Full Circle? The Gates Pivot on Education and Where K-12 Philanthropy Is Heading

photo:  Leonard Zhukovsky/shutterstock

photo:  Leonard Zhukovsky/shutterstock

After the newspaper magnate Walter Annenberg supposedly blew a fortune on a national K-12 initiative in the 1990s that yielded few improvements in student outcomes, a new crop of education philanthropists emerged with even deeper pockets and a determination not to repeat Annenberg's mistakes. Whereas the $500 million Annenberg Challenge, begun in 1993, had backed locally designed efforts to improve schools, the new givers took a more hands-on, top-down approach to piloting reform. And while the Annenberg gift often underwrote efforts led by longtime urban educators seeking to improve existing schools, many next wave K-12 funders looked to create a new set of charter schools that would operate outside traditional districts and to empower a fresh generation of K-12 innovators. 

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—with the deepest pockets of all among the new hands-on grantmakers—has always straddled the separate worlds of education philanthropy. It's given heavily for charter schools and to fund the broader new K-12 reform infrastructure. But it's also worked very closely with traditional school districts to develop a series a large-scale experiments aimed at improving student outcomes.

The results have been famously mixed, as Bill Gates has acknowledged himself. While the foundation's global health giving has saved millions of lives in poor countries, Gates told Nicholas Kristof in 2015 that its K-12 grantmaking has produced "no dramatic change... It’s not like under-five mortality, where you see this dramatic improvement.”

In a speech last week announcing big changes to K-12 grantmaking, Gates similarly said, "Education is, without a doubt, one of the most challenging areas we invest in as a foundation."

The foundation has pivoted several times with its ed work in a quest for results. And now it's pivoting once more—embracing, among other things, the very same idea that animated the Annenberg Challenge: namely, that locally driven solutions have the best chance of succeeding

Could it be that K-12 philanthropy has come full circle over the past quarter century? No, we wouldn't go that far. Much is quite different, including what's in the new Gates strategy. Still, it's a remarkable thing to hear echoes of the long-dismissed Annenberg Challenge in the pronouncements of America's top education philanthropist. And it's important to note that Gates isn't the only funder that's become more sensitized to the need to engage local stakeholders. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan pivoted this way after their experience backing a reform effort in Newark, New Jersey, that was widely criticized for its top-down nature. In turn, all this can be seen as part of a broader recognition among funders of all kinds that they need to do a much better job of listening to those working on the front lines of complex challenges. 

Bill Gates offered a preview of his foundation's new K-12 strategy during a recent speech to the Council of the Great City Schools, which held its annual convention in Cleveland. The council is an organization of the largest urban school systems in the nation. The transcript of the speech was posted on the Gates Foundation website. In addition, a video of the speech is available here.

Gates reminded the audience why he and Melinda started working on K-12 system in the first place: "Because we wanted to do something about the disparity in achievement and postsecondary success for students of color and low-income students. That inequity persists today, and we are just as determined now to eliminate it as we were when we started."

He said that the foundation plans to spend about $1.7 billion over the next five years on U.S. public education initiatives. The bulk of that funding—around 60 percent—will be invested in supporting the development of new curricula and in creating networks of schools that will collaborate to identify local problems and formulate local solutions to address them, using data to drive and monitor improvement. 

While Gates did not offer a lot of specifics about what these networks of schools might look like, he stated that the funder will support about 30 such networks over the coming years, starting with high-needs schools and districts in six to eight states. (Backing networks was also central to the Annenberg Challenge.) Each network would have support from a team of experts skilled in improvement, coaching and data analysis. While these panels of experts will provide support, the networks themselves will be the ones to decide what paths to take to address their challenges, Gates told convention attendees. Whatever approaches taken—adopting a new curriculum, focusing on middle school interventions, or helping groups of students transition from high school to college—it will be up to the networks to decide.

This announcement of networks with the discretion to determine appropriate steps for improvement provides another signal that Gates is moving away from a funder-driven, top-down approach toward a more collaborative one. An earlier sign was the 2016 appointment of Bob Hughes, who has a reputation as a strong collaborator, to lead the foundation's K-12 work. For 16 years, Hughes led New Visions for Public Schools in New York City—an organization, as it happens, that was a central player in carrying out the Annenberg Challenge in the city. 

