Finally: RAND Report on Teacher Reforms Delivers Some Good News for Gates

As we've reported, Robert "Bob" Hughes faces plenty of challenges in his new position as the head of the K-12 education program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation has struggled in this area, dealing with some notable disappointments and a steady drumbeat of criticism for its high-handed tactics. A new study, however, has good news for Hughes, as it presents favorable findings on a Gates-funded initiative to improve low-income students' access to quality teachers.

Related:

In 2009, Gates launched its Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching initiative in three urban school districts: Memphis; Pittsburgh; and Hillsborough County, Florida, as well as several charter management organizations in California. Grant funds enabled school systems to implement reforms in teacher evaluation, professional development, compensation, career ladder programs, and staffing.

A trio of recently released reports by the RAND Corporation and the American Institutes for Research (AIR) examined the Gates Foundation initiative in terms of implementation, student outcomes, and access to effective teachers. The reports found that the reforms had little impact in the initial years, but began to demonstrate upward trends in 2013-2014, with students in grades three to eight in Hillsborough County showing improvements in reading and students in Pittsburgh demonstrating improvements in math. In addition, most teachers surveyed in 2015 indicated that they used feedback under the new evaluation systems to improve their teaching practice.

That these reforms took a few years to demonstrate any effects should not come as a surprise, given the time required to implement changes in human capital policies affecting staffing, teacher evaluation, and compensation. Such reforms require buy-in from multiple stakeholders, including teachers' unions, and cannot be implemented in a short time. The upward trends that began in 2013-2014, however, suggest the possibility of future positive outcomes. A final evaluation is expected in 2017.

Not all of the news is good, however. Despite positive results overall, the reports found that while the participating districts were retaining their best-performing teachers at higher rates, they were less successful in placing those teachers in classrooms and schools with concentrations of low-income and ethnic minority students.

Gates may have had some missteps in the past, such as Common Core implementation, but as this research demonstrates, there are successes as well. A focus on effective teaching is a central element of Gates' education funding, and the funder has signaled every intention to continue its support for these efforts. Hughes is sure to examine these new findings from RAND and AIR closely.