Lessons from 15 Years: Working to Improve American Education

My father worked for the post office for 30 years. Growing up, I often dreamed of following in his footsteps.

One day when I was around 8 years old, he took me along on his route. It just so happened to be one of the coldest days of the year. We trudged around in the snow for hours, delivering mail and fighting off the cold for a long, exhausting day. The experience not only gave me a new appreciation for how hard he worked, it also helped me begin to realize that perhaps working as a postman may not be my dream career after all.

I didn’t grasp it at the time, but in his own sly way, my father had made his point: I didn’t necessarily have to follow in his footsteps. He put himself through school with the help of the GI Bill after serving in the military, and then took on a career with the postal service. My path was wide open to decide whether I wanted to work as a postman or something else entirely. Thanks to the quality education my parents had ensured for me, I would have choices that hadn’t been available to them.

This lesson has stuck with me since childhood. I believe there is more truth today than ever before in the idea that education equals opportunity. In today’s society, education is the great equalizer, a way to offer everyone — regardless of skin color, ZIP code, or financial status — the opportunity to succeed.

For far too many students today, however, high-quality education is inaccessible. Success for students depends on where they were born, where they live, and how much money their families make.

In other words, too many futures are still left up to the lottery of birth.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we focus on trying to solve this. The foundation is well known for its overseas work, but through the U.S.-focused initiative I lead, we work to make opportunity and prosperity possible for more Americans. Our ambition is to ensure that all students receive the education they need to succeed in college and beyond, working toward solutions that are powerful for everyone but truly transformational for low-income and traditionally underserved communities of color.

This goal is certainly a work in progress. That said, we have both learned a lot and seen some promising results in recent years. Although on a national scale, achievement on the SAT, ACT, and National Assessment of Educational Progress has been staying flat or declining for years, those national numbers conceal some important success stories.

In Kentucky, ACT scores have been going up in both low-income and high-income schools since 2011. The graduation rate has risen from 80 percent to 86 percent since 2010, and is well above the national average of 81 percent.

In Denver, the percentage of students who scored 21 or higher on the ACT has gone up by half in the past five years, from 16 percent to 24 percent.

And in the public schools of Washington, D.C., students taking the 4th-grade and 8th-grade NAEP in math outgained their peers in every single state between 2007 and 2013.

Today, we are at a turning point; we have the opportunity to bridge the gap of inequality faced by too many young people. There are many signs of progress and reasons to be optimistic. We know more than ever before about what it takes to ensure that students are on track for success, teachers are supported and engaged, and policymakers have the evidence they need to lead us in the right direction.

At the Gates Foundation, we believe now is the time to share the lessons we have learned from years of working to create a successful education system, and to spark more conversations with all of our partners — teachers, parents, students, policymakers, advocates — who are deeply invested in this same goal.

To start this conversation, here are four core principles that drive our work today, born out of 15 years of listening, learning, and evolving our approach.

1. Higher expectations for students will deliver better educational outcomes.

One of the defining challenges for our schools today is the gap that exists between what it takes to graduate from high school and what it takes to be ready for college or the workforce. This gap is why we developed the College Ready Initiative — and why the foundation ardently supports Common Core State Standards.

We should care enough about our students to hold them to high expectations early in their schooling, so as to ensure that they’re learning the essential skills and knowledge to succeed in college and beyond.

Setting consistently high expectations isn’t only good for students. It also promotes collaboration among teachers, encouraging them to share best practices and identify ways to innovate.

We believe the Common Core State Standards are a key component of improving outcomes for students and for supporting effective teaching. And they’re working:

Teachers tell us that Common Core standards are helping their students to think deeper and understand what they are being taught. A math teacher in New York said “The kids are more successful because instead of looking for a clue word as we did in the past, they are working to understand what is happening in the problem.” Another elementary school math teacher said her students “are becoming problem solvers because they understand the concepts.”

