Gates Awards 15 Grants for Common-Standards Work

By Catherine Gewertz — February 18, 2010 4 min read
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In a bid to help schools translate pages and pages of common academic standards into real classroom work, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $19.5 million to the development and piloting of new instructional tools and assessments.

The 15 grants, announced last week, are intended to address what Carina Wong, who oversees college-readiness grants at the Gates Foundation, calls the “now-what? question.” Officials at the Seattle-based philanthropy hope they will help policymakers, district leaders, and teachers begin to figure out what to do with the standards as their states move toward adopting them. Kentucky has already adopted the standards, even though they are in draft form.

The money is intended to help develop an array of teaching resources such as course outlines, diagnostic tools, and assessments. It also will be used to find ways to establish how well the standards reflect college-level expectations.

All the projects will complement the common standards, in an initiative led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Forty-eight states support the initiative.

When it revamped its grant strategy in 2008, the Gates Foundation intensified its focus on college readiness. Since then, it has awarded $355 million in grants to improve effective teaching as a way to boost students’ college readiness. The foundation also wants to improve college readiness by giving teachers better instructional tools and ways of gauging learning. (Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week, receives grant money from Gates.)

Vicki L. Phillips, the director of K-12 education initiatives at the foundation, said the new round of grants aims to address those areas.

“Teachers, schools, districts, and states are often out there having to reinvent things on a daily basis when they could be using some great common tools and making them better and more customizable to their own locations,” she said. “We want to help others provide great tools and greater access to those tools.”

Math and Literacy

The development work under the grants falls largely into two “collaboratives,” one for mathematics and one for literacy. But some work spans both areas.

The graduate school of education at the University of California, Berkeley, will build math courses from the common standards and produce and field-test assessments for them. The National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST) at the University of California, Los Angeles, will refine math and literacy assessments and test them against international and other benchmarks.

CRESST will also work on a process for validating the commonstandards and will design graphical representations that show how the concepts in the common standards develop and how curriculum, assessment, and professional development can be mapped to their progression, said Joan Herman, a CRESST co-director. The Educational Policy Improvement Center, in Eugene, Ore., will also work to validate whether the standards reflect college-level expectations and will collect samples of student work that inform curriculum development by demonstrating what is needed to meet those expectations, said Chief Executive Officer David T. Conley.

The Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin will use its summer bridge program for students entering Algebra 1 as a basis for a year-round curriculum that will be freely available online.

The Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates for low-income students, will write open-access literacy courses for middle school. Lawrence Hall of Science at UC-Berkeley will expand from elementary to middle school a curriculum model that fuses science and literacy skills.Selected schools and districts will pilot the math assessments. Among them are the New York City and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., districts and some schools operated by the National Council of La Raza and the Christo Rey network.

The Gates grants represent “the next logical step” in standards work, said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of business and education at Stanford University who focuses on college readiness. Improving learning requires sound content standards, he said, and good tests pegged to them, with cutoff scores that ensure highlevels of understanding.

Even more important, according to Mr. Kirst, are what he calls “opportunity-to-learn standards”: measures of the curriculum, professional development, and other elements districts must provide to help every student meet high standards.

“We talk a lot about standards and assessments, but we almost never talk about the capacity districts have or don’t have to help kids get there,” he said. “And the standards and assessments are cheap compared to the cost of opportunity-to-learn standards.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as Gates Awards Grants to Buttress Common Standards


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