Andrea Gabor wrote an opinion piece for Bloomberg where she highlighted the Gates Foundation’s change in their K-12 education funding strategy.
Now, the foundation seems to be stepping back from sweeping national initiatives in its bid to remake education. In the coming years, its K-12 philanthropy will concentrate on supporting what it calls “locally driven solutions” that originate among networks of 20 to 40 schools, according to Allan Golston, who leads the foundation’s U.S. operations, because they have “the power to improve outcomes for black, Latino, and low-income students and drive social and economic mobility.”
If Gates hews to its new plan, it will mark a significant change from the top-down approach that characterized not only the recent work of the foundation and the continuing focus of other education-minded philanthropies, but also government policy. Think of “No Child Left Behind,” the 2001 federal program dictating that all children achieve “grade level” by 2014; schools that failed to reach that mandate risked being closed, though, in practice, the U.S. education department granted states waivers from the most onerous requirements.
Or “Race to the Top,” the initiative of President Barack Obama’s administration that offered cash to states that adopted the common-core curriculum and tied teacher evaluations to standardized test scores.
The Gates Foundation’s pivot represents an acknowledgment that when it comes to education reform, local experiments “done with, not to schools,” as Golston puts it, appear to be more promising than grand initiatives.
This program is still a top-down initiative. Yes, the scope is smaller, but it still places the Gates Foundation in the driver’s seat. Instead of pushing top-down education initiatives nationwide, the Gates Foundation will now push top-down initiatives for networks of ten to twenty schools.
The focus is the creation of networks. The Gates Foundation defines Networks for School Improvement in the RFP glossary:
A Network for School Improvement (NSI) is defined as a group of secondary schools (grades 6-12) working both collectively and individually in partnership with a high-quality Intermediary to use a continuous improvement process to improve outcomes for Black, Latino, and low-income students. To support the acceleration of learning and improvement, NSIs set a network aim, tackle problems of practice that are common across the network schools and track their progress using indicators that are predictive of student learning, graduation, and postsecondary success.
led by an Intermediary skilled in: continuous improvement processes, data collection and data analysis from multiple sources, and developing school-level adult capacity to address the network problem and aim; and
facilitated by said Intermediary to drive school and network improvements, surface learning within and across schools, and uncover meaningful variance as schools work to reach a specific and measurable aim.
NSIs have the following characteristics:
Network is focused on addressing a problem of practice and reaching a measurable, time-bound aimthat is shared by all network schools. An NSI’s aim is related to improving one or more predictive outcomes or indicators for Black, Latino, and low-income students.
Network comprises an Intermediary and multiple school teams from one or more districts and/or Charter Management Organizations (CMO).
Network is structured to support school teams to reach their aim and build their capacity to use acontinuous improvement process.
School teams are guided by a working theory, informed by research and practice, of how to reach the aim (e.g. logic model, network theory of action, or driver diagram).
School teams engage in rapid inquiry cycles to develop, test, and refine interventions.
Network has the necessary data, research, measurement, and analytic skills to drive improvement, surface learning within and across sites, and uncover meaningful variance.
Network is organized to spread and accelerate learning and improvement.
An intermediary organization is defined as:
An Intermediary is defined as a central, coordinating entity that brings together multiple school leadership teams to tackle common problems and work toward common aims. Intermediaries serve several functions, including: (a) supporting individual school teams to use continuous improvement to improve student outcomes; (b) networking school teams with one another to innovate, improve, and build capacity; (c) sharing and codifying lessons learned within and across the network; and (d) bringing together key stakeholders who can support and accelerate a network’s success, including external experts. Intermediaries may be, but are not limited to: non-profit school improvement organizations; regional education service agencies; school districts; charter management organizations (CMOs); higher education institutions; or for-profit professional services firms.
To compete for this grant, schools are required to organize into a network under the control of an intermediary. This requirement is not local control. It focuses on networks of schools that are minority-majority schools which means that network may or may not include an entire school district which takes control away from the elected school board. According to their RFP’s FAQ, they don’t have expectations for the geography or proximity of schools in the network.
These schools can be located in different states. How again is that local control? How can a network situated not in the same city, geographical area, or even state come up with locally-driven solutions? They can’t.