Education Funding

Major Gates Grant to Chicago Sign of Greater Interest in Curriculum

April 25, 2006 3 min read
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Taking a significant step toward supporting district-level changes, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last week announced a $21 million grant to help the Chicago school system overhaul teaching and learning in high school classrooms.

The effort, which is to start in the fall with 14 schools, is slated to reach about half of Chicago’s high schools when fully phased in by the 2008-09 academic year. It is designed to bring greater standardization and quality to the high school curriculum in participating schools, which will choose from two or three curricular options, depending on the subject.

Curricular Options

The Chicago school district has picked several outside providers to develop curricular materials and offer support to teachers in implementing them as part of the first phase of a project to ramp up instructional quality in high schools districtwide.

Kaplan K-12 Learning Services: A New York City-based company that has helped urban districts, including Philadelphia, develop curricular materials.
America’s Choice Inc.: A subsidiary of the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy.

Meaningful Science Consortium: A consortium that includes Northwestern University, the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, It’s About Time Inc., and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Illinois Institute of Technology and the Field Museum: The Chicago-based university will team up with a natural-history museum in the city.
Loyola University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Agile Mind: A Grapevine, Texas-based company that has designed curricular materials in collaboration with the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
Carnegie Learning: A Pittsburgh-based company founded by cognitive-science researchers at Carnegie Mellon University that has provided comprehensive curricula for middle and high schools.

SOURCES: Chicago Public Schools; Education Week

“This is obviously a huge deal for us,” Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, said last week.

The district is bringing in outside players, including universities and for-profit companies, to both design the new core curricula and provide intensive help for teachers to use them effectively.

“This is really a chance … to move from a system where you have pockets of excellence, or islands of excellence, to a system of excellence,” Mr. Duncan said. “It’s really trying to dramatically increase rigor.”

Chicago joins other urban school systems, including those in Boston and Philadelphia, that are moving to standardize what is taught in high schools. Currently, curricula vary widely across high schools in the city. (“Chicago Latest District to Call for Core H.S. Curricula,” Oct. 5, 2005)

The four-year grant comes as the Gates Foundation, disappointed by some of its early efforts at creating smaller, academically rigorous high schools and “learning communities”—at a cost of some $1 billion in grant money since 2000—has broadened its emphasis to related district-level changes. That expansion is aimed especially at improving the quality of curriculum and instruction.

A First for Gates

Because it specifically targets district-level changes in curriculum and instruction in a district, the grant represents a first for the Gates Foundation. “We haven’t done another grant like this, to fund a district to come up with an aligned instructional system for its high schools,” said Margot Rogers, the deputy director of education programs at the Seattle-based philanthropy.

It’s also the second-largest single grant that the philanthropy has given for work in an individual district, Ms. Rogers said. In 2000, the foundation awarded a $26 million grant to help the Seattle public schools create smaller, more personalized high schools.

The new grant in Chicago builds on $2.3 million the Gates Foundation provided last May to pay for a strategic-planning process for the district. That resulted in the 426,000-student district’s announcement last September of a “high school transformation plan,” of which the curriculum effort is a major component.

‘Midtier’ Schools

The transformation plan builds on the district’s Renaissance 2010 initiative to create new, smaller schools, launched in 2004. The Gates Foundation has also helped underwrite that ongoing effort.

In January, the district unveiled a list of providers to develop college-preparatory curricular materials and provide teaching supports. The list includes Northwestern University, New York City-based Kaplan K12 Learning Services, and Carnegie Learning, a Pittsburgh-based company founded by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

The district also has asked the American Institutes for Research, a Washington-based research organization, to produce assessments, aligned with state standards, for the various curricula. AIR will help develop a coaching process for principals as well.

“We’re trying to bring in the best and the brightest,” Mr. Duncan said.

High schools also must apply to participate. The 14 Chicago high schools that will take part in the program next school year, starting at the 9th grade level, were selected from among 28 applicants. The initiative is to grow over three years to include grades 10 and 11 and as many as 50 schools.

The focus was on “picking schools that were really committed to change,” Mr. Duncan said, “and then really empowering those schools.”

District and Gates Foundation officials noted that the schools selected were generally “midtier” schools in terms of student achievement.

“These are schools where we see lots of potential,” Mr. Duncan said, “but these schools have a long way to go.”

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