Gates Revamps Its Strategy for Giving to Education

November 11, 2008 9 min read
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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today unveiled plans to revamp its high school grantmaking strategy to focus squarely 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.

“Our goal ... is to double the number of low-income students who earn postsecondary degrees or credentials that let them earn a living wage,” Melinda Gates said at a gathering the foundation hosted in downtown Seattle to discuss its plans. “If we’re going to make any dent in poverty in America, we have to help more students get a postsecondary degree.”

Although the secondary education plans signal some important shifts, the foundation emphasizes that they are designed to advance its longstanding goal of ensuring that U.S. high schools adequately prepare students for college and later life.

“This is an evolution,” Vicki L. Phillips, the director of the Seattle-based philanthropy’s education division, said in an interview here at the philanthropy’s headquarters a day before the gathering. “It’s not a 360-degree turn by any means. But it is a pretty significant evolution in our work, in that we believe that for our small schools and our past investments to be successful, these additional things are really important and needed.”

On the teacher front, for instance, the foundation is looking to target grants to help define effective teaching, devise tools to measure it, and work with school districts to develop systems to retain and reward teachers based on their classroom performance, according to a document outlining Gates’ revamped strategy to promote college readiness.

Although the foundation did not provide totals for expected spending on the upcoming education work, it did supply some figures on the high school side. It expects to spend up to $500 million over the next five years on research and data collection to support the new high school work, Ms. Phillips said, as well as $500 million on a set of demonstration projects in some cities to help undertake its teacher quality agenda.

In explaining its postsecondary initiative, the foundation notes that its focus on boosting college-completion rates aims to move beyond a long-standing national emphasis on expanding access to higher education, even as it builds on the foundation’s previous efforts to prepare more high school students to enter college.

“High school is not the end game, it is just one step on the journey,” Ms. Phillips said. “They are entwined strategies; one’s success is dependent on the other’s success.”

The Gates Foundation event brought together some 130 people, including the superintendents of several big-city districts, such as schools chancellors Michele Rhee from the District of Columbia and Joel Klein from New York City, leaders of key nonprofit groups the foundation has backed, teachers union leaders and others.

Change at the Top

The new plans come as the world’s largest private foundation has seen some recent key leadership changes.

In August 2007, Ms. Phillips, the former superintendent in Portland, Ore., and before that the state superintendent in Pennsylvania, joined the foundation to oversee its education work. Bill Gates this past summer formally stepped down from his leadership post at Microsoft Corp.—the computer-software giant he co-founded—and has begun to turn his attention full time to the foundation. Also, Jeff Raikes, the former president of Microsoft, in September became the philanthropy’s new chief executive officer.

Ms. Phillips said the new strategic blueprint emerged as a result of taking a “hard retrospective” look at the past eight years of giving by the philanthropy. The rethinking was also influenced by conversations with leading education thinkers, “including some of our most innovative school and district leaders,” and a careful look at existing research in the field, she said. The philanthropy has provided about $2 billion to its work on high schools this decade.

Bill Gates highlighted some of the lessons from the foundation’s previous work in his remarks at the meeting.

“There were some encouraging results, but I’ll start with the disappointments,” he said. “In the first four years of our work with new small schools, most of the schools had achievement scores below district averages on reading and math assessments.”

“To be successful, a redesign requires changing the roles and responsibilities of adults, and changing the school’s culture,” Mr. Gates said. “It’s clear that you can’t dramatically increase college readiness by changing only the size and structure of the school.”

Over the past several years, the Gates Foundation has been steadily moving beyond a predominant focus on small schools as it made grants for a broader array of efforts tied to improving high schools and increasing graduation rates. Those have included advocacy initiatives to influence local, state, and national policy, and working directly with districts on such matters as improving curriculum and instruction. (“Gates Learns to Think Big,” Oct. 11, 2006.)

Promoting Common Standards

In its new document on its revised precollegiate strategy, the foundation outlines the three pillars of its approach, and offers a rationale for each.

Regarding standards and assessments for college readiness, the foundation argues that the standards states have set often encourage breadth over depth and rigor.

“Our strategy is focused on defining what it means to be college-ready and how to measure it, working with policymakers to identify a priority set of fewer, clearer, and higher standards to guide instruction,” the document says.

Ms. Phillips said the idea is to promote a “common core of standards” across states.

The Gates Foundation has already been supporting work on this front. For example, it has been a major funder of the American Diploma Project, an initiative led by the Washington-based group Achieve, which works with states to help align high school standards, assessments, graduation requirements, and data and accountability systems with the demands of college and the workplace.

The foundation notes that 33 states have already pledged to adopt college-ready standards and tests as part of that initiative.

Other efforts under the standards “pillar” include a push to “build the public and political will to achieve college readiness for all,” the strategy says, and helping to develop and share tools that teachers and students can use to help meet the higher standards.

Rewarding Excellence

On the issue of teacher quality, among the core work Gates will support is designing “measures, observational and evaluation tools, and data systems that can fairly and accurately identify effective teaching,” the strategy document says.

It also will work with districts to develop systems that retain and compensate teachers based on their effectiveness in educating students, and help ensure that high-quality teachers are placed in the schools that need them the most.

The strategy document points to research suggesting that teachers matter most to student learning. It argues that most new teachers are granted tenure after several years with little evaluation of how successful they are at improving student achievement.

“We make no special efforts to reward or retain teachers who have proven themselves particularly effective in the classroom or to put them on a positive career path,” the foundation says.

Policy initiatives affecting teacher evaluation and pay often generate controversy, especially from teachers’ unions, which have raised concerns about the design of many such efforts.

“We believe in incentive systems, but we understand the concerns that without the right design, they could behave arbitrarily or incent the wrong things,” Mr. Gates said at the meeting. “An incentive system needs to be transparent, it needs to make sense … and teachers themselves need to see the benefit of the system and embrace it.”

He added: “We need to give all teachers the benefit of clear standards, sound curriculum, good training, and top instructional tools. But if their students keep failing, they’re in the wrong line of work, and they need to find another job.”

The third area of 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, the strategy document says.

“We will be searching for some real breakthroughs around next-generation school models, around how do you accelerate learning, around some of the tools that help teachers be more productive and effective,” Ms. Phillips said.

To undergird its three pillars, 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.

“We need evidence,” the foundation says in the strategy document, “and we need to go where it takes us.”

Postsecondary Initiative

Meanwhile, the philanthropy is launching an entirely new effort targeting postsecondary education, which is being headed up by Hilary Pennington, the foundation’s director of special initiatives and the co-founder of Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based research and policy-development organization.

“It is no longer enough to say more young people are accessing college,” the foundation says in the blueprint describing the new agenda. “[W]e have to double the number of young people who complete college.”

The foundation outlines a range of efforts it will undertake over the next four years.

For example, it will focus some early grantmaking on supporting efforts “to improve remedial, or developmental, education, dramatically accelerating the rate of academic catch-up for poorly prepared young students and improving the first-year experience.”

It will promote new technology products and platforms aimed at providing dramatic improvements in learning and completion rates, and support the development of new incentives to reinforce young people’s motivation to succeed.

Also, the foundation says it will work to influence higher education policies across the country to ensure that more students get to and complete college.

“Our investments will be focused on mobilizing and inspiring leaders, employers, and communities across the country to embrace the goal and make the policy and financial commitments necessary to achieve it,” the strategy document says.


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