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Gates Foundation playing pivotal role in changes for education system

The high unemployment rate has provided an unexpected boon for the nation's public schools: legions of career-switchers eager to become teachers.

The Gates Foundation is perhaps best known for its work overseas fighting malaria and HIV/AIDS. Domestically, foundation officials depict the charity as one player among many in a broad coalition to improve teaching and prepare more students for college.

"There's definitely a convergence of ideas," said Vicki L. Phillips, who oversees the foundation's elementary and secondary education grants, "not just between us and the administration but between us and many other reform-minded people who have been working on these issues for a long time."

(Melinda Gates, wife of the Microsoft chairman, and investor Warren E. Buffett, a major donor to the foundation, are both on The Washington Post Co. board of directors.)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has recruited some key aides from the charity, described the foundation as "one of many stakeholders really interested in seeing things get better. I appreciate their commitment and stick-to-itiveness. They're in this for the long haul."

The foundation is a go-to funder for education groups inside the Capital Beltway and beyond. Its projects align so closely with President Obama's agenda that critics say it resembles an arm of the government, which Gates and Duncan strongly dispute.

The foundation gave 25 states and the District about $6 million to help them apply for Obama's Race to the Top school reform grants. It also has awarded more than $35 million since January 2008 to the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and other organizations that are developing and promoting common standards.

Obama praises the state-led standards movement but cannot fund it directly without risking a backlash against federal involvement in local schooling. The foundation has stepped into the void, becoming the movement's top funder. As a result, students in the District, Maryland and many other states -- Virginia is an exception -- will soon share for the first time common expectations for what they should learn from grade to grade. The initiative has put voluntary national standards, long considered a political impossibility, on the verge of becoming a reality.

Skeptics say the Microsoft founder is foisting a business-driven agenda on schools without understanding the challenges of public education. "I suspect that eight years from now, the Gates Foundation will say, 'Whoops, we made another big boo-boo. What should we do now?' " education historian Diane Ravitch said.

Gates acknowledged he is no expert. But he said: "I'm a very good student. I'm learning a lot." He said he is intrigued by the intricacies of education budgets and why mayors control some school systems but not others. Education professionals lead the foundation's efforts. Phillips, in her post since 2007, was previously Pennsylvania's education secretary and school superintendent in Portland, Ore. John E. Deasy, who resigned as Prince George's superintendent in late 2008 to become a Phillips deputy, was recently named deputy chief of Los Angeles schools.

The foundation also is wooing teachers unions as never before. It awarded $1.6 million to charitable arms of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers and has sought in the past year to invest in school systems with good labor relations. It commissioned one of the broadest surveys ever of teachers to get their views on reform, and it is gathering footage from classrooms across the country to study what makes effective teaching. On Saturday, Gates addressed an AFT convention in Seattle. Such overtures have surprised labor leaders who had not regarded Gates as an ally. But the rationale was obvious: To make changes at the heart of public schools, foundation officials wanted teacher buy-in. That quest eventually led them to Florida.

The Hillsborough system, with 193,000 students, emerged last year as the foundation sifted thousands of candidates for a project nicknamed the "deep dive." Crucially, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association had already accepted the idea of bonuses linked to test scores and other metrics.

Over seven years, the $100 million grant will fund staff development, testing, salary and other start-up costs for a career path that aims to elevate teachers who excel and encourage those who flounder to get help.

Every year, teachers here will be evaluated on a formula based on student achievement gains (40 percent), principal observation (30 percent) and peer observation (30 percent). By 2013, a four-tier pay scale will take effect that will reward high performers regardless of their academic degrees or years of experience -- a major break from precedent. Veteran teachers will be allowed to remain in the seniority-based pay scale or opt into the new one. New teachers will not have a choice and will be subject to more rigorous scrutiny before gaining tenure.

Many teachers remain wary of linking test scores to paychecks. But Gates and the school district have won converts. Miriam Everett, a veteran math-science teacher at Kimbell Elementary School in Tampa, was delighted last spring when Florida's governor vetoed a bill to weaken tenure protections and expand merit pay.

Yet Everett enlisted in the Hillsborough project to help evaluate other teachers. What made her amenable to performance pay this time? "They really are working with teachers," Everett said, "making sure we're comfortable with it and we have our say."

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