In K-12 education circles, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has perhaps been most synonymous over the past decade with the Common Core State Standards and efforts to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores. But the past two years have seen it pivot toward a new effort: Building networks between schools to develop best practices and solve common problems.
Allan Golston, president of the foundation's United States Program since 2006, brought a collection of experiences in the private sector, ranging from public accounting and software development to healthcare and education, to these efforts when he joined the organization nearly 20 years ago.
"One of the things that I'm really excited about in our work, whether it's in K-12 or postsecondary or early learning, is we ... think about the national opportunities and to think about the big-picture, systemic types of ideas," Golston told Education Dive, noting that the work remains anchored in what research has defined as key milestones of student and school success.
Over the course of our conversation, Golston elaborated on the Networks for School Improvement initiative, the foundation's goals, and communicating its goals to educators.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: When it comes to the Gates Foundation's education interests, what are some of the guiding principles that you focus on?
ALLAN GOLSTON: I would say it's really the values of the family, which have anchored this institution across all of our work, and the U.S. programs work is no exception. [They are that] all lives have equal value and that everyone should have a chance to lead a productive life, and geography — where you were born, where you were live — and characteristics like race and ethnicity should not be determinants of one's opportunity to reach their full potential.
Those are the anchoring values and principles that drive all of our work here in the U.S., as well as the broader work across the foundation.
One big news item in the past year with the foundation’s education interests was the shift in focus from initiatives around things like teacher evaluations toward the new Networks for School Improvement. What were the biggest contributors to that shift, and how do the networks better serve the foundation's efforts around those guiding principles?
GOLSTON: It's important to state that our work and strategies evolve with learnings and insights that we get from our partners and from the field. [Our goal] is to significantly increase the number of black, Latino and low-income students who earn a diploma, go on to enroll in a postsecondary institution, and are on track — particularly in their first year, which is a critical milestone year — to get a credential with some type of labor market value.
To set the context of [the strategy shift], we've learned a lot of lessons in investing over the last 20 years from small schools and measures of effective teaching.
Each of those [efforts] have focused some key lessons on the role of the school as the unit of change and the need to provide school leaders and teachers with the supports, information, data and development resources they need to drive great outcomes for students.
With the Networks for School Improvement work, that part of our portfolio is aimed at exploring how you do that at a broad scale — this idea of bringing schools together to use data to implement solutions through continuous improvement that are responsive to their local context.
At a high level, schools really, as a unit of change, are consequential in education progress. Teachers and building leaders are at the central part of it. And local context, meaning what's happening in the group of students going into school at that particular time, is quite relevant to what schools need to do to drive student outcomes.
With the networks initiative, are there ways to share best practices with schools in similar situations? And how do you help schools that all have different circumstances define what they're doing in a way that helps their peers?
GOLSTON: One of the challenges or opportunities we see is there's a lot known about how to move student outcomes, but oftentimes you see one school doing it and another school trying to do something in a similar way — say, moving 9th-grade transition outcomes, which is a critical milestone on a student's development.
What would happen if you brought a group of schools together working on a common challenge so that you reduce learning cycle time? They can exchange ideas like, “Hey, we tried this. It worked really well. Here's why we think that worked.” Or, “Hey, we tried that. It looks like you're trying the same thing. We stumbled, and here's why.”
All of that exchange across schools can be quite powerful, and we've seen that. When you anchor it in data, all right, you tried something: Now, what does the data tell you about how it's working with students against the problem that you're working to solve?
We think this construct of networking schools — using data in continuous improvement practices and supporting teachers and building leaders to engage in that dialogue in a rigorous way — addresses many of those challenges that you see, but also opportunities to get better faster at a broad scale.
With some of the foundation's previous efforts around teacher evaluations or the Common Core, there were concerns among some educators about the potential for outsized influence on things like curriculum and accountability. In those situations, how do you feel foundations can better communicate its goals to educators to avoid those sorts of controversies?
GOLSTON: We can look across the country and say, “Hey, what's working to get better student outcomes?” and talk to policymakers and practitioners to do that and then use that information to formulate our strategies. And then [we can] engage again with educators, practitioners, policymakers, etc. to say, “Hey, this seems to be an idea that's worth testing. Do you agree with that, and do you want to test it and be part of either research on it, the development of the idea, the piloting of the idea, etc?”
We have always worked to do that, and we have continued to get better at deep engagement and deep listening to partners, practitioners, educators and policymakers to do that.
With regard to your question on teacher effectiveness, we continue to believe what happens in the classroom between teachers and students is the most important area where you can drive better student outcomes. Education is obviously a teacher-driven effort, and it's a people-driven effort, so teaching and great practices in teaching are key.
We also know giving teachers the feedback, support, professional development, data and practices they need to understand what's happening in their classrooms — and what building leaders need [in order] to understand what's happening in their schools — is really, really important and essential to ensure the best education and teaching practices are occurring in a school, in response to the local context and needs of those students.
So we believe our work and the Networks for School Improvement is an evolution and a building on that knowledge that we got both from our work in small schools, one of the first things that we invested in, and in the teacher effectiveness work, which was more recent.
Working on national level initiatives like these, are there particular challenges that come up — especially with education being an area where every state and individual district has its own way to do things?
GOLSTON: It is one of the challenges, but we see it as an opportunity. Our public education system is, of course, governed locally, and decision-making is local. With national initiatives, you do have to be really thoughtful about that, because one of the things we have learned is that there are no silver bullets. There's not this one thing that is going to dramatically change and move better outcomes across the country in one single swoop.
We do believe that, nationally, every student, regardless of their race or income, should have a quality education that allows them to realize their potential. So we think about this work nationally, but we're much better about thinking about the local context of it. It's one of the reasons we're excited about the Networks for School Improvement, because it allows you to think nationally and about common challenges and needs across our public education system.
An example of that would be aligned instructional materials or curriculum, [recognizing] that districts and schools have to pick those solutions and implement them in ways that respond to their local context. You can't force those things from a top-down framework or policy.
You have to allow the schools to be engaged in the data, understanding what's happening with their students and what their students and teachers and building leaders need to drive great, consistent, systematic, reliable student outcomes. And then [you have] to choose great solutions that will help them get better and achieve their goal.