"Local Context." The New Gates K-12 Strategy is Coming Into Sharper Focus

photo: MB Images/shutterstock

photo: MB Images/shutterstock

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced the first $92 million in grants for its new K-12 initiative Networks for School Improvement. The first of three planned rounds included 19 grantee organizations. The foundation plans to invest $460 million in the initiative over the next few years.

Under the new initiative, groups of schools will work together to identify challenges and implement solutions. The goal is to increase the number of black, Latino and low-income students who graduate high school and enroll in higher education.

The new initiative arrived as Bill Gates himself conceded that the results of the billions the foundation has poured into K-12 education had been disappointing. 

The foundation has, in the past, admitted failure and moved on to new strategies and ideas. In 2009, Gates determined that the $650 million the foundation invested to break up large high schools into smaller ones had largely fallen short of the funder’s goals. Last year, Gates said the foundation would no longer invest directly in teacher evaluation, an idea that once had a central place in the foundation's education strategy. A RAND study revealing that the foundation’s five-year Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching initiative did not improve high school graduation rates, teacher effectiveness or retention of the best teachers followed the announcement several months later.

Some critics argue that it is not enough for Gates to learn from past missteps. Instead, these failures should discourage the foundation from future work in education. Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University and longtime critic of the foundation, says the funder’s work has demoralized teachers and pulled attention away from the need to fund schools adequately with public money.

Ravitch would like to see the foundation move away from education and instead use its experience in global health to promote better medical care for low-income kids at home. “The schools are not failing,” she said. “Our society is failing.”

But Bill and Melinda have said that they have no intention of abandoning their commitment to improving education. To its credit, the foundation has acknowledged its past failures and responded to underwhelming K-12 results by changing tactics. Earlier this year, Gates launched a national initiative to take on poverty at home at the urging of education leaders, who insisted that the foundation needed to consider factors that affect learning outside the classroom. 


The anti-poverty work is a major departure for Gates, a grantmaker that long resisted engaging the larger social and economic problems that heavily shape the education outcomes and life chances of young people. 

Meanwhile, the Networks for School Improvement initiative represents a major about-face in its own right. 

A striking feature of the new initiative is the emphasis on local leadership and solutions. It fits a growing trend within education philanthropy to pay more attention to community-led and -organized work. In many ways, the shift is a reaction to what critics called a top-down approach to education giving. It’s an approach for which the Gates Foundation received criticism the past. Now, the foundation is part of the pendulum shift the other way.

Bob Hughes, the director of the foundation’s K-12 work, addressed the local focus of the networks during a call with journalists.

“Our new strategy is rooted in the lessons we’ve learned working alongside educators for the past two decades,” he said. “We’ve learned, for example, that schools operate within their own local context, and solutions that work are the ones that school leaders adapt to ensure that their schools meet the individual needs of every enrolled student."

Who's Who of the New Networks

In this first round of grants, 19 grantees, mostly education-serving organizations, received funds ranging from around $500,000 to $16 million for projects that will last from 15 months to a little over five years. Together, the grantees serve students in 13 states. This is the first of three planned rounds of grants. The second round of grantees is to be announced in the fall. 

Each network identified a common obstacle to student success for the group of schools to work on together. Those might include middle school suspensions or the failure to meet benchmarks by the end of ninth grade that improve a kid’s chances of graduating. In this cohort of grantees, several networks are focusing on meeting ninth grade goals. Others are targeting eighth grade math and reading, to make sure students start high school on track. One is working to make sure students match with colleges that are a good fit. 

Within each network, schools will come up with plans based on data to tackle the common problem identified by the group. The schools will implement their strategies and refine them over time based on the data they collect.

Each network will be led by an intermediary organization that will organize the schools and provide space, technical assistance and data support. More than 530 entities applied. Most of the intermediaries chosen are education-serving nonprofits, like Seeding Success based in Memphis, Tennessee, or Teach Plus in Boston.

A few of the grantees were already leading the charge on the network model, Hughes said. CORE, which partners with California’s large urban school districts, and the Network for College Success in Chicago, which are among the grantees, already use the approach.

The grantee list was not without criticism from some corners. Hughes has deep ties to New Visions for Public Schools. He ran the organization from 2000 to 2016, when he took over K-12 work at the Gates Foundation. Leonie Haimson, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Class Size Matters, called the nearly $14 million grant to New Visions “problematic,” given Hughes’ connection to the organization. Haimson has clashed with the Gates Foundation in the past.

The foundation defended its grant to New Visions in a statement to Inside Philanthropy, saying that all grant proposals, including New Visions’, were “reviewed in a double-blinded manner until moving to the later stages of the selection process, which included an interview and site visit. Bob Hughes, who has not been involved with New Visions for two years, neither was involved in the blinded portion of the review nor the recommendation of the New Visions proposal.” 

The foundation has a longstanding funding relationship with New Visions that predates Hughes’ arrival at Gates. “Its excellent track record and strong aspirations for the students that it serves were the reasons that New Visions was selected,” a spokesperson for the foundation said.

A big point of speculation ahead of the reveal of the grantees was whether the foundation would be more open to working with public school districts than in the past. The request for proposals specifically mentioned school districts as one of the types of organizations qualified to apply.

Predictions were perhaps overhyped. Only one public school district, Baltimore City Public Schools, made the cut. For that matter, only one charter network, KIPP, made the list. However, some of the nonprofits have announced plans to partner closely with their local school districts. Achieve Atlanta plans to partner with Atlanta Public Schools. The Institute for Learning will work with the Dallas Independent School District. 

At this stage, it sounds like the foundation considers nonprofits to be a slightly better fit for the workload, but is open to reconsidering. “Given the complexity of overseeing networks of middle and/or high schools with between 10–50 schools each, we believe supporting organizations with specific capabilities are in some situations necessary to build school-level leadership capacity to do ‘network’ work,” a spokesperson said. “That said, we have a lot to learn about what type of supporting organization can be successful across different contexts.

“We are excited about districts being Networks for School Improvement (NSI)-supporting organizations going forward,” the foundation spokesperson said. “We are hopeful to see other districts beyond Baltimore successfully apply through future RFPs to lead NSIs.”

That seems to be the biggest takeaway from this funding round—it’s still very early in the process. It's hard to predict how it could shift or evolve. Nearly $100 million has gone out in grants, but that’s less than a quarter of the funding planned for the initiative. The Gates Foundation seems just as open to learning and adapting on this initiative as it's been over the last two decades.