By SAM DILLON
Published: November 19, 2009
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Thursday announced its biggest education donation in a decade, $290 million, in support of three school districts and five charter groups working to transform how teachers are evaluated and how they get tenure.
A separate $45 million research initiative will study 3,700 classroom teachers in six cities, including New York, seeking to answer the question that has puzzled investigators for decades: What, exactly, makes a good teacher effective?
The twin projects represent a rethinking of the foundation’s education strategy, previously focused largely on smaller grants intended to remake troubled American high schools. With these new, larger grants, the foundation is seeking to transform teacher management policies in four cities in hopes that the innovations can spread.
The foundation committed $100 million to the Hillsborough County, Fla., schools; $90 million to the Memphis schools; $40 million to the Pittsburgh public schools. Some $60 million will go to five charter management organizations based in Los Angeles: Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, Aspire Public Schools, Green Dot Public Schools, Inner City Education Foundation and Partnerships to Uplift Communities Schools.
“Education is a tough issue,” Melinda French Gates said Thursday in a conference call. “Bill and I often joke that maybe it’s the toughest issue we’ve taken on,” she said, tougher even than the intractable health problems the foundation has tackled in the third world.
“Things have become pretty entrenched” in America’s public schools, Ms. Gates said. But the winning communities have shown “extraordinary commitment” to tackling tough issues, she added. “So this is actually doable.”
Unions will be crucial to the project’s success. Teachers in the Hillsborough County, Pittsburgh and Memphis districts are represented by one of the two national teachers’ unions, both of which said their affiliates were cooperating enthusiastically with the project. Four of the five charter groups operate nonunion.
The foundation’s goal, its officials said, is to forge breakthroughs in how school systems recruit, retain and compensate teachers and how they assign them to schools.
“It’ll be difficult, once this work is finished, to say it can’t happen in other places, because this work is going to provide some compelling arguments,” said Vicki L. Phillips, an education director at the foundation.
The foundation hopes that many districts nationwide will adopt the practices identified as successful during the project.
Most school districts give teachers tenure after three years of service and only cursory review of how much success they have had with students. The two-year, $45 million project will use cameras, student surveys and other tools to identify the characteristics of standout teachers.