Don Shalvey

A few years ago, conventional wisdom held that California wasn’t a good place to invest philanthropic dollars in education. The state was seen as dysfunctional, it couldn’t win federal grant money, its budget was shattered, California was cutting school funds and districts were laying off teachers.

I don’t think the “wisdom” was right then, and I’m sure it isn’t now. Now, I believe, is exactly the right time for foundations to expand the grants they are making in California.

Why? The state has embraced ambitious academic expectations that will lead to more opportunity for its 6 million students. California is putting considerable support into providing its 300,000 teachers with the tools and training to better help students meet those expectations. California is putting additional dollars toward schools and is providing local communities with far more control of how education dollars are spent.

But perhaps more important is the sense of optimism that educators have regarding more rigorous standards. I’ve traveled around the state and spoken to countless teachers, principals, superintendents and county offices. These educators represent small rural districts in the Central Valley, the largest districts in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and charter leaders across the state. The feeling of optimism is palpable. No, it isn’t universal acclaim, but far more than I see in other parts of our country.

I started my teaching career in Merced during the “Summer of Love” and served more than four decades as a California educator – a teacher, a principal, a district superintendent and the founder of an organization of high-quality charter schools. For most of the past decade, I’ve worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where I’ve had the opportunity to engage with leading educators across the country who are consistently improving schools; constantly providing additional opportunity for young people.

The foundation’s goal is big: far more students graduating from high school ready for college or a career. By 2025, we expect at least 80 percent of American high school graduates to be college or career ready. That is not the case today: Now only about one third graduate truly ready. Far too many graduate but have to take remedial courses when they get to college; far too many students drop out of high school before graduating; far too many start college or technical training and do not finish.

This isn’t good enough in a global economy that rewards knowledge and innovation. It isn’t good enough for any of us – for the nation, for individual states and communities, for families and certainly not for students.

The sheer size of California dictates that we won’t reach our goals unless California reaches its own goals of ensuring almost all of its students leave high school ready for the world beyond, whether it is college or a training program or a career. And, with a bit of California hubris, the rest of the country pays attention to what happens here.

But, beyond size, what I see in California these days is an intense hunger on the part of teachers to work together to improve their teaching, bolster the profession and produce results for students. There is a lot of focus these days nationally on the technical aspects of teaching, and that is important. But teaching is also an art, not just a science. It is the engagement between teachers and students that produces magic that can’t be described just with a single test score.

I’ve never seen teachers more focused on results for all students and more willing to work together, to learn from one another.

Our hope at the Gates Foundation is to invest in expanding or creating networks of teachers in California that can help teachers help one another. We will invest in organizations that can expand professional development opportunities that deliver what individual teachers need rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

We will invest in a mix of tools for teachers that will only be used if educators see them as valuable in improving results for students. We will invest in the kind of data systems that provide useful, timely information to teachers and students regularly so instruction can be adjusted where appropriate.

California knows it has to focus deeply on the capacity of its 300,000 teachers and we hope to be helpful while also understanding there is considerable variation across the state in the kind of help that is needed. In some districts, teachers just need tools and better connections to other successful teachers. But in others, there is a looming teacher shortage that may well spread across the state. In Stockton, for example, near where I live, the district has had 60 classroom openings since last fall that it has been unable to fill with qualified teachers.

In many other states, we invest in connecting student results to evaluations of individual teachers. We will not be doing that in California until the state decides it is ready to do so. I think it is a good idea, but I also know that the state does not seem ready to move in that direction.

And we will invest in the state for the long term because it will take time to see the kind of results that all of us want for children.

I came to California in the 1960s to teach. It is a profession I think of proudly as noble and dignified. Increasingly, California again thinks similarly of teaching and that realization will help produce success for students.

In the larger scheme of things, our investments are not much more than budget dust in California. But to the degree that Gates Foundation dollars represent discretionary funds that will help California educators do what they do best to help students, we hope to make a difference.


Don Shalvey is deputy director of education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He is a former teacher, administrator and the founder of the Aspire Public Charter Schools.

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