Following a speech last October in which Bill Gates announced a major shift in the education priorities and strategy of his foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is moving to implement its plan to invest the biggest share of its education philanthropy dollars in education networks that come up with their own “locally driven solutions” to improve student achievement.
To that end it has issued detailed Requests for Proposals for what it calls “networks for school improvement” due on Feb. 21. The networks that will be funded must be focused on improving outcomes for African-American, Latino and low- income students. In its proposal guidelines, the foundation said it is “guided by the belief that all lives have equal value, and that all students — especially black, Latino and low-income students — must have equal access to a great public education that prepares them for adulthood.”
The foundation is the largest education funder in the U.S., and in that role it has the potential to have an outsize impact on school reforms. Initially, the foundation will fund a small number of networks — probably less than 10 — and over the next three years issue additional calls for proposals, eventually funding between 20 and 30 networks, all consisting of middle and high schools.
Speaking to educators at the annual conference of the Council of Great City Schools in Cleveland last fall, Gates said that 60 percent of an estimated $1.7 billion his foundation plans to spend on K-12 education over the next five years will go to support these networks, along with investing in curricula and professional development.
“We think this will lead to more impactful and more durable systemic changes, which with any luck will be attractive enough to be widely adopted by other schools,” he said. “We will let people come to us with the set of approaches they think will work for them in their local context.”
Among those he cited as models for the networks he has in mind are the CORE districts in California, which include some of the state’s largest, including Los Angeles Unified, Long Beach Unified and Fresno Unified. The districts have collaborated on a range of issues, including sharing data and devising new school and student accountability measures.
At the time, Gates did not define what would qualify as a network. After issuing “requests for information” to inform its new strategy, the foundation now defines a network as “a group of secondary schools that work in partnership with an intermediary organization to use a continuous improvement process to significantly increase the number of black, Latino and low-income students who earn a high school diploma, enroll in a postsecondary institution, and are on track in their first year to earn a credential with labor market value.”
The foundation has over the past two decades focused its funding on several key areas, some of which have generated considerable controversy, and then either abandoned the strategies when they did not get the comprehensive results it was seeking, or moved on to other strategies that seemed to have more potential.
For example, the foundation invested hundreds of millions of dollars in promoting small schools, or “schools within schools,” a strategy it ended about a decade ago when Gates concluded that it was not having the far-reaching impact he had hoped. The foundation has also drawn to a close its multi-year Measures of Effective Teaching project that among other things encouraged linking teacher evaluations to student performance, including test scores. The initiative drew the ire of teachers unions across the nation. Gates was himself one of the most fervent advocates of the Common Core standards, but they will no longer be a focus of the foundation’s work, Gates indicated in his speech in Cleveland.
The local or regional networks that it will now fund will have to “demonstrate a clear commitment to equity,” according to the grant guidelines.
In light of California’s two-decades-old ban on affirmative action programs, it is not clear the extent to which districts will be able to establish programs targeted at black and Latino students specifically.
Underscoring its departure from a “top-down” approach to funding, the foundation acknowledged in the proposal description that “there is no one-size-fits-all solution to school improvement.”
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