Move Over Teach for America: Gates Gets Behind Diverse Approaches to Teacher Prep

The imminent change in leadership of the K-12 program at the Gates Foundation will not mean a shift in priorities. In recent remarks, Bill Gates and outgoing K-12 program head Vicki Phillips have stated that the funder will keep a focus on teacher preparation, teacher quality, and promoting high academic standards. A new round of grants, meanwhile, confirms Gates' commitment to teacher preparation.

Related: A Change in Leadership on K-12 for the Gates Foundation, But Not Direction

Gates announced in November that it would invest more than $34.7 million in a group of cooperative initiatives aimed at improving the efficacy of teacher preparation programs. The three-year grants were awarded to five consortia through a competitive process — a switch from the funder's previous approach of awarding one-off grants to individual programs. The five grantees are:

  • TeacherSquared, a cooperative organization comprised mainly of nontraditional teacher preparation programs. These include the teaching programs operated by the YES Prep and Aspire charter school organizations; the Realy Graduate School of Education; Boston-based Match Teacher Residency; and Urban Teachers, which operates in the District of Columbia and Baltimore. 
  • Texas Tech University, which will head the University-School Partnerships for the Renewal of Educator Preparation (U.S. PREP) National Center, a consortium of six universities in southern states. Other member universities include the University of Houston, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Southeastern Louisiana University, Jackson State University in Mississippi, and the University of Memphis in Tennessee.
  • The Massachusetts Department of Education, which will lead the Elevate Preparation, Impact Children (EPIC) center, an effort involving all K-12 providers in Massachusetts.
  • The National Center for Teacher Residencies, which operates a residency model of teacher preparation that combines a year of student teaching with coursework.
  • TeachingWorks, based at the University of Michigan. Under this grant program, TeachingWorks will serve as a clearinghouse for the other grantees to share best practices, provide technical support, and supply teacher performance assessments.

Gates selected these five recipients after reviewing 40 applications representing some 500 organizations. Most of the selected grantees received $7 million, except for EPIC, which will receive $4 million. Gates also contracted with the nonprofit Teacher Prep Inspection U.S. to visit each program annually and report on its progress.

Gates officials said these latest grants on teacher preparation build upon the funder's previous work around teacher evaluation. Since 2008, the foundation has invested an estimated $900 million in projects aimed at teacher quality. The choice of grants are encouraging, indicating a willingness to invest in a diverse range of approaches to teacher preparation and training. In fact, a key premise, here, is that how best to train teachers is still very much an open question. "We know that having an excellent teacher is critical to a student’s success, but there is still much to learn about how to best prepare teacher-candidates to be successful in the classroom," said Phillips, adding that a a goal of the grants is "to better understand which practices are the most effective in preparing new teachers.”

Contrast this investigative approach with that of some other big ed funders, who seem content to write large checks to Teach For America year after year. As we recently reported, the Walton Family Foundation recently made a stunning $50 million grant to TFA to mark the group's 25th anniversary. 

Related: Just How Deep Are Walton Pockets for K-12 Funding? Ask Teach for America

Gates, by the way, has certainly given its own share of sizeable grants to Teach for Americaproviding it with over $6 million in funding since 2010. But that funding pales in comparison to what TFA has pulled in from other funders, and it appears that Gates has been giving less to the group over time. Over the past five years, Gates has made by far the largest investments in the New Teacher Project, the teacher prep nonprofit based in Brooklyn, New York. Earlier this fall, for example, it provided TNTP with $12 million in general operating support over three years—bringing its total support for the group to $25.5 million since 2011. The Gates Foundation's most recent grant to TFA was for just $261,500.

Teach for America has no shortage of sugar daddies, but America's biggest ed funder isn't foremost among them. Which raises a question: Why is a foundation that has invested more than anyone else in researching teacher quality not so keen lately on giving big money to Teach for America? 

The cooperatives chosen for funding from Gates include traditional university-based teacher preparation programs, as well as alternative approaches to training teachers. The cooperatives chosen will also benefit traditional public school systems and charter schools. The universities in US PREP, for example, partner with K-12 school districts in their communities. EPIC, meanwhile, will target an entire state. Massachusetts was selected for funding in part because of its work to make its quality control process for teacher preparation programs more transparent.

Gates isn't just throwing money at teacher preparation, however. The funding comes with high expectations. The foundation wants each of the funded centers to produce as many as 2,500 teachers a year, which would make the recipient cooperatives among the largest producers of classroom teachers in the country. The grantees acknowledge that meeting these expectations will not be easy, requiring some big challenges to the teacher preparation status quo. They cited as one major challenge the funder's requirement that grantees do a better job of ensuring that the new teachers are trained by effective faculty and mentors.

Teacher preparation has always been challenging and will remain so, but the work is incredibly important, given what we know about the value of effective teachers in driving student achievement. Here's hoping these new grants bear fruit and that Gates continues to invest in diverse approaches to developing teachers.