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Bill and Melinda Gates, page 3

By Claudia Wallis, Spencer Fellow in education journalism
November 26, 2008: 5:59 AM ET

The first step, says Phillips, is to figure out what it actually means for a high school student to be ready for college, and help schools focus teaching and testing on that. Oddly enough, it is not so easy when every state has its own standards for what should be taught. The Gates mantra is "fewer, clearer, and higher" standards, so the foundation will support efforts like the American Diploma Project, which works to determine what standards are most closely tied to success in college and careers, and pushes states to adopt them.

Once a common set of standards is identified, the foundation plans to support research to figure out which materials and tools do the best job of getting those lessons across. The result, Phillips hopes, will be "a sort of Consumer Reports for the education sector - created by and for teachers." Currently a lot of what school districts buy is based on hearsay evidence and whatever administrators happen to see at trade shows.

Another Gates focus is teacher quality. The foundation plans to pour $500 million into three to five "deep dive sites" around the U.S., including large urban districts, which will act as laboratories for new ways to measure teacher performance and link it to tenure and salaries. It will pay for research on the use of data systems to measure student and teacher performance.

The foundation's leaders, eager to avoid opposition from teachers' unions, take pains to present their ideas as collaborative and teacher-friendly. "This is a very pro-teacher and pro-student agenda," Phillips, formerly superintendent of schools in Portland, Ore., told Fortune. "We're trying to balance support and reverence for the profession with the demand for continuous improvement. Teachers are too often left out of the difficult conversations."

The new strategy meshes with the prevailing view among today's in-crowd of educators: New York's Klein and Washington's Rhee and business leaders like Intel (INTC, Fortune 500) chairman Craig Barrett. Bill Gates got his most applause at the Seattle forum when he declared, "We need to give all teachers the benefit of clear standards, sound curriculum, good training, and top instructional tools. But if their students still keep falling behind, [the teachers] are in the wrong line of work, and they need to find another job."

One of the reasons to think that the Gates 2.0 plan will be more successful than version 1.0 is that the plan involves a commitment to measure results and follow the evidence rather than plow forward with a preconceived notion like "small schools are better."

Still, evidence and data in education tend to be a lot less clear-cut than, say, sales projections for the Microsoft Office suite. And the foundation seems to be putting trust in the power of data to lead to better decision-making, despite the fact that data are often misused. Case in point: New student-achievement data from tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act has led to an ugly narrowing of the curriculum in many U.S. schools and a dispiriting tendency toward teaching to the tests.

Fresh research and even heaps of Gates money won't necessarily move the ball. It will also take a major effort to engage the public, which for the most part seems unaware of how much better U.S. public schools need to be. Education Secretary Spellings said as much at the Seattle forum, calling suburban parents "fat, dumb, and happy."

Intel's Barrett put an even finer point on the risks of complacency. Global corporations like Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) and Intel, he said, are already finding the talent they need offshore: "We don't need the U.S. to be successful." Even at a gathering of like-minded reformers, those words still carried some well-intended shock value.  To top of page

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