Gates Foundation to Fund School Networks

The Gates Foundation has established new funding priorities for its K-12 education investments. The Foundation expects to commit $1.7 billion to K-12 over the next five years, with 60% of that amount devoted to curriculum development and a new network building initiative and 15% directed to charter schools. But the foundation has not totally abandoned its interest in disruptive potential, with the remaining 25% of the total funding focused on “big bets” that have the potential to change the trajectory of public education over the next ten to fifteen years. While the Foundation will not be funding any new work focused on teacher evaluation and ratings, it plans to continue to collect data on the effectiveness of its previous efforts.

So, what does all that mean? What’s a school network? Essentially school networks are extended learning communities that link schools in an area or region or even nationally. Through such networks, schools benefit from helping each other to develop in areas such as teaching and learning practices, use of resources, or simply sharing news. During his announcement speech in front of the Council of Great City Schools, Bill Gates cited three examples – the Network for College Success, California’s CORE Districts, and Tennessee’s Lift Education.

The three Gates examples include an intra-district network, a cross-district network and a small state-wide network. The Network for College Success is a group of 15 Chicago schools that use cross-school learning communities and job-embedded coaching to collaborate on preparing all students for college and career success. The California CORE Districts are eight large urban districts that banded together in 2010 to help each other implement the Common Core. They have since focused on cross-district collaboration to design and implement a comprehensive school improvement and accountability system using multiple measures of achievement. Tennessee’s Lift Education is made up of 12 superintendents from diverse districts across the state that are committed to student-centered leadership and work together to explore innovative approaches and share best practices.

There are many other examples of school networks, some well-established and familiar, such as EL Education, with its deeper learning approach and a new focus on curriculum, or the New Tech Network. Others are newer or less familiar, such as YouthBuild, focused on employability in building-related trades and leadership development, or EdVisions and its student-centered learning model.

Getting Smart has been engaged in a multi-year effort to study networks and their effect on education and transformation. There you’ll find a Tom Vander Ark article that lays out the various types of school networks according to their level of control/support versus their fidelity to a school model. This quickly gets complex, as it involves networks as diverse as the various Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) to informal affiliations such as #FutureReady. Some networks are almost synonymous with the platforms they use. Some are turning into competitors to commercial platform vendors, freely sharing their platforms and sometimes the curriculum they use. Go as deep as you like at Getting Smart; it’s a useful source for a quick overview of a variety of school networks.

I’ve long argued that creators of instructional materials should seek out schools that have a strong instructional model and a clear plan for how they will implement that model, pointing to some of the Charter Management Organizations, the League of Innovative Schools or Next Generation Learning Challenges. Browsing the list of school networks, you may find one or more which might be a potential match as you develop product, conduct research and build implementation models. A network can be a great partner in bringing an innovation or disruption to scale.

As far as the Gates Foundation goes, initially they plan to support about 30 school networks, starting initially with high needs schools and districts in 6 to 8 states. Each network will be backed by a team of education experts skilled in continuous improvement, coaching, and data collection and analysis. The Foundation expects the selected networks to exhibit a commitment to continuous improvement and a focus on addressing common problems that are identified by using proven indicators predictive of students’ learning, progress, and postsecondary success. It will be up to the networks to decide what approaches they believe will work best to address their biggest challenges.

While there’s been a lot of speculation about the Foundation’s shift in priorities, I’m willing to take Bill Gates at his word, that it’s a matter of lessons learned. In his speech and announcement at the Council of Great City Schools, he said, “If there is one thing I have learned, it is that no matter how enthusiastic we might be about one approach or another, the decision to go from pilot to wide-scale usage is ultimately and always something that has to be decided by you and others in the field.”

Changing focus, the Consortium for School Networking, in partnership with AASA and MDR, has released the 2017 Infrastructure Survey, a report that examines the current state of technology infrastructure in U.S. K-12 districts. The survey continues to document the very real progress American schools are making in bringing connectivity to all students; 85% of school districts fully meet the FCC’s short-term goal for broadband connectivity of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students. The long-term goal of 1 Gbps per 1,000 students is a much heavier lift, with only 16% of districts indicating they are achieving the long-term goal in every school. The progress reported is a result of the schools’ commitment and to the very real impact of the E-Rate program on helping to bring the connectivity goals within reach of more schools. The E-rate has its problems, but it is great to see a program for schools that is really working.

I was interested to see that Blackboard is launching a project to develop a globally-relevant set of standards for the design and application of AI in education. Blackboard will host an event on January 11, 2018, which will bring together thought leaders from several global institutions, law firms, and non-profit organizations to identify educational opportunities provided by AI, explore related ethical and legal issues, and make recommendations for the ethical and legal application of these new AI approaches in higher education. I guess I believe an effort like this might better come from an organization like the National Academy of Sciences or maybe the American Institutes for Research, but I guess we have to start someplace. Of course, issues related to machine learning and AI have implications for K-12 education as well.

THE Journal has released its 2017 Readers’ Choice Awards.  More than 1,450 readers participated in this year’s selection process, identifying not only their overall technology picks but also their favorites by technology category and content type.

The Department of Education is withdrawing nearly 600 pieces of regulation and guidance that have been either superseded by current law or are no longer in effect. Items date from 1995 through 2015.  On October 24, the Department of Education released a “Regulatory Reform Task Force Status Report” that details its progress on President Trump’s Executive order required federal agencies to reduce the regulatory burdens on the American people through regulatory reform. As part of that effort the department invited public comments on identifying regulations and guidance for repeal, replacement, or modification. After extending the closing date from August 21 to September 20, 2017, the Department received 16,391 comments from the public. The task force is currently reviewing these comments.