Melinda and Bill Gates (Pearl Gabel/Reuters)

You can say this about Bill and Melinda Gates: They are persistent. They poured a few billion dollars into various school reform efforts in the past 15 years — but when things didn’t go quite as planned, they didn’t give up. They always came up with something else to try. That’s just what the are doing now (again).

In the early 2000s, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put hundreds of millions of dollars into the creation of small schools on the theory that breaking up large high schools with high dropout rates would help increase the graduation rate. When things didn’t go as well as they wanted, they switched their education philanthropy focus to teacher quality by spending hundreds of millions of dollars to help some school districts develop teacher assessment systems that, among other things, incorporated the controversial method of using student standardized tests as one of the measures. That effort did not produce the hoped-for results. Hundreds of millions of more Gates dollars went into the creation, implementation and marketing of the Common Core State Standards. Now, the foundation has found a new focus in regard to teacher quality: how to train teachers.

[That surprising thing Bill Gates said]

Toward that effort, the foundation just announced that it is awarding nearly $35 million over three years to five new centers — called Teacher Preparation Transformation Centers — that it says “will bring together higher education institutions, teacher-preparation providers and K-12 school systems to share data, knowledge and best practices” and “develop, pilot and scale effective teacher-preparation practices to help ensure that more teacher-candidates graduate ready to improve student outcomes in K-12 public schools.” It is also spending tens of millions more on related efforts.

The five Teacher Preparation Transformation Centers are:

  • Elevate Preparation, Impact Children (EPIC), led by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education;
  • National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR);
  • Teacher2, led by the Relay Graduate School of Education;
  • TeachingWorks at the University of Michigan; and
  • University-School Partnerships for the Renewal of Educator Preparation (U.S.PREP) National Center, based at Texas Tech University.

Each center will “test different approaches in unique contexts to better understand which practices are most effective,” the foundation says, with EPIC perhaps being the most extensive, given that it will involve all 71 “initial teacher preparation provides” in Massachusetts “to deepen quality of field-based experiences, support data-driven analysis, and integrate the efforts of providers and partners to meet the increasing demands for teacher talent in the pre-K-12 sector.”

Tens of millions were also just awarded to alternative teacher prep programs, including  $12 million for general operating support for the New Teacher Project (which is known as TNTP), and $261,500 to Teach for America. Here are the grants:

The New Teacher Project, Inc.

Date: October 2015
Purpose: to provide general operating support
Amount: $12,000,000
Term: 35
Topic: College-Ready
Regions Served: GLOBAL|NORTH AMERICA
Program: United States
Grantee Location: Brooklyn, New York
Grantee Web site: http://www.tntp.org

 

 

Teach for America Inc.

Date: October 2015
Purpose: to support the Teacher Leadership professional development track at TFA’s 25th Anniversary Summit, providing participants the opportunity to dive deep into content and exchange ideas with peers and experts in the field in order to advance their knowledge and instructional practice
Amount: $261,500
Term: 13
Topic: College-Ready
Regions Served: GLOBAL|NORTH AMERICA
Program: United States
Grantee Location: New York, New York
Grantee Web site: http://www.teachforamerica.org

And that’s not all: The foundation also gave $850,000 this past June in a 12-month grant to the nonprofit Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., to do the following: “To increase education and awareness of practices and systems most likely to improve the quality of teaching and elevate the profession overall.” From the foundation Web site:

Center for American Progress

Date: June 2015
Purpose: to increase education and awareness of practices and systems most likely to improve the quality of teaching and elevate the profession overall
Amount: $850,000
Term: 12
Topic: College-Ready
Regions Served: GLOBAL|NORTH AMERICA
Program: United States
Grantee Location: Washington, District of Columbia
Grantee Web site: http://www.americanprogress.org

Just this month, the Center for American Progress, known as CAP, started a new national campaign called TeachStrong,  which brings together some 40 education groups in one coalition aimed at “modernizing and elevating” the teaching profession and pushing the issue of teacher quality onto the 2016 presidential race stage as well as in policy discussion in state and local governments.  I asked CAP if the money for TeachStrong came from the Gates grant and a spokeswoman said that support for TeachStrong comes from a number of sources, including the Gates Foundation.

The announcement of Teach Strong raised some eyebrows, given that some of the members are opposed to their approach on teacher preparation. For example, Teach for America, which eschews traditional teacher prep for a short summer training session for its recruits, told my colleague Lyndsey Layton in a story about TeachStrong that it would not change the way it prepare its teachers.

The new funding and the foundation’s focus on teacher prep raises — yet again — questions about just how powerful private philanthropists should be in the K-12 public education space.  Bill and Melinda Gates have spent a fortune on school reform efforts they thought sounded promising — despite a lack of evidence that they would actually work, and critics complained loudly that the money would have better spent on practices with a deep research base.

There are already excellent working models for just about everything that Gates has funded in public education in the last 15 years — how to design and operate small schools, quality standards, fair and reliable teacher evaluation, and now, teacher prep.  How many times do educators need to attempt to reinvent the wheel just because someone with deep pockets wants to try when the money could almost certainly be more usefully spent somewhere else?