The Future of Education Philanthropy in the Pacific Northwest

Today, many an education reformer is waiting to hear word out of Seattle, Washington.  Why?  The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is supposedly making a major announcement regarding the future of its educational philanthropy.  Some, particularly current grantees, believe today’s discussion will be a reiteration of current priorities and a discussion of the successes of work such as small schools, high school reform, and early college high schools.  Others, though, are expecting a major paradigm shift, one that re-aligns Gates funding with the 2008 (or 2009) edition of our schools’ needs.

In all likelihood, it will be a combination of the two — a renewed commitment to Gates’ high school reform efforts and the launch of new pledges to broaden reach and improve the whole school environment.  More than a year ago, Vicki Phillips, head of the education portfolio, began discussing Gates’ need to get into the human capital (re: teacher development) game.  So that is a likely target.  Many a good high school improvement effort has evolved into a pursuit of STEM education, so STEM is a likely addition as well.  But what else?
At the beginning of the calendar year, Eduflack offered a novel concept for the Gates Foundation.  Recognizing the growing problem of drop-out factories in our nation, seeing continued challenges in getting students up to grade level, watching the difficulties of trying to do new things in dangerously old buildings, Gates should simply build the better mousetrap.  Invest some funding into building a shadow school district in one of our nation’s most challenging urban centers, construct the right learning facilities, find and train the right educators, implement the right instructional models, and mine the real successes.  Consider it charter schools on steroids.  A pipe dream, of course, but the opportunity to really improve rather than just reform. (  
But I digress.  Despite the recent downturn in the economic markets, the Gates Foundation will clearly reiterate its commitment to fund education improvement in the United States.  Such improvement, though, requires evolution and a continuing adjustment to the wants and needs of the field.  Ed in 08, for instance, was an interesting experience (and at the end of the day, not too costly, by comparison).  No, it didn’t move education to top of mind of politicians and voters across the country.  But it did begin a social network, allowing Gates, Broad, and others to begin to see how civic engagement could be used to move reforms in education and other policy issues.
Let me be clear, I have no advance copy of today’s Gates announcement.  But if I were part of the Gates team, I would focus on a new, unwavering commitment to the following five points:
* STEM education — Yes, science-technology-engineering-math instruction is the flavor of the month.  More importantly, though, it is the strongest link we have between K-12 education and an improved workforce and a stronger economy.  STEM is not just for rocket scientists and brain surgeons.  EVERY student benefits from the acquisition of STEM skills, and virtually every job opportunity over the next two decades will require some application of a STEM education, even if it is just teamwork or problem-solving.  We have STEM models out there on the verge of scalability.  A Gates institutional commitment to STEM moves the issue to the forefront in all states, not just the dozen or so that have been leaders in the field.
* Teacher development — As noted above, Phillips wants to be involved in human capital development.  The incoming Obama administration has made investing in the recruitment, retention, and support of teachers a priority of its education policy.  By opening new channels to recruit new teachers, focusing on research and practice that links quality PD with student achievement, and working with our schools to ensure we are getting the right people — and not just any people — to lead our classrooms, Gates can really leave its mark on our schools.  We are in the process of hiring an entirely new generation of teachers.  Gates can be at the forefront of that.
* Civic engagement — In Gates communities throughout the nation, we have seen that learning successes require more than just change at the schoolhouse level.  They require changes of thinking and behavior in the community at large, from businesses, community leaders, healthcare providers, members of the clergy, childcare providers, policymakers, and families.  Gates cannot do it alone.  To support their changes in the schools, they should be launching public engagement activities in the communities, ensuring activities, policies, and support beyond the schoolhouse walls are contributing to meeting the Gates goals within them.
* High school graduation — Gates has been steadfast in its commitment to improving rigor, relevance, and relationships in our high schools.  We have witnessed real success stories throughout the nation, and we have seen some great ideas that simply don’t work or don’t work at scale.  Now is the time to refocus high school efforts.  Our first priority should be attending to the high school graduation rate.  It is a national shame that we have many high schools where half of all students drop out.  Dropping out should never be an option, particularly in a 21st century economy that requires practical 21st century skills.  Gates should issue a national challenge to increase the high school graduation rate.  And it should work with its advocacy team to encourage a national high school graduation exam to ensure each of those graduates is leaving with the skills and “rigorous” instruction that Gates is known for.  It shouldn’t matter where a high school is or what courses were taken, a high school diploma is currency, and it should have the same value in all 50 states.
* Early childhood education — Now, it is time for Eduflack’s moonshot.  Yes, I recognize Gates has been carefully focused on the notion of secondary and postsecondary education and that this could be seen as a distraction or a misalignment of Gates priorities.  But it would actually build nationally on the work Gates is engaging in in Washington State.  It speaks to strengthening the community at large, prioritizing education at the earliest of ages and for all families.  It ensures ultimate value of a K-12 education.  Across the nation, states have made major investments in preK, with many of those investments facing threat of extinction with current budget issues.  PreK focused on instruction and academic preparation is enormously valuable.  It ensures students at risk have the skills and foundations necessary to maximize the K-12 opportunities before them.  It ensures that parents become involved in the learning process from the start.  And it effectively trains the next generation of students that will benefit from the full portfolio of Gates improvements.  So take a little of that money and launch some pilot projects in some low-hanging states.  Unite your education and your libraries work and find a way to bring your three R strategy to our youngest of learners.  It will ultimately ensure that that generation is ready for the challenges and opportunities you will offer them when they hit their high school years.  Consider it an experiment in linkages, a try at civic engagement, and an opportunity to build true family and community commitment from the start.
There are obviously a number of other paths Gates could take — increasing investment in virtual education options, strengthening quality and access to school choice (particularly with its Green Dot ties), or postsecondary affordabi
lity options (including its ECHS models).  All are likely to be part of the framework.
We shall all see where today’s announcement truly takes us.  Regardless of the content, one of the most important commitments the Gates Foundation can make is to renew its demand for strong research and even stronger evaluation and accountability.  To date, Gates has done what the feds have been unable to — enact a workable accountability system that tracks how additional education funding is spent and measures that spending against student achievement and instructional improvement.  Gates has intentionally built an ROI model for education reform.  And it is a model many a school district, state, or even U.S. Department of Education would be wise to model, build on, or outright adopt, whether they receive Gates funding or not.

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