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New Initiative from Gates Has the Potential to Avoid Past Mistakes

BOULDER, CO (December 12, 2017) – In Might the New Gates Education Initiative Close Opportunity Gaps?, Professor Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado Boulder considers the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s newest effort, called “Networks for School Improvement.” Welner, who is Director of the National Education Policy Center, examines how this initiative can learn from the Foundation’s own past initiatives as well as from research evidence more generally.

Bill Gates announced the new investment strategy in mid-October; the Gates Foundation then solicited ideas about how groups of secondary schools can work with intermediary organizations to improve those schools and boost student outcomes. The idea is for the intermediaries and schools to create support networks working toward solutions to common problems.

“These networks have a beneficial potential,” said Professor Welner, “but their benefits will be limited unless past lessons are taken into account.” The policy memo focuses in particular on three foundational lessons from research: the need to create school systems that are supportive of equitable reform, the need to focus on closing opportunity gaps, and the need for reforms to be grounded in the authentic voices of parents, organizers, students and teachers in the impacted communities.

Welner also points to four mistakes that the Gates Foundation has repeated in its earlier K-12 reform initiatives: (a) reliance on approaches that are too top-down, (b) excessive faith in choice and markets, (c) similarly excessive faith in technology and data, and (d) insufficient attention to outside-school obstacles to students’ opportunities to learn. The policy memo finds reasons to believe that the new initiative will avoid at least some of these pitfalls, but Welner also sees some red flags.

“Human progress is not a straight line,” he concludes. “But we can learn from the past and plan for success.”

Find Might the New Gates Education Initiative Close Opportunity Gaps?, by Kevin Welner, on the web at:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: