A Few Things to Know About the New K-12 Education Chief at Gates

In case you missed it, the world’s largest philanthropic organization has a new leader for its K-12 education efforts. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced in February that Robert “Bob” Hughes will take the helm of the funder’s College-Ready Education program beginning June 1.

Hughes serves as president of New Visions for Public Schools, a New York City nonprofit that manages dozens of public schools, including seven charter schools, in New York City. He will succeed Vicki Phillips at Gates. Phillips stepped down in October 2015 after eight years with the funder.

Here are a few things to know about Gates’ new K-12 head and what his appointment could mean for the funder’s future education investments.

He's a Collaborator Who Knows How to Get Stakeholders Working Together

During his tenure at New Visions, Hughes led the New Century High Schools Initiative, an ambitious effort that brought together educators, teachers unions, NYC’s Department of Education, and dozens of community partners to launch nearly 100 small high schools in areas of the city with high needs.

“Hold on there,” you may be saying. “Didn’t Gates spend millions on a small high schools program that wasn’t successful?” Well, yes and no. While initial evaluation suggested the program was a failure, a narrative that crystalized in the media, later evaluation by the research firm MDRC was more encouraging, finding that the smaller schools raised graduation rates at a higher rate than existing city high schools. (See a previous IP post on the "myth" of small school failure.) 

Regardless, the important point, here, is that Hughes brings to the Gates Foundation long experience in engaging a range of stakeholders in educational change. In particular, he has a track record of working with teachers unions, as opposed to demonizing them, as many ed reformers tend to do. That's significant during a moment when some ed funders, including Gates, seem to be looking to reduce the polarization surrounding education and find more constructive paths forward that engage all the players who need to be at the table to improve student achievement. 

Related: Can a New Focus on Learning by Funders Move K-12 Past the Ed Wars?

He Supports New Approaches to Teacher Preparation

New Visions partnered with Hunter School of Education to create the Urban Teacher Residency, a preparation program for new teachers that combines a one-year residency at a school with mentorship and graduate-level coursework at Hunter.

In addition to leading New Visions, Hughes also sits on the board of directors of the Fund for Teachers (FFT), a nonprofit that awards grants to teachers to design and pursue their own professional development. Many FFT grants enable teachers to pursue research and travel during summers for experiences and knowledge they can bring back to their classrooms.

Hughes’ past work on teacher preparation and professional development dovetails nicely with Gates’ interest in new approaches to teacher preparation. Last year, we reported on the funder’s interest in working with a wide range of organizations to improve teacher training and preparation.

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

He Is No Stranger to the Gates Foundation 

Given the funder’s high profile in K-12 education, the educators, schools, and organizations that have received grants from the funder hardly comprise an exclusive club. New Visions, however, has received more than a dozen separate grants from the Gates Foundation over the years, totaling more than $75 million. These grants support not only New Visions’ development of small high schools, but also its implementation of the Common Core and construction of adaptive learning platforms. 

All in all, Hughes’ appointment suggests interesting things happening at the Gates Foundation. We’re looking forward to seeing how education grantmaking at this funder proceeds under his leadership.