The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is awarding more than $90 million in the form of 19 grants across 13 states as part of its Networks for School Improvement (NSI) initiative, a foundation official announced on Monday.
The foundation received more than 530 grant applications to take part in the initiative, said Bob Hughes, the organization’s K-12 education director. An NSI is a group of middle and high schools that work with a central entity to improve outcomes for black, Latino and low-income students.
One recipient is California’s High Tech High Graduate School of Education, which will partner with up to 30 schools and lead a College Access and Enrollment Network. Another is the Institute for Learning, which will team up with the Dallas Independent School District to increase the number of students proficient in English language arts.
These 19 investments signal the start of a new, more collaborative movement to help students be successful, regardless of race, financial status or zip code, but it’s still a work in progress. The grants vary in amount and duration, depending on the size of an organization and how many indicators it’s focusing on, Hughes said. An indicator could be test scores, suspensions or grades, for example, and it’s evidence-based factors, he added, that help schools learn how to better serve students.
The foundation's initiative takes a “one size doesn’t fit all” approach to student achievement efforts, with solutions that cater to students’ individual needs, and view a school in the context of its community. “No school is an island,” Hughes said. But some say it’s not enough: Qualitative indicators, such as empathy or creativity, also need to be taken into account in holistically looking at student success.
There are not a lot of metrics on how these networks have affected student performance so far, according to a new report from the Columbia University Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL). Hughes acknowledged that the research base is underdeveloped, but he said other evidence has pointed to success. And as networks continue their efforts and expand them, outside watchdogs like the CPRL will continue to measure how they’re doing.
The Gates Foundation hasn’t always focused on locally-driven solutions. Its closely watched K-12 funding efforts were centered on teacher evaluation models. But the organization abandoned the strategy after criticism and questions about the effects of linking teacher evaluations to metrics like student test scores.
Monday’s announcement comes after the foundation announced a competitive grant proposal process, and Hughes said it’s not the only one it will have. There will be more grants in the future, and up to three more requests for proposals so other entities can receive funding and those that already have funding can apply for more, he said. “We still have a lot to learn about this network, but we’re excited,” he said. “We’re committed to seeing this through.” Until then, as the CPRL report said, time will be a critical component in determining the initiative’s success.