Billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates says his foundation hopes to post online videos of exemplary teachers plying their craft as a way to inspire other educators and help students learn. He also says the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will increase its giving in 2009, despite the sinking economy.
The news comes in an open letter published by Gates on Jan. 26, which summarizes the foundation’s progress in health and education and outlines its plans in the months ahead.
Gates left Microsoft’s executive ranks last July to focus full-time on the foundation he created with his wife, Melinda. The letter is the first of what Gates says will be an annual series of missives to foundation stakeholders.
In the letter, Gates highlights a new area of focus for his foundation’s education work: helping to identify what makes teachers successful and sharing these best practices more broadly.
"It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one. Research shows there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school," he wrote.
"Whenever I talk to teachers, it is clear that they want to be great, but they need better tools so they can measure their progress and keep improving. So our new strategy focuses on learning why some teachers are so much more effective than others and how best practices can be spread throughout the education system so the average quality goes up."
Already, the Gates Foundation has made grants to support this new area of focus. Last week, it announced nearly $10 million in new grants to fund research on teacher effectiveness and its impact on student achievement–including $7.3 million to Educational testing Service, $1.9 million to teach for America, and $579,000 to ACT Inc. (See "Gates Foundation to give $22M for education.")
"We will work with some of the best teachers to put their lectures online as a model for other teachers and as a resource for students," Gates also wrote in his Jan. 26 letter.
Based on what the foundation has learned so far from its giving, "we have refined our strategy," Gates said.
He explained: "We will continue to invest in replicating the school models that worked the best. Almost all of these schools are charter schools. Many states have limits on charter schools, including giving them less funding than other schools. Educational innovation and overall improvement will go a lot faster if the charter school limits and funding rules are changed."
Gates also affirmed his foundation’s new focus on helping more students graduate from college, particularly through grants to community colleges and the organizations serving them. (See "Gates Foundation targets college graduation.")
Addressing the current fiscal crisis that lopped 20 percent off the foundation’s endowment last year, Gates said this crisis would not slow the foundation’s giving. In fact, he said, the foundation plans to increase its spending.
"During the past five years, as the foundation was growing, we spent a bit over 5 percent of its assets each year," he wrote. "Our spending in 2008 was $3.3 billion. In 2009, instead of reducing this amount, we are choosing to increase it to $3.8 billion, which is about 7 percent of our assets."
He also urged the U.S. government to follow suit.
"Governments face revenue shortfalls at the same time their citizens need government services more than ever," Gates wrote. "A great example of this is education. Recent improvements taking place in K-12 education could be reversed because of budget cuts. State-funded two-year and four-year colleges will see record demand but may also face spending cuts."
He added: "As governments respond to the crisis, they need to protect these investments even as they spend to stimulate the economy. In the United States, only the federal government can do deficit spending and increase its investment in long-term goals like education. I am impressed with the way President Obama has talked about the need to do both and has his team looking at investments that fulfill both goals."
Gates said he enjoys working full time for the foundation, comparing the experience to running a multibillion-dollar corporation.
"I feel like my experience in building teams of smart people with different skill sets focused on tough long-term problems can be a real contribution," he wrote. "The common sense of the business world, with its urgency and focus, has strong application in the philanthropic world."
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