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The Gates Foundation Writes: K-12 Education: An Opportunity Catalyst

Guest post by Irvin Scott.

In this fourth of five exchanges with the Gates Foundation, we take on some of the biggest questions of all: What is the purpose of a K-12 education? How do we think about college and career readiness? How do the Common Core Standards fit in? This post can also be viewed and commented on at the Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimist blog. My response will be posted tomorrow.

I can still see Tyrese* in my classroom, Room 202. I can see where he sat during my Composition class. He did not come every day, but when he came he was engaged. He seemed to enjoy the class, especially when we had discussions about "hot-topics." Overtime, I had learned that one way to get students excited about writing was to engage in discussions and debate about a topic before letting them loose to write. I later learned the term for that was "relevance." One day, as a part of one of those "hot topic" discussions, I asked my students, "Where do you see yourself five years from now?" We went around the class and I got the typical answers that often come from students when they are speaking to a teacher.

But then I came to Tyrese. His answer sent shivers down my spine. "I don't expect to be alive five years from now," Tyrese said.

He did not say much more during class, but in follow up conversations with me and with other counselors and administrators, he shared a snapshot of the life he was living. As time went on, Tyrese continued to be deeply engaged in composition class. He was a lively participant in discussions, and worked hard on his multiple drafts of writing. I continued to engage him, challenge him and continued to expect him to perform at the level of the rest of the students. I could see him connecting with the art of writing and I could see my teaching connecting with him. But, despite all of the support he received in school, his out of school issues were just too much; Tyrese never finished the school year. He was shot and killed in a "deal" gone bad.

Tracy was a part of my Advanced Placement Literature class as well as the chorus that I taught. She was rambunctious and somewhat of an "attention-getter" in class, but when she was focused and engaged; she was amazing. Her ability to analyze, critique and synthesize various forms of literature always impressed me. I remember talking with her mother about ways to keep her focused as well as ways to maximize her talent. But after moving on from my class I lost touch with Tracy until nearly 20 years later. She contacted me through Facebook to let me know who she was and what she was doing. She had moved to another state and landed a great job and much better life, and she wanted to thank me. She also wanted me to know that she was homeless for much of her high school experience. She shared with me the fact that she would often not know from night-to-night where she would sleep. For her, school had provided the stability, rigor, and oasis from the challenges that she was facing on a nightly basis. She even went as far as to say that when she saw me with my young family - during my choir engagements I would often bring my family along - it gave her something to aspire to. She told me that she scoured Facebook to let me know that. Needless to say, I was in tears after reading her Facebook post.

Like so many teachers who teach in tough communities, I was not oblivious to the challenges that were faced by my students. However, I was also convinced that despite these challenges Tyrese and Tracy could achieve at high levels, and while they were in my class I was going to do all that I could to ensure they did. In the case of Tyrese, I began to see firsthand what he was facing outside of the school. And I did what I could to make sure that he was connected to the appropriate social services to address his challenges. I never once wavered in my belief that Tyrese could write and engage with the best of my students. It was the same with Tracy. I had no idea what she faced on a nightly basis. She later told me she had become prolific at concealing her reality. But the fact remained, I expected her to achieve at the level at which I knew she was capable. Over time, she showed flashes of brilliance giving us both confidence.

My transition from schools to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was so comfortable because I joined a community of educators - both on staff and with our partners. These are educators who have worked in the toughest schools and remain committed to the same thing I am: making sure that teachers are provided the tools to inspire every ounce of potential from Tyrese, Tracy and students like them across the country.

This entry in the dialogue between staff members at the Gates Foundation and Anthony Cody attempts to answer the broad, critical question: What is the purpose of K-12 education? Our answer at the Foundation is: we believe all children can learn and be set up for successful careers regardless of their circumstances. Schools are a critical piece of that puzzle and we are working hard to understand how we help reach that goal.

The foundation has decided to focus its attention on helping teachers to be as effective as they can. Teaching well - in any context - is a complex craft. And those who are committed to doing it well should not be left alone to find their way. This is particularly important for teachers who teach in low-income communities of color. Providing teachers with the systems, supports, and materials to be effective instructors for their students every day is vitally important. It's a central commitment of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. While teachers can't change their student's circumstances, they can be essential catalysts in helping kids break out of the cycle of poverty they find themselves in.

That was the experience of my colleague Ky Vu. As a former high school algebra and calculus teacher teaching predominantly low-income students in the Outer Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, Ky saw first-hand how difficult it is to overcome the challenges of poverty in education. But, he also saw the critical role teachers were playing helping students overcome some of those challenges. That experience informed his commitment to not let poverty deter him from the mission to deliver high quality instruction in every classroom to every one of our students. That is the perspective Ky brings to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Research definitively shows that effective teaching is by far the most important school-based factor in student performance. The power of consistent access to effective teaching can be transformational for students, especially low-income students and students of color, and equally devastating is how detrimental ineffective instruction year after year can be on preparing students for the career challenges that can help them escape a cycle of poverty. Yet schools have lacked the information necessary to effectively differentiate teacher performance. While that is starting to change, most teacher evaluations systems do not accurately reflect what takes place in the classroom. Most teachers are graded on a pass/fail system with the vast majority given a pass and little else: no feedback, no support, no detailed plan for improvement.

