Great Teachers Are Made, and Gates Wants to Make More of Them

Having previously funded work to learn what effective teaching looks like, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation now wants to do more to explore how effective teachers are made. And that’s good news for nonprofits and other groups with teacher preparation programs, as well as institutions that want to breathe new life into their efforts at preparing new teachers.

In a new post on the funder’s Impatient Optimists blog, Gates officials Tom Stritikus and Michelle Rojas wrote that in the coming years, they forsee many opportunities for collaboration in the field of teacher preparation, “with many types of organizations.” This suggests Gates’ approach will not involve just writing a large check to Teach For America.

“We'll be focusing our efforts on supporting action-oriented collaboration, promoting innovation, and advocating for the conditions that enable progress,” Stritikus and Rojas wrote.

The two authors are ideal to head up this new effort by the Gates Foundation. Stritikus is a former dean of the University of Washington’s school of education, while Rojas has worked to improve teacher training at Arizona State University.

This all sounds promising for organizations involved in teacher preparation. But Gates makes clear that while the funder is open to various approaches, its grantmaking in this crucial area will be guided by the following principles of teacher preparation programs:

  • Enabling teacher candidates to master competencies and receive feedback
  • Using information on candidate performance to inform programming
  • Responding to the needs of school districts
  • Ensuring the programs produce effective teachers

Understanding teacher effectiveness and trying to foster better classroom instruction have been priorities in Gates’ K-12 grantmaking. Gates funding in 2009 launched the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, a three-year study that utilized a combination of classroom observations, surveys, and student achievement gains to measure effective instruction. Now the funder is turning its attention to programs that prepare new teachers to enter elementary and secondary classrooms across the country.

A virtually unanimous body of education research indicates that effective teachers are the single most important factor driving student academic achievement, but little consensus exists on what makes a good teacher or even how good teachers are made. What is known, however, is that many new teachers leave the profession within five years, which some policymakers and scholars blame on the quality of teacher preparation programs.

University-based teacher education programs get little respect. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan dismissed most colleges of education as mediocre in quality and as “cash cows” for universities because they have low costs and high enrollments. Last year, the Obama administration proposed regulations for teacher preparation programs, both at colleges and universities and through alternative programs such as Teach For America.

Colleges of education have long had a reputation for being academically undemanding. This has helped fuel the popularity of alternative means of training teachers, such as TFA. Yet despite its high profile, TFA trains only a small minority of classroom teachers, while more than half of aspiring teachers pursue traditional certification through a university-based education program.

How much Gates will ramp up its teacher preparation funding, or how wide a net it will cast, remains to be seen, but a look at its grants database over the past year reveals a number of grants that fund teacher training and teacher preparation programs. Some recent grants include:

  • $260,906 to Bellwether Education Partners Inc. to educate deans about best practices in improving teacher preparation
  • $528,580 to Urban Teacher Residency United Inc. for a network of teacher residency programs
  • $1.5 million to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation to support development of a model for preparing secondary math and science teachers in partnership with urban school systems and affiliated higher education institutions
  • $351,000 to the University of Florida Foundation to support redesign of professional development for teachers

Gates has also put money into preparing teachers in public school systems in its home state of Washington, based on recent grants for professional development and teacher coaching to the Everett and Auburn school districts.

However this new initiative unfolds, Stritikus and Rojas make clear that Gates expects significant changes in order to achieve the principles the funder outlines. Teacher preparation programs and organizations will have to build a sense of urgency that fosters innovation and collaboration, which the two officials state that Gates stands ready to assist.