Strategy Retooled at Gates

November 18, 2008 7 min read
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In rolling out plans last week to revamp its high school strategy and launch a major new effort on the postsecondary front, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is undertaking a more sweeping approach to grantmaking that appears aimed at reshaping some core elements of the U.S. education system.

The philanthropy’s agenda on secondary schools aspires to transform both what students are expected to know to graduate from high school and the ways they acquire that knowledge, as well as how teachers are evaluated, retained, and paid.

At the postsecondary level, the foundation intends to help create an array of supports and incentives—and even new institutions—with the goal of ensuring that students don’t simply reach college, but actually finish.

To bolster its work, the foundation plans to put more money into research and data-gathering, along with advocacy aimed at building public and political will.

“This is an evolution,” Vicki L. Phillips, the director of the Seattle-based philanthropy’s education division, said in an interview last week in discussing the revised high school agenda. “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.”

The ultimate objectives, the foundation says, are to have at least 80 percent of low-income and minority students graduate from high school ready for college—up from a level it now estimates at 22 percent—and twice as many low-income adults earn a postsecondary degree or credential than now do.

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, and an expert on education philanthropy, sees the plans as reflecting an ambitious agenda from a foundation of “unrivaled scale and scope” to promote rethinking of key aspects of education. “I wouldn’t venture to guess as to how successful we’ll think this is in five years or 10 years, but we sure as hell could learn a lot,” Mr. Hess said.

The foundation’s high school agenda will focus on three pillars: identifying and promoting what the philanthropy calls “fewer, clearer, and higher” standards for college readiness, improving teacher quality, and fostering innovations to aid struggling students.

Gates officials did not provide estimates of how much in total the foundation would spend on the upcoming education work. But the officials said they expect to spend up to $500 million over five years on high-school-related research and data collection, as well as $500 million on demonstration projects in a handful of cities to set the teacher-quality agenda in motion.

The foundation has spent about $2 billion to date on efforts to improve high schools and increase graduation rates.

‘Entwined Strategies’

In explaining Gates’ postsecondary initiative, officials said the foundation wants to push the country beyond expanding access to higher education and instead put the spotlight on college completion, even as they build 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 unveiled its plans at a gathering Nov. 11 here in Seattle that brought together some 130 people, including the superintendents of several big-city districts, such as Schools Chancellors Michele A. Rhee of the District of Columbia and Joel I. Klein of New York City; leaders of key nonprofit groups the foundation has backed; teachers’ union leaders; and others.

Some attendees, many of whom represent organizations that receive grants from the foundation, offered an upbeat assessment of the foundation’s plans. (Gates provides grant support for Education Week’s annual Diplomas Count report on issues related to high school graduation.)

“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, an education professor at Stanford University and an expert on teacher quality.

Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, praised the philanthropy’s plans to focus intensively on teacher quality and standards, as well as helping to develop better curricula and teacher-support tools. “I came frankly a little skeptical, but I was actually quite impressed with the [secondary education] strategy that they laid out,” she said.

At the same time, Ms. Haycock and several other participants said they wondered what the advocacy work by Gates 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 realm], do?” she said.

In a commentary last week for Forbes.com, Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, argued that while “two cheers” are deserved for what he views as “Version 2.0” at Gates, he has some reservations about the plans, and questions how far the foundation will go in the political and policy arena to achieve its ends.

“I wonder if they’re prepared for the conflict and pushback that invariably accompanies any effort to disrupt the established regime,” he wrote.

Changes at the Top

The new plans follow recent leadership changes at the world’s largest private foundation.

In August 2007, Ms. Phillips, a former superintendent in Portland, Ore., and before that the state schools chief in Pennsylvania, joined the foundation to oversee its secondary education work.

Bill Gates this past summer formally stepped down from his leadership post at Microsoft Corp.—the computer-software giant he co-founded—to turn his attention to the foundation.

And Jeff Raikes, the former president of Microsoft, in September became the philanthropy’s new chief executive officer.

In remarks at last week’s gathering, Mr. Gates said the foundation had seen success with some of the small high schools it helped create through its emphasis on that school improvement strategy, but that much of that work did not deliver the academic gains the foundation had hoped for.

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

Over the past several years, the Gates Foundation has been steadily broadening its focus beyond small high schools, through advocacy initiatives to influence policy, for example, and working directly with districts to improve curriculum and instruction. (“Gates Learns to Think Big,” Oct. 11, 2006.)

The foundation’s push for college-readiness standards aims to help promote a “common core of standards” across states, Ms. Phillips said.

The foundation notes that 33 states have already pledged to adopt college-ready standards and tests as part of the American Diploma Project, a Gates-backed initiative led by the Washington-based group Achieve Inc.

The foundation will also aim to “build the public and political will to achieve college readiness for all,” the strategy says, and help to develop and share tools that teachers and students can use to help meet higher standards.

‘Teacher Effectiveness’

On teacher quality, Gates will support work to design “measures, observational and evaluation tools, and data systems that can fairly and accurately identify effective teaching,” the foundation 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 schools that need them the most.

Ms. Phillips said the foundation wants to identify “deep dive” sites across the country to test and study many of the teacher strategies 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,” she said at the meeting, “to figure out how to identify, develop, evaluate, and reward those teachers; and, yes, how to get ineffective teachers out of the classroom.”

Policy initiatives affecting teacher evaluation and pay often generate controversy, especially from teachers’ unions.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who attended the meeting, responded cautiously: “It’s good that I’m here, and I thought they were being very thoughtful about wading into teacher-quality issues.”

The third area of giving will focus on fostering innovation in efforts to support and engage students, especially those who have fallen behind academically. That strand 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.

A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as Strategy Retooled at Gates


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