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A NEW WAY FORWARD FOR THE GATES FOUNDATION: Bill Gates Expresses Support for National Standards, Performance Pay for Teachers

“We wanted to reach all schools indirectly, by showing clear gains and inspiring other schools and districts to replicate those models. Largely, this has not happened.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested nearly $4 billion since 2000 to help students, especially low-income and minority youth, “graduate from high school ready to succeed in college, career, and life.” During those eight years, the foundation experienced success in improving student achievement among individual schools and in pockets of the country, but struggled to replicate successful models nationally. That was the message that Bill Gates, cochair and trustee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, delivered to a meeting of educational leaders in Seattle on November 11. To better help students graduate from high school ready for college, Gates endorsed national standards, performance pay for teachers, and outlined a new way forward for the Gates Foundation that will focus on identifying effective teaching and fostering innovations to aid struggling students.

In his speech, Gates explained that the foundation’s initial strategy for graduating more students was focused on about 8 percent of schools in America, in the hope that they could build a model of a high-achieving school that would be adopted by the other 92 percent. “We did not get the results we were seeking in scaling,” he said. “We wanted to reach all schools indirectly, by showing clear gains and inspiring other schools and districts to replicate those models. Largely, this has not happened.”

Instead, the foundation did find success in some of the new, small schools that it supported, such as those in New York City, where small schools’ graduation rates exceeded comparable schools in the district by 18 percentage points. It was also able to identify some small school models such as KIPP, High Tech High, and YES College Preparatory Schools. Gates highlighted YES, which is located in Houston and has seen 100 percent of its graduates accepted into four-year colleges, including some of the top universities in the country, for the eighth year in a row.

It was the work in these schools, Gates said, that proved that all kids can succeed. But today, far too many students are still struggling. “At our foundation, we believe that success ultimately means that at least 80 percent of low-income and minority students graduate from high school college ready,” he said. “According to our data, the number of low-income and minority students graduating college ready today is 22 percent, and that figure is increasing far too slowly. It’s unacceptable. We need to do better.”

According to Gates, the way to do better is to use the lessons learned from the foundation’s first eight years. For example, he said that simply transforming a large, low-performing high school into smaller, more autonomous schools was insufficient to improve student achievement; changes in the classroom must also be made. He noted that schools with the strongest results tended to implement many proven reforms well, and all at once. “They would create smaller schools, a longer day, better relationships—but they would also establish college-ready standards aligned with a rigorous curriculum, with the instructional tools to support it, effective teachers to teach it, and data systems to track the progress,” he said.

Unfortunately, the factors—such as a rigorous curriculum and effective teachers—that were most responsible for the gains in student achievement were also the limiting factors in taking these gains to scale. “A model that depends on great teaching can’t be replicated by schools that can’t attract and develop great teachers,” Gates said. “A school that has great instructional tools cannot share them with schools that don’t use the rigorous curriculum those tools are based on.”

Gates said that the foundation will continue its work on improving school structure, but announced that it will also focus on effective teaching. The challenge, he said, is that there isn’t a “clear view on the characteristics of great teaching.” But the first step to help develop that view, Gates said, is setting common standards that are aligned with the goal of graduating students ready for college. “You can’t compare teachers if they’re not pursuing a common standard,” he said. “I believe strongly in national standards. Countries that excel in math, for example, have a far more focused, common curriculum than the United States does.”

Gates said that the foundation would continue to work with states and districts to develop a common set of standards that students need to succeed in higher education. And as more states begin to use the same standards, technology, such as lectures online or on DVDs, will allow for next-generation models of teaching and learning. He also wants to invest in data systems that provide teachers with data on how well their students are learning while also helping schools and districts to identify the most effective teachers and reward them for their performance.

Acknowledging the pitfalls associated with performance pay for teachers, Gates insisted that such systems need to be transparent, incentivize the right things, and allow teachers to see and embrace the benefits of the system. Toward that end, the foundation will set up partnerships in three to five locations to design a system that offers training and tools to help every teacher improve; recruits, rewards, and retains effective teachers; and gives good teachers incentives to work in the schools where they’re most needed. Districts with strong leadership, a base level of data systems already in place, and support from teachers and their union will be targeted. “Then we will measure whether it leads to significant improvements in student achievement.”

Teachers who fail to improve student achievement with these supports in place will likely find themselves out of a job. “But if their students still keep falling behind, they’re in the wrong line of work, and they need to find another job,” Gates said.

Read Bill Gates’s entire speech at

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.