Bill and Melinda Gates (via Flickr)

SEATTLE — One of the world’s most expansive philanthropies, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, emerged yesterday from a year-and-a-half-long silence on one of its major investment areas, releasing a plan to dramatically alter the foundation’s approach to improving American schools.

The plan will transform the foundation’s education work from expensive but quiet investments that focus on a relatively small set of schools to higher-profile advocacy work that keeps up the investments in individual schools but also touches on several political hot buttons.

Among the projects the foundation will tackle: a $500 million investment in experimenting with performance-based teacher pay systems; another $500 million toward creating data systems like the ARIS warehouse in New York City; ramped-up advocacy work pushing for national standards; and a research effort to create a national test that would be distributed to states and school districts across the country, free of charge.

Perhaps the most sensitive project will be investments to study a seemingly innocuous subject: teacher effectiveness. The touchy part is that the foundation is signaling that it will urge school districts to find ways to fire teachers judged ineffective.

“If their students keep falling behind, they’re in the wrong line of work, and they need to move on,” Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and principal benefactor to the foundation, said yesterday, announcing the new slate of initiatives to a private meeting of about 100 school officials, union leaders, and policy experts.

In the crowd were some of the most important names in education: the presidents of the two major American teachers unions; the current U.S. Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings; at least one former Education Secretary, Dick Riley, who served under President Bill Clinton; and several people named as possible Education Secretary in the Barack Obama administration now being formed. That group includes Schools Chancellor Joel Klein of New York City; Arne Duncan, the superintendent of schools in Chicago; the former chairman of Intel, Craig Barrett; and the co-chairs of Obama’s education advisory board, Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond and the New York City-based education entrepreneur Jon Schnur.

The education A-list crowd flocked to the Seattle conference because the direction the Gates Foundation takes will undoubtedly have a significant impact in schools across the country. In the last eight years, the foundation has invested $4 billion in education projects, and that is not counting its investments in scholarships and libraries. The schools it incubated are scattered around America, and they include many small public schools as well as some charter schools. The explosion in the number of small schools in New York City over the last eight years was driven in large part by Gates Foundation investments.

The size of Gates’ investments is expected to continue apace in this next phase, a foundation spokesman said.

As a result, some observers said Gates’ new direction is more important to the future of American schools than the identity of the next U.S. Education Secretary.

“In a way, being Secretary of Education is less significant than being Bill Gates,” the education historian Diane Ravitch said, guessing that the foundation gives more money annually to education than the U.S. Department of Education has available in annual discretionary funds. “I’d rather be Bill Gates.”

But while Ravitch sees the foundation as powerful, other education experts yesterday were wondering about the feasibility of efforts that would require politically difficult changes.

Looking back to look forward

Sharing the new direction yesterday, Gates and his wife, Melinda, emphasized that they constructed the plan after studying closely the results of their first eight years of education investments.

A document describing the Gates Foundation's new direction in education philanthropy.
A document describing the Gates Foundation's new direction in K-12 education philanthropy.

Bill Gates said those investments were meant to focus on about 8% of American schools, creating new high school models in that small slice that would prove so successful they would be emulated by the other 92%.

He said that while the investments created some noteworthy successes, which he said proved an important lesson — “that all students can succeed” — the overall goal of scaling up successful models was a disappointment.

“Largely, this has not happened,” he said.

Many of the 8% of schools did not succeed: Their test scores were actually lower than the average scores of schools in their school district, and their college-attending rates climbed painfully slowly, up only 2.5 percentage points over five years. A main strategy of the schools, breaking large high schools into smaller units, on its own guaranteed no overall success, Gates said.

He said the New York City small schools were an example of successes in raising high school graduation rates — but a disappointment in that their graduates were no likelier than any city student to be prepared to go onto college.

Gates said the small number of successful schools did well not because they were structured as small schools, but because they enacted many different innovations: improved teaching quality, a longer school day, innovative instructional tools, a focus on tracking student achievement data.

“The defining feature happens in the classroom,” Gates said.

This focus on digging down to the classroom level appears to inform many of the foundation’s new initiatives, from working to develop useful classroom tools (the foundation said it will publish a Consumer’s Report for educators, recommending useful curriculum and tools) to pushing for rigorous national standards that could be translated into high-quality curriculum guides, such as model lessons built by accomplished teachers. Gates referred to these as “next generation models of teaching and learning.”

The new eye toward what happens inside the classroom is also behind the foundation’s new focus on teacher quality.

Gates said that while the importance of a good teacher on the amount that students learn is well-known, how to make more teachers good is not.

“Unfortunately it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes great teaching,” Gates said. “I’m personally very curious.”