Megan Tompkins-Strange, the University of Michigan professor and author of Policy Patrons, who has researched education philanthropy, also heard in Gates' speech a willingness to move away from the top-down approach. She told Education Week she could not have predicted a new approach that focuses on greater autonomy for communities. While this does seem surprising, it's less so when you consider that the hiring of Bob Hughes was a major hint about where the Gates Foundation was heading. 

The pivot is also unsurprising when you consider where this funder has been.

Past Gates Foundation work often focused on predetermined experiments, such as small schools, and the results have been mixed, sometime disruptive. Gates summarized the funder's past K-12 investments, acknowledging that past efforts were unsuccessful. He noted the initial experiment with small schools, which then shifted toward teacher effectiveness after learning that it was teachers, their expectations, and their relationships with students that fueled success in schools, regardless of their size. That led to the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) work, which helped some school systems build teacher evaluation systems that relied on multiple measures, including standardized test scores, an approach against which many education experts warned. Gates said in his speech that the foundation will no longer fund initiatives based on teacher evaluation systems, but will continue to gather data on such systems and encourage their use to improve instruction. Some of those evaluation-based initiatives were major misfires, such as the $100 million effort in Tampa.

Gates hopes this new approach will result in new curricula and professional development tied to the Common Core State Standards, the development of which the funder bankrolled. Most states adopted the Common Core before the standards become politicized and controversial, leading some states to abandon or rename them. Both President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos oppose the Common Core and want to eliminate it, but only states that adopted the standards can make that decision.

Another 25 percent of of the $1.7 billion the Gates Foundation plans to spend will back what Gates describes as "big bets," new innovations with the potential to transform public education over the next decade. He noted in his speech to the council that research and development in the nation's public education sector has been woefully underfunded for years, accounting for only a fraction of 1 percent of total government spending on public schooling.

Maybe the best way to understand the Gates Foundation, above all, is that it views itself as an R&D organization. Bill Gates, who long ran a company that spends billions on R&D, has stressed the importance of experimentation and innovation many times. Of course, trial and error is a lot less disruptive when it comes to tech products than school systems. Still, whatever you think of the outcomes of the foundation's efforts or a style that's often been criticized as high-handed, it's hard to deny the thrust of Gates' point about the need to try new things and see what works. In other fields, such as anti-poverty work, foundation-funded experimentation has often led to better policy. 

The remaining 15 percent of the announced funding will go to charter schools—and that will be mostly targeted toward work to improve educational outcomes for students with special needs, such as learning and behavioral disabilities. Gates said he believes charters have the flexibility to help the special education field improve outcomes in this area. However, multiple studies and evaluations of charter schools have found that many charters serve lower proportions of students with special needs compared to their traditional public school counterparts.

The announcement that Gates will concentrate this new funding on school districts rather than charters won applause from attendees at the Council of Great City Schools convention. With other prominent funders lavishing hundreds of millions on charter management organizations, charter school advocates and organizations such as Teach For America, traditional public school systems—especially urban districts—can be forgiven for thinking that there is a large education funding party underway, and that they have not been invited.

To be sure, there will be skeptics about this new course, among them education historian and former U.S. assistant secretary for education Diane Ravitch. Calling the Common Core a "dead man walking," she expressed concern on her blog that Gates appears to be sticking to it. If the Gates Foundation really wants to help children, she wrote, it should open health clinics in schools rather than spending millions to write curriculum or tell teachers what to teach. Who knows? Maybe such clinics will be next. As we've reported, the foundation is now engaged in a deep dive on poverty. 

It will be interesting to see how Gates' new strategy unfolds, especially around the creation of these networks. It is encouraging to hear the intention to focus on traditional K-12 systems, which, despite the rapid growth of the charter sector, still educate the vast majority of America's students. The emphasis on the use of data is consistent with past work, as Gates is a huge advocate of using data as a tool to drive improvement. However, this could generate resistance among privacy advocates, who have expressed concern about the large volumes of data being collected on U.S. schoolchildren. 

While the funder's past efforts have shown mixed results, at least give Gates credit for being reflective about its work and willing to change course.