What’s Happening With the New Gates Education Strategy?

 photo:  Steffen Foerster/shutterstock

photo:  Steffen Foerster/shutterstock

Implementation of the Gates Foundation’s new education strategy is chugging right along. The foundation recently announced it had received more than 500 applications from organizations interested in coordinating the school networks that make up the backbone of the new funding strategy. That number is about 130 more than the funder expected. Up to 25 are likely to be awarded grants this year.

The new strategy, announced last October by Bill Gates in a speech, has drawn much attention for stepping away from the top-down approach the foundation had taken in the past. Gates said the foundation plans to invest $1.7 billion over the next five years in K-12 education. About 60 percent of that will support these school networks and new curricula.

The applications were for the position of “intermediary” within networks of at least 10 middle and high schools. Under Gates’ new model, school networks will work together to improve student outcomes for black, Latino and low-income students. The amount and length of funding depends on each organization's experience and track record, but ranges from $500,000 for projects lasting one to two years to $1 to $4 million for three- to five-year projects.

Under the new plan, ideas for reform will originate and be implemented within the networks. Intermediaries will support teams at individual schools, connect teams from different schools to one another, share lessons and practices across the network and bring in outside stakeholders and experts to accelerate success. The intermediaries can be school districts, charter management organizations, higher education institutions or other organizations positioned for the role.

The strategy is a departure from Gates’ old mode of K-12 giving, which often involved large-scale experiments to identify evidence-based strategies to improve schools. At times, Bill Gates has described the foundation's approach to K-12 education as a big R&D effort. The problem with that strategy, as acknowledged by Gates himself, was that after many years and huge investments, the results were decidedly mixed. In addition, the foundation was heavily criticized for causing disruption in local communities and for wielding too much power over K-12 policies generally. 

The hope with the network model is that locally sourced solutions will have a better chance of success because they’ll be informed by local knowledge and local needs. The shift should also help mollify critics who've sounded the alarm about the heavy-handed tactics of a billionaire philanthropist meddling in public schools—which have historically been seen as among the most democratic arenas in American life. This move comes amid a broader debate about the power of "big philanthropy." It suggests that the Gates Foundation has, indeed, been hearing its critics and wants to live up to its pledge to be a "learning organization." 

Operationally, the new Gates K-12 model hearkens back to the Annenberg Challenge of the 1990s, when newspaper magnate Walter Annenberg donated $500 million to improve schools nationwide by backing locally designed solutions. The effort was widely seen as yielding few improvements. Bill and Melinda Gates were part of a new wave of K-12 funders that came onto the scene in the aftermath of Annenberg’s failure. In some ways, the hands-on, top-down approach the Gates Foundation and its peers adopted is best understood in the context of Annenberg’s defeat. Now, as we've noted, it seems that education philanthropy has come almost full circle. Indeed, Bob Hughes—who was tapped in 2016 to lead Gates' K-12 program and is an architect of its new strategy—was a key player in the Annenberg Challenge in New York City. 

Gates is not the only funder turning to more locally driven work. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has also moved in that direction after the reform push that Mark Zuckerberg helped to bankroll in Newark was decried as too top-down. Within education philanthropy more broadly, there’s growing interest in collective impact strategies, including fostering more family engagement, a trend that can also be read as a reaction to education reforms that did too little to include parents and other local stakeholders.

Related: Support by Education Funders for Family Engagement Is Growing. Why Is That?

Leaving space for more local input isn’t the only way Gates’ new strategy departs from its old priorities. The foundation no longer plans to invest directly in new projects for teacher evaluation, though it will continue to track outcomes of previous initiatives.

One other thing: The Gates Foundation, along with many deep-pocketed ed philanthropists, has long supported charter schools. Under the new strategy, the foundation will continue to support charters—15 percent of the $1.7 billion is slated for charter schools. However, the bulk of the money will fund school networks in which public school districts are likely to play a central role. Despite growth and philanthropic support of charters, most kids are still educated in traditional public schools. Investment in public schools means the chance to reach more students.

Gates has not released numbers on how many public school districts applied to serve as intermediaries, but did say that 350 organizations that applied have no prior funding relationship with the foundation. If nothing else, those numbers mean there’s a good chance some new players will get a seat at the table.

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