Education Funding

Gates Unveils First-Round Grants in New Education Strategy

Focus is on the college path for disadvantaged students
By Stephen Sawchuk — September 04, 2018 7 min read
Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda Gates, in a February, 2018 photo.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced $92 million in grants to support networks of schools’ work to help students of color and low-income students into college, marking its first major wave of K-12 giving since announcing a significant change in direction last fall.

The 19 grants announced last week will support improvements in everything from middle school language arts, to the perennially thorny course of Algebra 1, to “undermatching"—when high-achieving, low-income students select less-rigorous colleges despite their strong academic track records. A common thread tying the grants together is that each will measure progress on a specific indicator, like 9th grade GPA, that is linked by research to future academic success.

Beyond that, the foundation intimated that it will take a hands-off approach.

“Rather than coming in with a bright, shiny new idea, we’re asking districts, schools, and intermediaries to look at investments they’ve already made, and we’re trying to make that last-mile investment that enables them to connect their work,” said Robert Hughes, the foundation’s director of K-12 education.

It’s a remarkably different strategy from the tightly outlined set of priorities Gates has prioritized in its past K-12 philanthropy, which included creating small high schools in the early 2000s and teacher evaluation and performance incentives this decade. The sheer size of those investments, coupled with their narrow focus, led to criticisms that the foundation was exerting undue influence over education.

Testing Solutions

In all, the $92 million is the first of what Gates says will be about $460 million spent to coordinate networks of schools that will work to tackle specific problems that can trip up low-income students and those of color on their path to college.

The concept of improvement networks is to support similarly situated schools to try out and evaluate different approaches to the problem and replicate the ones that seem to help most. The theory of action also prioritizes reflecting on what works and what doesn’t, rather than lurching from one reform to another.

The $92 million falls into two major categories. The larger, lengthier grants are for experienced networks that plan to look at several different indicators for high school and college success, while the smaller grants will allow newcomers to try out one indicator and determine whether a continuous-improvement approach fits for them.

By definition, the networks will have to look at some of the most basic, unsexy aspects of schools—like the structure of the school day and teacher professional-development hours. They will also have to think about how to focus those on the problem at hand, said Anthony Bryk, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which has supported improvement networks—an approach also known as continuous improvement—for a decade. He said teachers will play a key role in generating, and testing solutions, and helping to integrate them into schooling.

“That’s the core work, moving from ideas to reliable execution,” he said. (Bryk’s foundation receives Gates funding but did not get one of the new grants.)

A less-prescriptive approach may please some of Gates’ long-standing critics, but it also raises new questions about how the foundation will communicate the results of the complex initiative—and, indeed, the more basic conundrum of what success will look like.

For one thing, the foundation will have to measure the grants’ impact across a variety of contexts. Asked how they’d do that, Hughes said that the foundation is still formulating its research approach.

“We don’t have details for you, but we remain deeply committed to a third-party evaluation of all our work and transparency about the results of those evaluations so we can enable the field to understand what we do well and what we don’t do well,” he said.

It’s a challenge that is underscored by the fact that the very concept of networked improvement is understudied. A Gates-commissioned review of the research on the topic from Columbia University’s Center for Public Research and Leadership noted that there are more studies on the norms and conditions needed to support healthy net works than on how they affect K-12 outcomes; most of the 34 studies used case studies or qualitative research, rather than quasi-experimental designs aimed at cause-and-effect questions.

“There is going to be variability in what happens. It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn about what does it take for this kind of network structure to actually be productive,” Bryk said. “Some of them are going to be successful and some of them are probably going to struggle.”

Many of the 19 grantees have been recipients of Gates’ largesse in the past, although the foundation noted that the field of applicants was winnowed down in part through a double-blind review process.

The foundation received about 530 applications for the first cohort of giving and plans to roll out more grants in the fall.

Where the Money Goes

Nineteen projects were awarded grants last week by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help low-income students and students of color make their way to college:

Achieve Atlanta will work with the Atlanta school district to create tools to support students’ selecting and enrolling in colleges and universities that are a good “fit” for them: $532,000, 2 years.

The Baltimore school district will support a network of literacy coaches in 12 to 15 middle schools to accelerate reading: $11.2 million, 4 years.

The Bank Street College of Education will work with the Yonkers, N.Y., district to increase the number of students who complete 8th grade math: $700,000, 16 months.

California Education Partners, a nonprofit, will set up improvement networks among California’s small and midsized districts and launch a network of up to 50 secondary schools to improve outcomes for students: $12 million, 61 months.

The Center for Leadership and Educational Equity, in Providence, R.I., will serve as a hub for 10 high school networks to increase the number of students who complete a 9th grade college-prep math course: $560,000, 20 months.

City Year and Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, will convene leadership teams from 10 middle schools to enable students to complete 8th grade and be on track for high school graduation: $520,000, 18 months.

The Community Foundation of Texas will lead a network to support 10 schools in north Texas to improve the math proficiency of 8th graders: $503,000, 15 months.

The Community Center for Education Results in Washington state will draft a meaningful, high-quality plan for college and careers for high schoolers in south Seattle and South King County: $515,000, 2 years.

The CORE Districts, a network of urban California districts formed in 2010, will focus on improving 9th grade on-track-to-graduation rates: $16 million, 61 months.

The High Tech High Graduate School of Education will partner with up to 30 schools to increase the number of students who apply, enroll, and attend a four-year college: $10.3 million, 5 years.

The Institute for Learning, which is affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh, will support 12 secondary schools to increase proficiency in English/language arts and increase the number of students on track by the end of 9th grade for high school graduation: $7.4 million, 5 years.

KIPP, a national network of public charter schools, will focus on refining college counselors’ role to keep high-achieving students from enrolling in less-rigorous colleges: $499,000, 23 months.

The Network for College Success will support 15 to 20 Chicago high schools to increase the number of students who are on track to high school graduation, including by holding a 3.0 GPA by the end of 9th grade: $11.7 million, 5 years.

New Visions for Public Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit, will work with a network of 67 high schools to increase the number of students who graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college: $13.9 million, 5 years.

The Northwest Regional Education Service District in Oregon will support 32 high schools to focus on “deeper learning” and culturally sustaining pedagogy to increase the number of students at the end of 9th grade who are on track to graduate: $586,000, 2 years.

Partners in School Innovation will help a network of 10 schools in Philadelphia to help middle school students below grade level in math catch up to higher-performing peers: $499,000, 15 months.

Seeding Success, in Memphis, Tenn., will help the Shelby County schools begin tracking 8th and 9th grade on-track outcomes: $560,000, 2 years.

The Southern Regional Education Board will launch a network of 10 secondary schools in Birmingham, Ala., to increase the proficiency rates of students on 8th grade math and 9th grade Algebra 1: $3.3 million, 3 years.

Teach Plus, a nonprofit supporting teachers’ voices in policymaking, will help a network of Chicago and Los Angeles middle schools increase proficiency in 8th grade math: $619,000, 23 months.

The Gates Foundation also supports Education Week’s coverage of continuous improvements, but the newspaper retains sole editorial control.
A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as With Grants, Gates Launches New Strategy

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