Gates Foundation to Shift Education Focus

Gates Foundation to Shift Education Focus

Bill Gates on Thursday plans to announce a $1.7 billion investment and detail his philanthropic organization’s move toward building collaborative school networks.

Bill Gates and Melinda Gates, with their daughter Phoebe Adele Gates, are seen at the Goalkeepers event hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Sept. 20 in New York City. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)

Marking a new chapter in education philanthropy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will step back from its traditional education reform agenda to instead invest close to $1.7 billion over the next five years on new initiatives that include a focus on building networks of schools.

"Education is, without a doubt, one of the most challenging areas we invest in as a foundation," Bill Gates is expected to say Thursday during a speech at the Council of the Great City Schools' annual conference in Cleveland, according to prepared remarks. "But I'm excited about the shift in our work and the focus on partnering with networks of schools."

In a sprawling address, the Microsoft co-founder and co-chair of one of the most influential and contentious entities involved in the education space plans to reflect on lessons learned about the foundation's efforts and how those lessons will play into its revamped vision for the future.
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"There are some signs of progress," Gates is expected to say of past efforts. "But like many of you, we want to see faster and lasting change in student achievement."

During the Gates Foundation's involvement in education philanthropy over nearly two decades, the organization – of which Bill Gates' wife, Melinda Gates, is also a co-chair – has poured billions of dollars into advancing new ideas and played an especially significant role in the rise of the education reform movement. Yet it has been widely criticized for funneling funding into what some consider silver-bullet policies or the latest education fad.

One of the foundation's first serious forays into K-12 policy was its push for smaller schools – a contentious idea that yielded mixed results.

While it had a positive impact in some places – such as New York City, where graduation and college enrollment rates increased for the majority of smaller-scale schools – it didn't move the needle in many other places and ultimately was deemed too costly, both fiscally and politically, to replicate successfully.

The foundation's biggest bets, however, were in its decision to back the Common Core State Standards – academic benchmarks for what students should know by the end of each grade – and its push to reimagine teacher evaluation and compensation systems based in part on student test scores.

That effort dovetailed with the Obama administration's competitive education grant program, Race to the Top, which gave states hundreds of millions of dollars to carry out those very education policy changes, among others. The Gates Foundation was instrumental in helping states that won the funding but lacked the capacity and expertise to go it alone and carry out their winning proposals.

The results of those efforts, however, also were mixed.

The District of Columbia, for example, is hailed by many education policy experts as a model for how school districts can create evaluation systems that retain and reward the best teachers while showing the least effective ones the door. But some states, like Tennessee, have had a harder time sticking to their original visions, largely due to the politicization of Common Core, which led to a chain reaction in how states were able to test students and make the results of those tests part of teacher evaluations and pay scales.

In May 2016, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Gates Foundation, offered somewhat of a mea culpa for the foundation's misread of how ready – or not ready, as it turned out – states were to handle implementation of the Common Core standards.

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