One initiative will invest about $7 million in a partnership between three research groups, the Educational Testing Service, the Rand Corporation, and a University of Michigan research group, which will study ways to measure teacher effectiveness. The goal is to find “fairer, more powerful, and more reliable measures” than current standardized tests provide, the foundation’s director of education programs, Vicki Phillips, said.

Better data

Another lesson foundation officials said they have extracted from their first eight years in education is the need for better data. Though they wanted to look carefully at precisely how the schools they had invested in succeeded or failed, a nuanced picture was rendered impossible because of the poor quality of information on what happens in schools, officials said.

Phillips, who is a former superintendent of the Portland, Ore., public schools, said better data is also needed in order to improve teaching. The federal No Child Left Behind law requires states to build standards, but allows for no national standard, leaving each state to create its own standards and its own tests.

Phillips said this situation of relative anarchy has produced a poor laboratory for improving what teachers do. Instead, she endorsed the view that the state tests are being “dumbed down” to produce positive results, even when academic work is not improving.

“Let’s be honest: We use data a lot to look good,” she said. “We have a big problem when our kids are looking great on tests and can’t get into college.”

To remedy the low-quality standards and tests, the foundation will continue its effort to create a national set of standards. (The Gates Foundation has been a lead funder of the American Diploma Project, which since 2005 has spearheaded a voluntary effort by states to sign onto common standards.)

Phillips said the foundation will also invest in creating high-quality national tests that will be examined to see how well they predict students’ success in college. The best test will be made available to any state or school district, free of charge.

Beyond college readiness

Another completely new focus will move the foundation to addressing college graduation rates, in addition to high school graduation.

A document describing the Gates Foundation's new direction in education philanthropy.
A document describing the Gates Foundation's new focus on post-secondary education.

The foundation is setting a goal for itself of doubling the number of low-income students who get a post-secondary degree by the age of 26, and identifying a variety of measures to get there, including working with community colleges and investing in scholarships that would give students and colleges incentives for students to graduate.

The foundation says a Louisiana scholarship fund that awards students aid piecemeal, only after they complete certain goals (registering for courses, a semester), is a good model.

Meeting the goal will require Herculean successes. In a speech, a Gates official, Hillary Pennington, said merely doubling the number of low-income students who get degrees beyond their high school diploma would require an increase of more than 250,000 college graduates each year, and trying to get students to attain those degrees by the age of 26 would be even more challenging.

Bill Gates’ wife, Melinda, said the fixation on college completion is a result of a look at the very big picture.

The largest goal of the foundation, Melinda Gates said, is to return America to its tradition of upward mobility.

“The best bridge between poor kids and a good job is college,” she said.

Political will

A question hanging over yesterday’s gathering, inside a third-floor conference room at the Sheraton hotel in downtown Seattle, was the degree to which the Gates Foundation will be able to accomplish this new slate of goals.

Several attendees expressed optimism, but others urged the foundation to consider the degree to which its success would depend on public and political support for its efforts.

In his opening remarks, Bill Gates had said that several of the schools the foundation funded in its first eight years faced an uphill battle because of political landscape problems: School officials wanted to try things like hiring only the best teachers and extending the length of the school day — but, stymied by opposition, they were unable to do so.

After hearing the foundation’s presentation, attendees raised the possibility that similar stumbling blocks could trip up the foundation’s next phase of efforts.

To get traction for high-quality standards and rigorous tests, states would have to agree to adopt them. To fire ineffective teachers, union contracts would have to be rewritten. Even building data systems can elicit community backlash, as has been the case in New York City with the ARIS data warehouse, which some parents and teachers resent as an unwelcome addition to the public schools that forces overly simplistic calculations and treats students as mere numbers.

The final event of the conference was a discussion led by the journalist Juan Williams, of National Public Radio. Williams drew his subject from breakout sessions, where he said the overwhelming issue raised was how to build public support for aggressive changes in education.

When the session ended, the foundation’s director of education, Phillips, vowed her intention to move quickly.

“We have little patience with admiring the problem,” Phillips said. “We’re pretty biased toward action.”

Ravitch, the education historian, raised a different concern with the Gates investments.

“To me, the scary thing is that they have so much money,” Ravitch said. “From the point of view of, let’s say, the democratic process, it’s frightening. That one foundation should have this much power, more so than our federal government, is alarming.”

The foundation, which has been criticized before for a lack of transparency, might have anticipated that criticism: In addition to publishing its agendas on its Web site, the foundation is planning three regional events to collect responses to its new direction. The foundation has also created an e-mail address to which leaders encouraged attendees at yesterday’s conference to send their thoughts.