Having largely steered clear of making education grants in California over the last half-decade, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is weighing whether to invest substantially in helping California’s teachers successfully put the Common Core standards into practice.
Fresno Unified and Long Beach Unified are the first of a half-dozen urban school districts nationwide that Gates is awarding with a three-year, $5 million grant for innovative ways to pursue training in the new math and English language arts standards. Impressed with Fresno’s and Long Beach’s proposals, Gates will decide by late spring whether to expand that initiative to networks of districts that may affect 25 percent to 30 percent of California’s 6 million students, Don Shalvey, Gates’ deputy director of U.S. programs, said in an interview this week.
Noting the $1.25 billon that districts received in this year’s state budget to prepare for Common Core and the first assessments next year, Shalvey said, “The state superintendent, the governor and the Legislature are aligned toward quality implementation of the Common Core State Standards. That energy in California in my mind suggests we should really think about a five-year investment in networks of districts that are willing to learn from one another.”
Based on the three-year grants to Fresno and Long Beach, it would appear that Gates might be willing to invest tens of millions of dollars in a larger project in California, although Shalvey said it’s too early to pin down a number. And he said the foundation hasn’t decided whether to invite groups of districts to apply or extend an open invitation to new and existing networks, such as districts working together through county offices of education, the Linked Learning Alliance, which promotes programs that prepare students for college and careers, and the California Office to Reform Education, the coalition of districts, including Fresno and Long Beach, that received federal waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. The focus will be on districts serving low-income children and students learning English. The Gates Foundation prefers investing in networks, he said, because it has found that collaboration leads to sharing what they do best.
Shalvey, a former superintendent of the San Carlos School District who founded Aspire Public Schools, now California’s largest charter school organization, said he was impressed with how Fresno and Long Beach have worked with unions and teacher leaders to personalize professional development. One concept is to allot money to teachers for them to choose their method of training. Long Beach is launching what it’s calling iPD Challenge, using software that will enable teachers to create their own electronic portfolios of their training and subject matter needs, then schedule online collaborations and face-to-face meetings with colleagues with similar interests. The system is very exciting,” said Long Beach Superintendent Chris Steinhauser. “It will enable us not just to add resources but tell us how best to make use of the time, people and resources we already had.” (Steinhauser noted that Long Beach also recently got a separate $3 million grant, called STEP, from Gates for improving and spreading digital lessons for teaching algebra in the district’s middle schools.)
Gates, the largest private foundation in the world with assets of about $38 billion, spends about $320 million annually in the U.S. on K-12 and college education. It has invested heavily in the Common Core, including underwriting the nonprofit organizations and organization of state education officials that wrote the standards, advocating for states’ adoption and partnering with textbook company Pearson for Common Core materials and curricula.
The Gates Foundation has been criticized for being too prescriptive in pushing a reform agenda. Districts and charter schools receiving money to develop an earlier teacher effectiveness model, for example, had to commit to count test scores as at least 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. But Shalvey said that in implementing Common Core, Gates believes that “you make investments in people and organizations and you must have give and take.”
At the end of the grant period, he said, Gates might be looking to see that a third of students had a “rigorous and robust learning experience with the experience of Common Core, and principals and teachers felt confident and competent they were teaching it well.” Results on the Smarter Balanced assessments, the new computer-based tests aligned to Common Core, would not be the only measure of success, he said.
In the mid-2000s, Gates funded projects worth about $80 million in California, including $26 million to strengthen leadership in school districts and grants to small schools affiliated with Gates’ massive, but eventually abandoned, High School Grants Initiative. Shalvey acknowledged that, except for a $45 million grant to fund teacher evaluations and development in a network of five California charter organizations – The College-Ready Promise – the Gates Foundation had done little funding in California since 2008.
The Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown were out of sync with Gates’ priorities, which included teacher evaluation reform and support for the federal Race to the Top competition. At the same time, California “had a bunker mentality around financial challenges” during the recession. “That makes you (as a foundation) more conservative. Now the times seem to be changing,” Shalvey said, and he senses “more optimism.”
Gates would be looking to combine efforts with other California-based foundations that have been underwriting Common Core and other systemic changes, he said. They include the Stuart, James Irvine, S.D. Bechtel, Jr. and Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation and The California Endowment.*
California is one of several states that Gates is considering for Common Core funding. But California is a bellwether, Shalvey said, adding, “If California gets Common Core right and we can help, that is a big message” to send the nation.
* Except for the Gates Foundation, EdSource receives financial support from the foundations mentioned in this article. They have no say in EdSource’s editorial decisions. Don Shalvey is also a member of the EdSource Board of Directors.
John Fensterwald covers state education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.