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Gates Seeks to Fund Creation of Networks to Guide Secondary School Improvement

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By guest blogger Stephen Sawchuk

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is inviting groups to apply for grants to serve as hubs for testing ways to improve secondary schools—the next step in its K-12 philanthropic endeavors.

The main focus of the grants is to help networks of middle and high schools work together to improve outcomes that research indicates are predictors of high school graduation, college enrollment, or earning a labor credential, according to the request for proposals unveiled today. Its work will focus on improvements for black, Latino, and low-income students on specific outcomes.

For example, in 8th grade, a composite measure of being on track in middle school for high school success includes the percentage of students who: have a GPA of 2.5 or better; attendance of 96 percent or higher; no D's or F's in English/language arts or math; and have never been suspended. (The foundation lists different outcomes and indicators, of course, for high school graduation and college enrollment.)

There's no easy way to shorthand the idea of "networked improvement," which is at the core of this funding opportunity, but here's a basic explanation: Each network would test out different approaches to discover which ones seem the most promising. Then, they will adopt ones that seem to have the most impact. Naturally, doing this well depends on having a strong central organizer, which can provide technical assistance to each of the schools, and help the different sites share what they've learned with one another. And that's what this RFP is seeking: "intermediaries" to serve that centralized role. 

It's a little bit like what school turnaround group Success For All and the KIPP network of charter schools have done to improve over time. In fact, many point to the influence of Gates' new education chief, Robert Hughes, on this approach: He previously oversaw a similar research-and-improvement network of schools in New York City.

Gates officials said the RFP was shaped by nearly 300 comments from interested parties, including a good number the foundation hadn't had a relationship with in the past.

Eligible applicants are nonprofit school improvement organizations, regional educational service providers, school districts, colleges and universities, charter management organizations, and for-profit consultancies.     

The grant is part of Gates' $1.7 billion pledge in new grantmaking priorities announced last October, in what marked a significant shift away from its prior focus on improving teacher quality. Among other things, the mega-philanthropy will also invest in providing teachers with high-quality curriculum linked to state standards.

See also: With Latest Education Investments, Gates Pivots Again

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