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Gates Foundation will steer its education giving in a new direction But how much impact will the billions have?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
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.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.