Bob Hughes Just Started the Toughest Job in K-12 Philanthropy. What's On His Plate?

Robert "Bob" Hughes recently took the helm of the K-12 funding program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — at a time when the world's largest funder looks to be in some rough waters.

Costly missteps in the foundation's education reform agenda and a growing backlash against what some see as excessive influence by wealthy philanthropists over the nation's K-12 system will mean a series of challenges for Hughes, who comes to Gates from New Visions for Public Schools, the NYC-based nonprofit where he served as president. New Visions manages dozens of NYC schools, including seven charter schools. Here are some issues and subjects that are sure to keep Hughes busy as he begins his tenure at Gates.

Course Correction

Gates strives to be a "learning organization," one that course corrects and transforms itself in response to empirical evidence. As Hughes' undergoes his onboarding process at Gates, it will be important for him to fully understand the funder's well-publicized missteps in the K-12 arena, what factors caused these failures, and how he can steer the work in a better direction.

In a recent annual letter, Gates CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann acknowledged some hard lessons learned from the implementation of the Common Core standards, admitting that the foundation underestimated the level of resources that would be required for successful implementation of the standards. She further admitted that Gates did not do enough to engage educators, families, and communities to generate buy-in for the standards. This lack of engagement allowed critics to take control of the debate, defining the Common Core on their own terms. Conservative critics claimed the Common Core represented excessive federal intrusion into education, while liberal opponents decried the emphasis on standardized testing.

Stakeholder engagement presents a real opportunity for Hughes, whose reputation is that of a collaborator who knows how to bring disparate groups together to coalesce behind a common goal. At New Visions, Hughes brought together a range of educators, community organizations, teachers unions, and government partners in NYC. If engaging partners and building support has been lacking in past Gates efforts, Hughes is well positioned to make improvements in that area.

Positioning Gates as a Partner

The recent admission of mistakes around Common Core, coupled with previous statements that its overall education funding efforts had under-delivered, has contributed to a small, but growing backlash against philanthropic influence in education. Education scholar Diane Ravitch is among those leading the critique of the excessive influence that Gates and other members of what she calls the "billionaire boys club" hold over U.S. education policy. But she's finding plenty of company in making such arguments. 

In a recent pointed editorial, the Los Angeles Times argued that Gates' failures show that funders should not have such sway over the nation's education agenda. The editorial concedes that foundation money has an important place in education, but states that funders should not act as if they possess the cure for what ails America's schools. Frederick M. Hess and Jeffrey Henig, authors of The New Education Philanthropy, have voiced similar concerns about funder influence over K-12 schooling and have noted that media coverage of philanthropic efforts in this area have taken an increasingly negative tone.

To stem this criticism, Hughes will need to fight the perception that Gates controls the education reform agenda and position the foundation as a partner — albeit a very well-resourced one — that can provide valuable support. Last year, the foundation suggested it would do more in the area of early education. This moves makes sense, as research has shown that quality early education, such as pre-kindergarten, is an investment that pays huge dividends in future academic success, especially for students from low-income backgrounds. But there is sure to be wariness if Gates, a 900-pound gorilla, shows up in the pre-K space in a big way. To succeed in this area and not repeat past mistakes will require all the collaboration and engagement skills that Hughes brings to his new position.

Getting Personalized Learning Right

The Gates Foundation is now deep into studying personalized learning, in preparation for what may be a huge grantmaking push. This is another area that Hughes needs to get right — which in this case will mean correctly interpreting the research emerging and betting on the right models going forward. As we've reported, Gates has commissioned RAND to conduct ongoing research to ensure that any ramp up of personalized education funding is backed up by solid research and measurable results. The series of reports is intended to help identify the most promising and important features of personalized learning models, to document the challenges schools face in implementing these models and to learn which components of personalized learning are most critical in the success of these new models of teaching and learning.

The research published so far by RAND has shown what the Gates Foundation has called "promising evidence" that this approach can boost student achievement. More findings are in the pipeline, and the challenge for Hughes and the K-12 team at Gates will be figuring out how to translate these results into success at a larger scale. The foundation hasn't always been so good at this critical step. As we've reported, it has jumped the gun in some cases, putting big money behind approaches that later were revealed to be flawed. 

Don't Forget the Teachers

Funders often discount the expertise of teachers and their role as classroom gatekeepers. Hess and Henig have called this mistake a contributor to the failure of many funder-driven efforts. As Gates refocuses its efforts toward developing Common Core-aligned materials for classrooms, it should pay close attention to teachers' feedback, as the success of these materials and their use in the classroom will depend greatly on the men and women who lead America's classrooms each day.

Gates and other funders also should continue their efforts to increase the number of quality teachers. Hughes will have a lot to offer in this area as well, if his track record at New Visions is any indication. There, he championed the Urban Teacher Residency, a partnership between New Visions and the Hunter School of Education to create a teacher preparation program that combines graduate-level coursework at Hunter with a one-year residency at a school.

There is no doubt that Hughes will have a lot on his plate as he leads the Gates Foundation in its quest to learn from past mistakes and reposition itself as a true partner in education. We'll be watching as events unfold.