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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.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.