to be,” Ms. Haycock said.

But on the postsecondary front, she questioned the foundation’s newly announced plans to invest heavily in improving community colleges.

“This decision to go after, to really focus on community colleges, is a huge mistake in my judgment, because it’s the most broken part of the system,” she said. “If you ask me what we should do [to help] poor kids, get more of them into four-year colleges.”

Wading Into Teacher Issues

In her speech, Ms. Phillips described a key element of the upcoming teacher work: plans to identify “deep dive” sites across the country to test and study many strategies to improve teaching at the same time and place.

“Over the next five years, we will work with a handful of urban districts and their unions—as well as networks of charter schools—that are willing to try to define what it means to be an effective teacher; to figure out how to identify, develop, evaluate, and reward those teachers; and, yes, how to get ineffective teachers out of the classroom,” she said.

The foundation is planning to spend some $500 million on that work, she said.

When asked about the teacher plans, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten responded with apparent caution.

“It’s good that I’m here,” she said in an interview, “and I thought they were being very thoughtful about wading into teacher-quality issues.” Joel I. Klein, the chancellor of the 1.1 million-student New York City school system, said he was very pleased by the overall thrust of Gates’ plans, including the teacher agenda. But he cautioned that it may not be easy to enact.

“I know a lot of teachers who are more and more eager to move toward this kind of assessment, but you’ve got to create the political will, and you’ve got to do the work with the unions to get the job done,” he said.

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, echoed that point.

“Translating [research on effective teaching] into teacher-evaluation systems and pay-for-performance plans and things like that, those are as much as anything political challenges,” he said.

What Role for Charters?

The foundation’s third area of high school giving is focused on fostering innovation in efforts to support and engage students, especially those who have fallen behind academically. That strand of work will include grants to leverage new technology and support the development of new school models to take advantage of those technologies.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, said some charter school advocates may be wondering how that new strategy for innovation bodes for the charter sector, which has seen substantial support from the Gates Foundation over time.

Gates officials made repeated references at the event to the promising work of specific charter school networks, but their role in the agenda was not exactly clear, Mr. Finn argued.

“The simple notion, for example, that parents ought to be able to extricate their high school kid from a bad school and send them to a better school to me is an article of faith, but I didn’t hear anything that even sounded the least bit like it in this agenda for high school reform,” he said.

Mr. Finn noted that the new strategy document does not make any direct references to the “replication of proven alternative school models.”

“I didn’t see it. Maybe they’re taking it for granted but not putting it on the list. I don’t know. So that’s a little bit of a mystery,” he said. To undergird its three pillars in secondary education, Ms. Phillips said Gates will spend far more than it has previously on both supporting advocacy work and conducting research and gathering data.

In fact, at the meeting she said the Gates Foundation expected to spend some $500 million over the next five years on data and research work.

Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, was among many at the gathering to applaud the expanded focus on research and data.

“If there’s any legitimate criticism of what Gates has spent its money on, it is that it has not always been on data-driven, evidence-based interventions,” he said, referring to the intensive work on creating small schools. “I think the way Gates was perceived as a foundation, at least originally, was that it had an idea of how it wanted to reform schools, and then it set out to do just that.”

“This is different,” Mr. Loveless said. “It’s a little more open-minded. And it’s saying, we don’t know all the answers, which I think is the right posture, and they’re going to collect data to figure out what to do.”

Meanwhile, some participants at the Seattle gathering had questions about exactly what Gates’ advocacy work would entail.

“There wasn’t much talk about what does that look like, and what does a foundation that has limits on what it can do [in the political and policy realm], do?” said Ms. Haycock. “So I think that’s an important question.”

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