Gates Foundation gives $335 million for teacher effectiveness

By Nick Anderson
Friday, November 20, 2009

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Thursday a $335 million investment in teacher effectiveness, funding experiments in tenure, evaluation, compensation, training and mentoring in three large school systems and a cluster of charter schools.

The grants amount to one of the largest privately sponsored school improvement initiatives in recent years. Through them, the foundation aims to push policymakers to put more weight on teacher performance than qualifications.

Hillsborough County schools, in the Tampa area, will receive $100 million; Memphis schools, $90 million; Pittsburgh schools, $40 million; and five charter networks in Los Angeles (Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, Aspire Public Schools, Green Dot Public Schools, Inner City Education Foundation and Partnerships to Uplift Communities Schools), $60 million.

The initiative, including $45 million to study how to measure teacher effectiveness, is of the same magnitude as Obama administration reform efforts.

For the foundation, a central player in school reform, the initiative reflects an evolution in strategy. Several years ago, it concentrated on breaking large high schools into smaller, more personal academic communities. That effort had mixed results.

In a conference call, Melinda Gates, co-chair of the foundation, said she and Microsoft founder Bill Gates had discovered that innovation takes long-term commitment because school systems are often "entrenched" in their ways and teachers "siloed in their classrooms."

"We have been in this work for almost a decade" she said. "We've learned a lot about what works. . . . Let's focus on the thing that actually matters the most, which is the teacher." (Gates serves on the board of the Washington Post Co.)

Prince George's County schools competed for the grants but were not chosen, even though former Prince George's superintendent John E. Deasy is working on the initiative for the foundation.

Federal officials are pushing in much the same direction with a $4.35 billion school-reform grant competition that stresses teacher effectiveness, tied to student achievement. The foundation also is helping states prepare applications for that contest.

The Gates grants are a reform jackpot for the winners. Public school budgets have been stretched thin in the economic downturn. Teacher salaries and core operations soak up most funding, leaving administrators little money for innovation.

MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of the 191,000-student Hillsborough system, said the award will help redesign evaluations so that student performance accounts for 40 percent of annual reviews, up from 7 percent.

"It isn't just single tests," she said, "but multiple ways to look at the performance of students, and also multiple ways to look at performance of teachers."

Kriner Cash, superintendent of the 108,000-student Memphis system, said he wants to promote effective teachers, help those who struggle and weed out those who can't improve. "Urban, rural, public, private -- all schools can benefit from what we're going to be learning," Cash said.

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