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With $92 Million in Grants, Gates Foundation Launches Newest Strategy to Improve K-12 Schools

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced more than $90 million in grants to support networks of schools' work to help students of color and low-income students into college—marking its first major wave of K-12 giving since announcing a significant change in direction last fall.

The 19 grants announced today will support improvements in everything from middle school language arts, to the perennially thorny problem of Algebra 1, to solving the problem of "undermatching,"—when high-achieving, low-income students select colleges that are less ambitious or rigorous than what their track records qualify them for.

Most of the grantees plan to look at some specific indicators of whether their students are on track to graduate high school, based on emerging research that identifies performance at key milestones, such as the freshman year of high school, as predictive of whether students will graduate and continue their studies in college. But beyond that, the foundation intimated that it will take a hands-off approach.

"Rather than coming in with a bright, shiny new idea, we're asking districts, schools, and intermediaries to look at investments they've already made, and we're trying to make that last-mile investment that enables them to connect their work, to set the strategies or data that will enable them to be successful for students," said Robert Hughes, the foundation's director of K-12 education in a telephone press call with reporters.

It's a remarkably different strategy than the tightly outlined set of priorities Gates has prioritized in its past K-12 philanthropy, which includes creating small high schools in the early 2000s, and teacher evaluation and performance incentives in the 2010s.

The foundation received about 530 applications for the first cohort of giving, Gates officials said, and it plans to roll out more grants sometime in the fall. 

Using Networks to Test Solutions

In all, the $92 million is the first of what Gates says will be about $460 million spent to coordinate networks of schools that will work to tackle specific problems that can trip up low-income students and students of color on their way to high school graduation and college. (Separate from this grantmaking thread, the foundation also expects to make investments in curriculum, research and development, and charter schools.) 

The concept of "continuous improvement" that undergirds these grants is difficult to boilerplate. But in short, the idea is to support similarly situated schools to try out and evaluate different approaches to the problem and replicate the ones that seem to help most. The theory of action also prioritizes reflecting on what works and what doesn't, rather than lurching from one improvement strategy to another.

The $92 million falls into two major categories, Gates officials said: The larger, longer grants are for districts that plan to look at several different indicators for high school and college success, while the smaller grants are for a shorter period of time and are meant for those networks to try out one indicator and determine whether a "continuous improvement" approach fits for them.

Evaluating the Effects of Gates' New Strategy

A less prescriptive approach may please some of Gates' longstanding critics, but it also raises new questions about how the foundation will communicate the results of the complex initiative—and, indeed, the more basic conundrum of what success will look like.

For one thing, the foundation will have to measure the grants' impact across a variety of contexts. Queried about how they'd do that, Hughes said that the foundation is still formulating its research approach. 

"We don't have details for you, but we remain deeply committed to a third party evaluation of all our work and transparency about the results of those evaluations so we can enable the field to understand what we do well and what we don't do well," he said. 

It's a challenge is underscored by the fact that the very concept of networked improvement is understudied. A Gates-commissioned review of the research on the topic from Columbia University's Center for Public Research and Leadership noted that there are more studies on the norms and conditions needed to support healthy networks than on how they affect K-12 outcomes; most of the 34 studies were case studies or qualitative, rather than quasi-experimental designs that sought to answer cause-and-effect questions.

Many of the 19 grantees have been recipients of Gates' largesse in the past, although the Gates Foundation noted that the field of applicants was winnowed down in part through a double-blind review process. And all but two of the grants went to a nonprofit intermediary rather than directly to a district or regional service center; Hughes said the foundation plans to make more grants directly to districts.

Below are brief descriptions of the 19 winners; all the grants are targeted to help black, Latino, and low-income students.

The Gates Foundation also supports Education Week's coverage of continuous improvements, but the newspaper retains sole editorial control.

  • Achieve Atlanta will work with the Atlanta school district to create tools to support students' selecting and enrolling in colleges and universities that are a good "fit" for them: $532,000, two years.
  • The Baltimore City school district will support a network of literacy coaches in 12-15 middle schools to accelerate reading: $11.2 million, four years. 
  • The Bank Street College of Education will work with the Yonkers, N.Y., district to increase the number of black, Latino, and low-income students who complete 8th grade math: $700,000, 16 months.
  • California Education Partners, a nonprofit, will create improvement networks among California's small and mid-sized districts and to launch a network of up to 50 secondary schools to improve outcomes for underserved students: $12 million, 61 months.
  • The Center for Leadership and Educational Equity, in Providence, R.I., will serve as a hub for 10 high school networks to increase the number of black, Latino, and low-income students who complete a 9th grade college-prep math course: $560,000, 20 months.
  • City Year will convene leadership teams from 10 middle schools to enable students to complete 8th grade and be on track for high school graduation: $520,000, 18 months.
  • The Community Foundation of Texas will lead a network to support 10 schools in north Texas to improve the math proficiency of 8th graders: $503,000, 15 months.
  • The Community Center for Education Results in Washington state will to create a meaningful, high-quality plan for college and careers for high schoolers in South Seattle and South King County: $515,000, two years.
  • The CORE Districts, a network of urban California districts that formed in 2010, will focus on improving 9th grade on-track-to-graduation rates: $16 million, 61 months.
  • The High Tech High Graduate School of Education will partner with up to 30 schools to increase the number of students who apply, enroll, and go on to a four-year college: $10.3 million, five years.
  • The Institute for Learning will support 12 secondary schools to increase proficiency in English/language arts and increase the number of students on track by the end of 9th grade for high school graduation: $7.4 million, five years.
  • KIPP, a national network of public charter schools, will focus on refining college counselors' role to to keep high-achieving students from enrolling in less-rigorous colleges, a phenomenon known as "undermatching:" $499,000, 23 months.
  • The Network for College Success will support 15-20 Chicago high schools to increase the number of students who are on track to high school graduation, including by holding a 3.0 GPA by the end of 9th grade: $11.7 million, five years.
  • New Visions for Public Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit, will work with a network of 67 high schools to incrase the number of students who graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college: $13.9 million, five years.
  • The Northwest Regional Education Service District in Oregon will support 32 high schools to focus on "deeper learning" and culturally sustaining pedagogy to increase the number of students on track to graduate by the end of 9th grade: $586,000, two years.
  • Partners in School Innovation will help a network of 10 schools in Philadelphia to help middle school students below grade level in math catch up to higher-performing peers: $499,000, 15 months
  • Seeding Success, in Memphis, Tenn., will help Shelby County Schools begin tracking 8th and 9th grade on-track outcomes: $560,000, two years.
  • The Southern Regional Education Board will launch a network of 10 secondary schools in Birmingham, Ala., to increase the proficiency rates of students on 8th grade math and 9th grade Algebra 1: $3.3 million, three years.
  • Teach Plus, a nonprofit supporting teachers' voice in policymaking, will help a network of Chicago and Los Angeles middle schools increase proficiency in their 8th grade math classes: $619,000, 23 months.

Photo: Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda Gates, in a February, 2018 photo.—Ted S. Warren/AP-File

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