Gates Foundation invests $335 million in education reform

November 19, 2009

Through the grants, which amount to one of the largest privately sponsored school improvement initiatives in recent years, the foundation aims to reshape how policymakers approach teaching. Its goal is to focus on performance and results rather than qualifications and seniority.

The winners, from a field of about 10 applicants, are: Hillsborough County (Fla.) schools, in the Tampa area, to receive $100 million; Memphis schools, $90 million; Pittsburgh schools, $40 million; and five charter networks in Los Angeles (Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, Aspire Public Schools, Green Dot Public Schools, Inner City Education Foundation and Partnerships to Uplift Communities Schools), $60 million.

For the school systems and networks, the grants represent huge sums. The total expenditure puts the initiative in the same league as major reform efforts underway in the Obama administration.

"We are convinced that in order to dramatically improve education in America, we must first ensure that every student has an effective teacher in every subject, every school year," Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the foundation, said in a statement.

"These communities have shown extraordinary commitment to tackling one of the most important educational issues of our time," she said. "We must do everything we can to understand what makes teachers effective and cultivate those qualities across the profession, in every school and classroom, so that all students can benefit." (Gates serves on the board of the Washington Post Co.)

Prince George’s County schools competed for the grants but were not chosen, even though former Prince George’s superintendent John E. Deasy works for the foundation and is a key player in the initiative.

National teachers’ unions applauded the initiative. Federal officials are pushing in much the same direction with a $4.35 billion school-reform grant competition called Race to the Top that stresses teacher effectiveness, tied to student achievement data. The foundation also is helping states prepare applications for that contest.

For Thursday’s winners, the Gates grants constitute a reform jackpot. Public school budgets have been stretched thin in the economic downturn. Teacher salaries and core operations soak up most funding, leaving school administrators little discretionary money for innovation.

MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of the 191,000-student Hillsborough County system, said she was "euphoric, and also very serious."

Elia said the $100 million will help the school system redesign evaluation so that student performance accounts for 40 percent of a teacher’s annual job review, up from 7 percent.

"It isn’t just single tests," she said, "but multiple ways to look at the performance of students, and also multiple ways to look at performance of teachers." Teaching peers will share evaluation duties and influence with principals, she said.

The county also plans to refine its performance-pay program and create a performance-based career ladder that will raise the bar for tenure.

Kriner Cash, superintendent of the 108,000-student Memphis system, called the $90 million project in his city a "deep dive" into teacher performance. His goal is to promote those who are effective, help those who struggle and weed out those who can’t improve. "Urban, rural, public, private — all schools can benefit from what we’re going to be learning," Cash said.

Educators have long been stumped when asked to define effective teaching. The Gates initiative will spend $45 million to find answers, seeking to pinpoint metrics that unions, administrators and policymakers will agree are reliable indicators of how teachers affect student achievement. The project will track 3,700 teachers from Memphis, New York, Pittsburgh, Denver, Hillsborough County, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina and elsewhere.

For the foundation, which is emerging as a central player in national school reform efforts, the initiative reflects an evolution in strategy. Several years ago, it concentrated on breaking large high schools into smaller, more personal academic communities. That effort, like a $500 million school reform drive the Annenberg Foundation launched in 1993, had mixed results. Many of the small, Gates-backed schools had below- average test scores in reading and math.

"It’s clear that you can’t dramatically increase college readiness by changing only the size and structure of the school," Microsoft founder Bill Gates said in November 2008.

In a conference call Thursday, Melinda Gates said the couple had discovered that innovation takes long-term commitment because school systems are often "entrenched" in their ways and teachers "siloed in their classrooms."

"We have been in this work for almost a decade" she said. "We’ve learned a lot about what works. . . . Let’s focus on the thing that actually matters the most, which is the teacher."

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