In the last 17 years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent $3.4 billion dollars to improve public education. Among other things, Gates helped develop the Common Core standards, drove the science of teacher evaluation in partnership with teachers unions in a handful of key school districts, supported the growth of charter schools and helped several large urban districts break up some large, underperforming high schools into smaller ones.
Today, at least 40 states have Common Core standards or something pretty close and about the same number of states are doing some form of teacher evaluation. Forty-four states have charter schools that are serving more than three million children. And some districts achieved better outcomes from the Small Schools Initiative, notably New York City, though Gates conceded the financial and political costs of breaking up high schools was steep.
Now, the self-described “impatient optimist” has announced a new set of educational priorities for the foundation over the next five years and committed $1.7 billion to fund it.
In a speech to a meeting of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the 68 largest school districts in the country, Gates is focusing on curriculum and professional development for teachers, innovative research, charter schools serving special needs students, and school “networks” that are finding localized solutions to chronically underperforming schools.
Gates framed his remarks by lamenting the “Two Americas,” divided by the educational achievement of White children and children of color. Like many others, he raised concerns that our public schools are not adequately preparing graduates for college and work.
Gates’ focus on improving curricula and offering professional development to teachers is a logical follow-up to the decade-long focus on teacher evaluation and the development of higher standards. By raising the bar on what students should learn we have asked much more of teachers. They not only need more feedback but good curricula that is aligned to the new standards and help learning to teach it.
The focus on charters serving special needs is also a forward-thinking response to a sector that has been criticized for under-serving special needs students. According to the latest data, about 13 percent of students in district schools have special needs compared to about 10 percent of charter school students. Gates’ charter focus sends the right message to the sector that they have to prove success with the full range of students and he is prepared to help those willing to do it.
The newest area of focus for the Gates Foundation is what he calls “networks of schools” that use “continuous learning” and “interventions” to improve student achievement. In plain English, this means that they are looking at data closely and finding solutions that are tailored specifically to local needs. It’s the opposite of “one-size-fits-all” solutions that frustrate local educators and tend not to work very well.
He cited one example, the Network for College Success in Chicago, which focuses on helping neighborhood high schools improve. Gates also saluted Chicago’s use of freshman data around attendance and grades to identify students most at risk of dropping out. The initiative began in 2007 and has boosted graduation rates to nearly the national average, even though the district’s student population is far poorer than the nation as a whole.
For all of his generosity, Gates has been frequently caricatured as a heavy-handed billionaire implementing change without input from the people in the field. While this is both untrue and unfair—in 17 years, his foundation has spent approximately one half of one percent of what the country spends on education every year—Gates recognizes the limited role that foundations like his can play. As he put it to the audience of district and school leaders:
“Our role is to serve as a catalyst of good ideas,” he said, adding, “The decision to go from pilot to wide-scale usage is ultimately and always something that has to be decided by you and others from the field.”