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By Katherine Long, The Seattle Times (TNS)

SEATTLE — Working on reforming the U.S. education system is the hardest job they’ve ever tackled, Bill and Melinda Gates said Wednesday — more difficult and complex, even, than trying to find a cure for malaria.

In the first major retrospective address on their educational philanthropy work in seven years, the couple that leads the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation acknowledged that many issues surrounding education improvement have become politicized, and success has been hard to prove.

But they reiterated their focus on teacher training as a key to improving education, defended the use of testing as one way to measure teacher and student performance, and said the Common Core state standards are starting to show results.

The Gateses both spoke at length during a Gates Foundation-sponsored event, the U.S. Education Forum, a two-day conference being held in Bellevue, Wash., that is bringing together about 250 national education leaders and politicians. It marks the 15th year the foundation has been involved in U.S. education philanthropy.

In 2009, at a similar event, the foundation launched the Empowering Effective Teachers initiative, an attempt to help school districts identify and reward their best teachers, help all teachers improve and weed out the worst. By 2013, according to an Education Week analysis, the Gates Foundation had spent nearly $700 million on its teacher-quality agenda.

Bill Gates acknowledged Wednesday that the foundation is still learning how it can help move the needle on improving the American education system. But he said he believed “we are working on the right problems” — that all students should meet high standards, and that they should be taught by the best teachers.

From the beginning, the Effective Teachers initiative was controversial, in part because of efforts to tie teacher performance to test scores. Many teachers were suspicious of the efforts, fearing they would be ranked on a measure that they argue isn’t a good or reliable measure of their work.

Although he believes teacher training is the right approach, Bill Gates expressed concern about whether the teacher initiative will ultimately have an impact. “A majority of teachers are in systems that don’t really help them improve all that much,” he said.

The foundation’s work to advance Common Core — the set of learning standards that 42 states are now using — has also met with fierce resistance.

Bill Gates acknowledged that the foundation was taken aback by the pushback on Common Core. “The foundation, and some others perhaps, were naive about these rollouts” and what kind of political fallout would come from it, he said.

Melinda Gates said she believes a few states moved too fast into Common Core, particularly in introducing a new layer of tests, which upset parents. “At the political level, there’s a lot of noise,” she said. “But if you go out and survey teachers, they are for the Common Core.”

And the state of Kentucky — the first state to implement Common Core — is starting to see significant improvement in student achievement, she said.

Bill Gates said he thought Common Core became mixed up with issues of over-testing, a concern that the federal government was playing too heavy a hand in local education and Internet-fed myths about the difficulty of the subjects.

Still, he said, “I’m always glad when education becomes a political issue … It’s fundamental to the future of the country, it’s good to see it being discussed.” But he was disappointed that the discussion went “a little off the rails in terms of facts.”

The Effective Teachers initiative focused much of the work on three school districts (in Florida, Pittsburgh and Memphis), and one consortium of charter-school operators. Those districts created new evaluation systems and rewarded effective teachers with bonuses.

But in Florida, the effort cost the Hillsborough County school district far more than officials projected, and the foundation cut about 20 percent of the funding it had promised. Very few teachers were fired, and there’s little evidence that the system boosted student achievement.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the foundation threatened to pull its grant funding after the district and teachers could not come to an agreement over teacher evaluation standards. The two sides eventually came together earlier this year.

Bill Gates said in order to be successful, teacher evaluation systems must be balanced, embraced by teachers, include data that teachers trust and have resources behind it to drive improvement.

“This is where we’re focused,” he said. “Over the next decade we hope to see incredible progress in this.”

But, he added, “it’s a difficult task.”
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(Note: The Gates Foundation provides financial support for The Seattle Times’ Education Lab project, which focuses on promising approaches to address the biggest challenges in education.)

Photo: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been studying education initiatives, but despite so much effort, success has proved elusive. WoodleyWonderWorks/Flickr

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