SEATTLE – Melinda Gates, one of the most influential women in American education, said this week she gives the U.S. public school system a C-plus, but adds there are spots of improvement that give her optimism for the future.
Gates said she bases her assessment on international comparisons of student achievement and on the fact that only a fraction of American high school students are ready for college when they complete their studies.
“I see pockets of improvements. The neat thing about the pockets of improvements is they’re getting larger all the time and they’re across the nation,” she told the Associated Press during an interview this week in her Seattle office overlooking the Space Needle at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Those pockets are growing in places like New Orleans and in Florida, New York and Colorado, Gates added, because districts are talking to each other and sharing their best practices.
For the past decade, the Gates Foundation has studied education, influenced public policy and spent billions of dollars toward improving student outcomes by supporting education reform and demanding better results. Since 2000, the foundation has spent about $5 billion on education grants and scholarships.
Their focus has influenced the national agenda as the U.S. Department of Education has pushed for similar reforms such as adoption of the national academic standards known as the common core as well as insisting on improvement in state teacher-evaluation systems.
The foundation has given some states money and assistance to prepare their applications for federal grant programs and some top officials in Washington, D.C., are former employees at the foundation in Washington state.
Some see the foundation as a critic of American teachers because of their emphasis on teacher evaluations, but Gates said that impression is wrong. She hopes teachers see the foundation as partners in figuring out how to help them do their jobs.
“We fundamentally believe in teachers. My gosh, they’re incredible,” she said, after a day listening to 110 teachers from around the nation compare notes and talk about what they need to improve at a gathering at the Seattle foundation.
Gates said the foundation is conducting experiments in Fresno, Calif., and Bridgeport, Conn., to see how districts can give teachers more planning and training time.
Also at the top of the foundation’s agenda is improving teacher evaluation systems and professional development. The foundation’s third main education initiative involves helping teachers use technology to support their work, such as online forums for sharing lesson plans.
“I know the difference a great teacher can make,” said Gates, who has three children, one each in elementary, middle and high school.