Devising a system that provides meaningful feedback will allow school systems to better provide the supports that teachers want in order to improve. This is not about devising a system that scapegoats teachers to prove a point -- quite the opposite -- it is about helping school systems change the way they operate so that teachers feel valued and supported in their goal to be as effective as possible in helping students reach their highest potential. That is at the heart of my work at the foundation.

A great example is the initiative the foundation supports in Hillsborough County Public Schools, the 8th largest district in the country serving over 192,000 students in the Tampa metropolitan area. In close collaboration with the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, the district has implemented a new evaluation system in which teachers are observed and provided feedback by their principal, a peer observer, and oftentimes an assistant principal. These observations happen multiple times during the year in order for teachers to learn, adjust and grow. Through meaningful feedback and coaching, the district has seen an increase in retention rates of new teachers from 72 percent in 2010 to 86 percent in 2011 to over 94 percent in 2012. In addition, because the district now has better data on the instructional strengths and weaknesses of their teachers, they are better positioned to provide the targeted supports that teachers need.

Hillsborough is demonstrating that reform efforts to improve student achievement can also support teachers in their career aspirations. Teachers want continuous learning and improvement opportunities for their students and of themselves and they want to be held accountable for raising achievement for all students if provided with adequate supports. No one wants to elevate the teaching profession in service of students more than teachers themselves. As a former teacher, that is what I am seeking to do.

Of course, in the end it's not just about the teachers, but about preparing our students for college and life. Our belief that the purpose of K-12 education to help students graduate ready to take the next step that will help prepare them for a career is also because we believe it will offer them an array of options and opportunities to significantly improve their options in the long-term.

My colleague Amy Hodges, who was a math teacher and a principal in a high poverty area of Pennsylvania saw the impact of that philosophy with Angela who came to her in the 9th grade and, in Amy's words, was a handful. She had spent all her middle school years in an alternative program because she had problems with discipline and didn't do well in school. When she came to Amy's school, there was no alternative option like she was used to, so instead she was put in a small learning community that was more designed for support and transition for 9th graders who had struggled in 8th grade.

Angela spent a great deal of time in Amy's office, who, at the time was an Assistant Principal and with teachers after school dealing with her behavior issues and learning challenges. Though, as all teachers and educators know, situations like this get very difficult, Amy and her colleagues never gave up on Angela and even through several suspensions and other problems, she made it through 9th grade. In the course of the year Amy learned that Angela was much smarter than she was given credit for, but she had so many problems in middle school because of her devastating reality outside of school: her father was out of the picture, her mother got sent to prison and she had to find someone to live with so she moved in with an Aunt.

Angela stayed at Amy's school through her junior year where she continued to be successful, though all of the behavior issues never went away. She really got engaged in her studies, when I was talking to Amy about it before writing this post, she particularly recalled how excited Angela was when she passed Algebra II.

Her senior year her Aunt moved away and Angela ended up leaving Amy's school, but kept committed to her education. She graduated the following year from a school in Harrisburg. She ended up living in a homeless shelter but kept on going to school because she knew it was the key to her having a life different from what she saw in her family.

The evidence is increasingly clear that Angela was right. She is much more likely to have a better life than her family because she was prepared for the next step of her education. There is strong link between postsecondary educational attainment and the prospect of secure employment, as demonstrated both in the number of jobs requiring a college education and the wage premium for workers who have one during the recent tough economic times. A new report by the Lumina Foundation and Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce provides evidence on both fronts:

Job Creation for College Graduates

  • Almost half of the jobs lost in the recession that began in December, 2007 have been recovered and virtually all of those jobs required some form of postsecondary education.
  • In 2012, seven percent of recent college graduates with a bachelor's degree or better are still unemployed and another 14 percent are underemployed in jobs beneath their skill levels. By comparison, the unemployment rate for new high school graduates is 24 percent and 42 percent of those individuals are underemployed.
  • While recent college graduates have struggled more than usual to find jobs that match their training, even at the height of the recession with unemployment reaching 10 percent, the economy added 200,000 jobs for workers with a bachelor's degree. Since the recovery began, it's created 2 million more.
  • Ninety percent of jobs for associate's degree holders lost during the recent recession have been recovered since 2010. In contrast, workers with a high school education or less lost more than 5.6 million jobs during the recession--and have continued to lose jobs during the slow recovery.
Wage Premium for College Graduates
  • The wage premium for bachelor's degrees or better relative to high school degrees skyrocketed from 44 percent in 1981 to a 100 percent in 2005.
  • Earnings of college graduates with bachelor's degrees declined slightly in the recession, but held up during the recovery. On average, these college graduates still earn nearly twice as much as high school graduates.
  • Even during the recent recession, the wage premium for workers with an Associate's degree or some college relative to wages of those with only a high school diploma remained at around 20 percent above the wages of those with only a high school diploma between 1970 and 2010.
educationpays.jpg

