Three lessons policymakers can learn from the Gates Foundation

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Back in October, the Gates Foundation announced a new strategy for their education efforts. Going forward, the organization plans to focus much of its attention—and monetary investment—on networks of schools that will develop locally-driven solutions to improve student achievement. The foundation already issued its first Request for Proposals, along with some guidance based on feedback from various organizations with prior experience improving postsecondary outcomes for students.

Although this grant opportunity is for school networks and not policymakers, there are still plenty of important lessons that lawmakers can learn from the guidance that Gates released to its applicants. And candidates up for election in November should also consider it as they finalize their education platforms.

Here’s a look at three key ideas:

Focus on equity

The Gates Foundation wants applicant responses to “demonstrate a clear commitment to equity.” This is of course important because every single child matters and deserves an excellent education.

For state lawmakers, supporting school choice is a great way to accomplish this. Education is often referred to as the great equalizer, but for millions of children in the United States equal educational opportunities are just a pipe dream. Because of their household incomes and neighborhoods, these students are trapped in persistently failing schools. Allowing families to choose where their children will be educated—and providing them with an array of high-quality options—could make this dream a reality.

Empowering choice isn’t a silver bullet, but it has helped millions of families. All across the country, there are charters serving minority and low-income students extraordinarily well. Some of these schools are helping pupils graduate from college at three to five times the national average. Others are leading the way in closing achievement gaps.

Charters aren’t the only form of school choice. But they are the most widespread, and they offer the clearest picture of what happens when everyone—not just those who are rich enough to pick their neighborhood—is empowered to choose.

Focus on student outcomes

Gates says that applicants should strive for outcomes that are “supported by research that is predictive of high school graduation and post-secondary success.” And it particularly emphasizes improvement for black, Latino, and low-income students.

In the past, policymakers have incentivized, tracked, and reported student outcomes with state accountability systems and school report cards. These systems are important and should be maintained and continuously improved, but they are limited to just a few years of student data. They miss the long-term picture: how students’ school experiences translate into real life outcomes.

The vast majority of states don’t effectively or efficiently link K–12 data with workforce and college completion data, and policymakers ought to change that. Not only would this better inform lawmakers, educators, and the general public, it would also promote more high-quality educational research. It’s important, though, that these data aren’t used as a high-stakes measure in accountability systems. Long-term outcomes are most useful as an informational tool—not an accountability measure that’s tied to consequences—and as such, they should be tracked and reported but not graded.

Focus on the school level

The Gates Foundation guidance also instructs applicants to identify “the root cause of the student outcome problem, based on data, evidence, and key stakeholder opinion.”

For policymakers, there are two key lessons here. First is the importance of stakeholder engagement. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students all have unique insight into what kinds of policies and practices would be best for their schools and communities. States should back these views with quality data and evidence, which they ought to gather and analyze quickly and efficiently.

Second, policymakers must recognize the limits of policy. That’s difficult, considering the nature of their work. But the sooner they recognize the limitations of their roles, the better. That means avoiding prescriptive, one-size-fits-all mandates and instead using policy to create the best possible conditions for student success—conditions in which schools are incentivized and empowered to succeed, even if it’s in different or unique ways.

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Each of these focus areas bring something different to the table. Prioritizing outcomes at the expense of local empowerment will leave key stakeholders frustrated by their lack of influence and potentially unwilling to implement changes. But narrowly focusing on the school level in the absence of hard data on outcomes and equity gaps will limit reforms’ long-term effects. Candidates and current policymakers should therefore combine all of these ideas to create platforms that fulfill the needs and rights of every student.

 
 
Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.