CHICAGO — Melinda Gates said she and her husband, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, learned an important lesson from the fierce pushback against the Common Core State Standards in recent years. Not that they made the wrong bet when they poured hundreds of millions of dollars into supporting the education standards, but that such a massive initiative will not be successful unless teachers and parents believe in it.
“Community buy-in is huge,” Melinda Gates said in an interview here on Wednesday, adding that cultivating such support for big cultural shifts in education takes time. “It means that in some ways, you have to go more slowly.”
That does not mean the foundation has any plans to back off the Common Core or its other priorities, including its long-held belief that improving teacher quality is the key to transforming public education. “I would say stay the course. We’re not even close to finished,” Gates said.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has helped shape the nation’s education policies during the past decade with philanthropic donations that have supported digital learning and charter schools and helped accelerate shifts not only to the new, common academic standards, but to new teacher evaluations that incorporate student test scores.
The Obama administration shared and promoted many of the foundation’s priorities, arguing that they were necessary to push the nation’s schools forward and close yawning achievement gaps. Now that a new federal education law has returned authority over public education to the states, the foundation is following suit, seeking to become involved in the debates about the direction of public schools that are heating up in state capitals across the country.
Speaking here at a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Melinda Gates told lawmakers on Wednesday that the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, gives them a chance to grapple with whether “we are doing everything in our power to ensure that students are truly graduating ready to go on to meaningful work or to college.”
“I want the foundation to be the neutral broker that’s able to bring up the real data of what is working and what’s not working,” Gates said in an interview afterward.
She went on to say that the foundation would continue to pursue its priorities.
“I think we know what the big elements are in education reform. It’s how do you support the things that you know work and how do you get the whole system aligned behind it,” Gates said. “I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy. There are now 50 states that have to do it, and there isn’t this federal carrot or the stick, the push or pull, to help them along.”
The agenda she described is not one that everyone considers neutral. It includes supporting the Common Core standards and developing lesson-planning materials to help teachers teach to those standards; promoting personalized learning, or digital programs meant to target students’ individual needs; and, above all, improving the quality of teachers in the nation’s classrooms, from boosting teacher preparation to rethinking on-the-job professional development.
Gates was an early and important supporter of the notion that teachers should be judged in part according to student test scores, an idea that many states enshrined in policy to win No Child Left Behind waivers from the Obama administration or to compete for federal Race to the Top grants. It is an approach that has been met with much resistance and criticism from teachers. The foundation has since publicly acknowledged pitfalls in overemphasizing test scores and argues that while test scores should play a role in teacher evaluations, those evaluations must also give teachers the feedback they need to improve through classroom observations, student surveys or other subjective methods.
Gates said the foundation’s main message on teacher evaluation is that state lawmakers must include teachers as they create or refine evaluation systems.
“That’s the biggest lesson learned in this,” she said. “States need to listen to their teachers when they’re designing a teacher evaluation system, and they don’t all have to look alike.”
Gates said the foundation also will work to persuade states to invest in databases that gather information about students, tracking their backgrounds, experiences and performance from preschool to college and career. Such longitudinal databases have fierce advocates — who say they can provide a powerful source of information about what works in education and what does not — and fierce critics, many of whom are parents who say that the compilation of so much information about children represents an unacceptable risk to privacy.
Two years ago, parental privacy concerns helped torpedo an ambitious Gates-funded student-data collection project called inBloom. But Gates does not seem fazed by the strong reactions that her foundation’s work can provoke.
Last week, the Movement for Black Lives — a coalition of dozens of black-led organizations, including the Black Lives Matter Network — released a policy platform that decried the Gates Foundation as part of a “systematic attack” on public schools that “strips Black people of the right to self-determine the kind of education their children receive.” It called for an effort to invest in, not close, struggling schools serving black children, and it accused education policymakers of listening to unelected philanthropists instead of students, teachers and parents.
Gates said the platform “is pointing out something really important. The system isn’t working for kids of color.” Just 12 percent of black high school graduates are really ready for college-level work, compared with 40 percent of all students, she said, citing data from ACT.
“I’d be mad if I were them. I’d totally be mad,” she said. “They’re making a very valid point.”
She acknowledged that the nation’s academic progress as measured by national standardized tests has been slow, but she said she sees “points of light” in the relatively rapid progress of Tennessee, Kentucky and D.C. — places that have adopted reforms the foundation favors.
She also pointed to Summit Public Schools and KIPP, both charter school networks, as places where disadvantaged children are excelling. To those who question the foundation’s approach, Gates said, “If you’re willing to try some of these things, let’s stick to it and see if we can get them to work in your community.”