Today's graduates - from any postsecondary program - need not only be "job ready" but more importantly "career ready" in a way that not only betters their likelihood of finding a job today but also improves their long-term success in the labor market as it changes and grows. Some projections of our nation's future education needs underestimate the demand for college graduates because they assign occupations a dichotomous and static designation of "college" or "non-college" occupations. But in today's global economy, such a simplistic view of our nation's labor markets needs puts our nation at risk of falling behind others. Projections of our nation's future educational needs that assume a minimum educational requirement for an entire occupation - within which there is typically great diversity in needed requirements - do not consider the more complex set of knowledge, technical skills, and transferrable competencies (such as critical thinking, analytic, communication, and other so-called "soft skills") that will be needed for individuals to not only secure a job today but to thrive across their careers in the long-term.

Education has often been called the "great equalizer" and the evidence about the returns of a college education reinforce that it can be. Research has indicated that a college education is most beneficial to those students who are least likely to get one, according to Jennie Brand and Yu Xie's research findings published (PDF) in the American Sociological Review. While other are focusing on some of the root causes of poverty, and we celebrate that commitment, we are addressing a component of poverty in a targeted way in line with our role as a foundation as well as our mission by investing in educational improvements at the elementary and secondary levels.

But we need all hands on deck when it comes to addressing poverty: we need there to be efforts laser focused on fixing the root causes of inequality that happen outside of school and we need efforts to focus on creating opportunity for all students in the classroom. By focusing on graduating college-ready students, we are empowering kids to have choices and opportunities that they otherwise would not have. At the end of the day, we won't be able to reach every kid - for every Angela and Tracy, there is the tragedy of Tyrese - but every student deserves our best try.

To be clear, it is one thing for principals, district officials, community-leaders, policy makers and yes - foundations - to ask teachers to connect with students and teach them in a way that leads to gains in students' academic knowledge, skills, and habits of mind. But unless we provide teachers with the tools, materials and supports which increase the likelihood of them making a positive impact in the lives of their students, these changes won't matter. Furthermore, it is just as important to ensure that teachers are leaders in these efforts to support them.

This is one reason I am excited about working here at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Not only are we focused on aligning academic standards, improving resources for teachers so they can succeed, and ensuring that students who have the will to earn a college degree or credential have a way to do so, but we are working with teachers every step of the way. We also seek teacher opinions through research, including a partnership with Scholastic that produces valuable insights through the report Primary Sources. And in so many ways they are telling us that they believe in the potential of students, but those beliefs must be coupled with supports:


  • Teachers don't mind being held accountable and want more frequent evaluation - While 81 percent of teachers believe that peer observation and review should happen at least annually, only 36 percent report that it actually does happen.

  • Teachers prefer multiple measures over single measures - 79 percent of teachers believe that evaluation based on multiple measures is very important or absolutely essential to retaining good teachers.

  • Teachers are excited about common standards - 64 percent of teachers believe that common standards would make a significant impact on improving student achievement.

  • Teachers need support in teaching the Common Core Standards - While 73 percent of teachers feel very or somewhat prepared for the Common Core, teachers still feel they need tools and supports to effectively implement the standards. Examples of supports they need most include student-centered technology and resources (64 percent), professional development focused on the requirements of the standards (63 percent), formative assessments that measure how well student are learning the standards (61 percent), and new curricula and tools aligned to the standards (59 percent).

  • Providing these teachers with what they need to be successful will require a collaborative effort. We recently brought together a group of nearly 50 teachers who will act as our Teacher Advisory Council, advising us on issues across our education work. Already, we have received input from thousands of teachers across the country representing different schools in vastly different communities. As it has in the past, that collaboration with teachers will guide our work. The fact that so many of us here at the foundation have shared those experiences makes us even more effective in identifying the right partners who can have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable students.

The bottom line is this: we envision a day where teachers, like other elevated professions, are the caretakers of the profession. This would include being the standard-bearers for entry into the profession, developing, and advancement within the profession, as well as ensuring strict levels of accountability and effectiveness. And while this elevated profession may exist in pockets across America, the goal is for it to be in place nationwide, for every teacher and student.

We believe that despite a child's circumstances, she should be given every opportunity to succeed and lead a life better than the one she was given. That is in direct contrast to the belief that because of a child's circumstances she is destined to live a life of obstacles regardless of the opportunities she's given. In our opinion, the purpose of K-12 education is to help provide and shape those opportunities.

Teachers are not the silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. But they can be a critical ingredient to overcoming a tragic reinforcing pattern of poverty. That's what we're working on at the Gates Foundation.

*All student names have been changed to protect their anonymity.

Readers, what do you think of what Mr. Scott has shared here?

Irvin Scott, Deputy Director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's US Programs Education initiative, leads grant making for Empowering Effective Teachers as well as Teacher Voice / Professionalism. Irvin focuses on the foundation's work in Intensive Partnership Sites and Accelerated Partnership Sites, a cluster of communities with significant investments focused on transforming how teachers are recruited, developed, retained and rewarded.

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