New Partnerships, New Year, New Opportunity

Bob Hughes
4 min readDec 10, 2019

As the year draws to a close and 2020 emerges on the horizon, we are excited to share some news. Today, it is a privilege to announce a new set of Networks for School Improvement partners. This is a critical milestone in the work we have been doing over the last year to ensure that Black, Latino, and low-income students graduate from high school, enroll and succeed in college, and ultimately lead successful lives.

This new cohort of NSI grants doubles our initial investment in place-based work. To date, the foundation has made grants totaling $240 million to 30 Networks for School Improvement serving more than 700 schools in over 20 states. Intermediaries supporting these networks include districts, charter management organizations, university-affiliated partners, a regional service center, and a wide range of national, regional and local nonprofits. Some networks operate within a single district, some work with multiple districts across a state, and others are or are planning to work with schools across multiple states.

In addition to grantmaking, we have also had the privilege of learning from partners about what works — and what doesn’t — when school teams use data and research. We know that individual schools have a unique set of assets and talent that can be mobilized to improve student outcomes. In our experience, no two schools are the same — they have different needs, histories and commitments. At the same time, schools share common problems, such as getting students on track in high school, enrolled in a viable postsecondary program and on the road to success as adults.

How to square that circle? Building on the work of pioneering educators across the country, we began work with NSI partners as a concrete way of learning more about what schools need to be successful for every student. We believe that if they use continuous improvement to use data to identify the real barriers holding individual students back, use research to develop new systems or interventions and implement those interventions while paying attention to student success on a daily or weekly basis, school teams can make significant gains for their students. And we believe that the best allies for this process are other schools, working on common problems and learning from one another with the help of a supporting organization or their district.

Throughout 2019, we have seen that this strategy holds real promise in a wide array of districts, issues and contexts. It is truly a privilege to visit our different grantees in places as diverse as New York, Chicago, Tennessee, Texas and California.

Particularly exciting is what we are learning with our grantees as a community of practitioners. In July, for example, we gathered at the University of Maryland, College Park to hear directly from NSI leaders about what it takes to build the capacity of principals and teachers to identify problems and address barriers to student success in their local communities. Leaders from Baltimore City Public Schools discussed their challenges and shared how strong leadership and a coherent, common message about aligning systems was key to effectively working with networks and engaging in continuous improvement practices. Leaders from the CORE Districts, City Year, Learning Forward, and the Institute for Learning shared how they are adapting continuous improvement processes to their local context, and the particular inequitable outcomes they are focused on tackling. We also heard inspiring personal stories from our NSI leaders throughout the day.

We are just at the beginning of this learning journey. We know that every school is committed to the success of their students. But in many instances, schools don’t have the tools, resources, and experience to respond to students’ needs. Over the next five years, our goal is to better understand those last mile investments, tools or insights to make common planning time, data and commitment become systemically transformative for students. In 2020, we look forward to announcing more NSI partners in new communities across the country as well as learning from others using data and continuous improvement to harness the power of educators and communities to improve their schools and districts. We look forward to continuing on this path in the hopes of empowering more educators to help more students reach their full potential.

Bob Hughes is Director of K12 Education with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. To learn more, read our Network for School Improvement Year One Review. For updates, please follow us on Twitter @GatesUS or sign up to receive our Momentum K12 Newsletter.



Bob Hughes

Director of K-12 Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.