But implementing Common Core has been a rocky road. In some states, teachers haven’t had adequate time to incorporate the standards into the curriculum successfully. In others, the Common Core has turned into a controversial political issue. But in still others, implementation is going smoothly and having a positive impact on both students and teachers.

We believe now is the time to strengthen implementation of the Common Core so that teachers and students have the support they need to translate higher expectations into better learning outcomes.

2. We must foster great teaching and innovation at all levels.

You may have seen a recent Key & Peele sketch where they spoofed the idea of a Sports Center-type program that celebrated and analyzed teachers as obsessively as we do with athletes. To our team, this wasn’t such a crazy idea!

I love this quote from Bill Gates, which captures the problem exactly: “Doctors don’t sit alone in their offices trying to design new tools for healing. Athletes don’t stay late at the stadium trying to design themselves a lighter shoe. They’re supported by huge industries that are designing new tools to give them an edge.”

For a long time, we have asked our nation’s four million teachers to ensure that our schoolchildren — a full 25 percent of our population and 100 percent of our future — learn the skills they need to succeed in college, life, and beyond. Yet we have given them no clear standards, no meaningful feedback, and precious little support on how, exactly, to do that.

One of the biggest projects that we’ve undertaken over the last few years is the Measures of Effective Teaching study, which was designed to determine the best ways to identify and promote great teaching. The three-year project, which concluded in 2013, is probably the closest we’ve come to understanding what truly makes for effective teaching.

Our study proved that we need more than just test scores to measure teacher success. While education data holds a lot of value, we should also be employing additional tools, such as student surveys and consistent observations, to provide teachers with more consistent and specific feedback — which they are asking for — in order to help them continue to get better.

Educators should benefit from the same focus, investment, and innovation as other professionals do. Excellent teachers are the number one key to student success, and we must support their growth and performance with an equal measure of urgency.

3. Learning becomes even more powerful when personalized for each student.

We all learn differently. What if we honor our differences by giving teachers and students the specific tools they need to succeed?

Personalized learning allows us to do exactly that. Think about personal trainers at a gym — they tailor custom programs to unique needs, goals, and skill levels of every client.

The same concepts are being applied in education. A single dad studying for his degree needs the flexibility to learn on his own schedule. A high school student may learn more about speed, velocity, and momentum from a trip to the skate park than a traditional physics lesson.

The concept of personalized learning is still evolving, as new research, models, tools, and approaches emerge. According to the interim results from a multiyear RAND study, many of the schools beginning to adopt personalized learning strategies are showing promising results: Students have been making significantly greater gains in math and reading over the last two years than a virtual control group made up of similar students at comparable schools.

And as two of my colleagues recently noted, the initial results we’re seeing from schools like Rio Salado College and Summit Public Schools are also promising; they are pushing the education field to develop new teaching methods to help students take ownership of their learning.

We see value in personalized learning not only in K-12, but also in helping more students succeed in college. In September 2014, we selected seven finalists to participate in our Next Generation Courseware Challenge, a comprehensive, three-year effort to create digital courseware solutions to help low-income students succeed in college.

Our hope is that the solutions developed from this challenge will exceed what is currently available in terms of quality, price, scalability, and adaptability and will improve the postsecondary success of more than one million low-income students by 2018.

4. We need to build a movement with students and educators at its core.

In many ways, our education system has remained stagnant for decades. We must build a new groundswell movement — with students and educators at its core — if we want to truly capitalize on the promising results we’re seeing, continue to drive positive change, and succeed in our mission.

As a foundation, reflecting on 15 years of lessons learned is not just a time for thinking and talking — it’s a time for action. We’ve seen progress and know what is required for continued success, but we cannot do it alone. It’s time to put more of what we know works into the hands of more students and teachers, in more places.

There is so much more work to do, and more lessons to learn along the way. I look forward to working with our partners in the coming years to discover solutions to our most pressing education problems and identify new opportunities for growth.

Positive change for students, teachers, and families across the United States is our goal. Working together, with the brilliant, compassionate, committed people whom I know wake up every day driven by this mission, I’m optimistic that we can get there.