NewsThe 74 Interview

74 Interview: Allan Golston on Network Schools, Scaling Solutions to Inequity, and Why Curriculum Matters — and Luck Shouldn’t

By Kate Stringer | December 17, 2017

Allan Golston, President, U.S. Program, and staff from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation meets with students at Nicholas S. LaCorte Peterstown School No. 3 in Elizabeth, NJ on Oct. 3, 2017. (Photo credit: Gates Foundation)

Read previous 74 interviews with District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson; David Hardy, the new leader of a state takeover district in Ohio; and Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee. The whole series is available here.

The American Dream worked for Allan Golston and his family: His parents grew up poor but pulled themselves out of poverty through education and hard work. They instilled these values in Golston and his brothers — but while Golston earned good grades, he recognized that many of his classmates didn’t have the same advantages of ZIP code or diligent parents. They didn’t have his luck.

Now president of the United States Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Golston wants to make sure that success in school doesn’t depend on luck for today’s students. Last month, Bill Gates announced that after two decades, the foundation will shift its focus to new areas, investing $1.7 billion over five years to innovations in network schools, curriculum, professional development, and charter schools.

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The 74 spoke with Golston to learn more about this shift in vision away from small high schools and teacher evaluations, as his team tries to support education ideas that will, in his words, “really matter, not just for tens or hundreds of students, but for millions of students.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: What’s your take on Bill Gates’s recent announcement about the foundation’s shift in focus?

Golston: It is a natural evolution of our work, based on our own learning but also learning in the field. It’s important to start with how we see our role in the public education space. Number one, we routinely discuss and identify innovations that come from the field that have the potential to have impact. Impact for us is a quality education system that works for all, but it also works for students who are currently underserved, who are low-income or are students of color. The second thing we do is we invest in those innovations to see and understand their impact potential, and then the third thing is that we identify opportunities to scale innovations that work. This evolution of our strategy is a representation of us doing that.

In his announcement, Gates emphasized a focus on network schools. What is a network school, and why will focusing there help speed change?

It’s a reflection of some things we’ve learned in other parts of our education work, including our postsecondary work. If you look historically at how we have engaged with the K-12 system, we’ve had one-on-one relationships directly with the district, whether it’s Memphis or Hillsborough or L.A. Unified Public Schools.

We have learned that when you bring schools together that have a common set of objectives to move school improvement, and you support those schools with an intermediary, whether that’s a district or a nonprofit organization … that it’s pretty powerful to move student outcomes.

This idea of bringing schools together to engage in a process of improvement with data as one of the central organizers, and connecting these schools so that they don’t rediscover the same challenges, so one school can help another school, say, “Hey, we tried X when we found an attendance problem and that didn’t work for us, and we tried this solution and that solution didn’t work for us or it did work for us, and here’s why,” it also reduces what I would call discovery costs — for me to reinvent the wheel is inefficient.

What are some specific examples?

I’ll give you two. The first one is in Chicago, and Chicago on many indicators is the second-fastest-improving district in the country. If you look at some of the innovations that they’ve done, in partnership with this Network for College Success and the Chicago Public Schools, it focuses on school leaders to learn and share from each other.

In this case, they focus on ninth-grade success indicators, so there’s a set of indicators like attendance, grade point average, etc., that in ninth grade, the research has shown, really matters. This network of schools has relentlessly focused on those ninth-grade indicators to say, “Where are we on track, where are we off track, and what does the data tell us about that? Where we aren’t on track, what specifically do we know or understand as the reasons why, and then let’s come up with solutions to address that specific problem.”

They provide resources and support for principals and teacher leaders, and when you look at the results, it’s pretty dramatic. The schools that have been part of that network have at least, if I recall last year, moved their network of schools to 87 percent of an on-track graduation rate. Those ninth-grade indicators, they’re saying, “Look, significant numbers of our students are on track to graduate,” and it’s largely a function of them coming together, focusing on these indicators, supporting teacher leaders and principals, and having data as the key.

If you look at these schools that have been in this network for a long period of time, those results have an average of 92 percent. When you think about it, 92 percent of students on track to graduate because of this continuous-improvement model and networking schools is quite powerful and impressive.

Another example is in California, and it’s a different kind of network called the California Office of Reform Education, the CORE district. These represent the largest districts in California. They represent roughly 20 percent of the state’s students, and these districts come together and have created this quality improvement index for schools. They focus, again, on the data at the student level. They look at things like academic growth, student social-emotional learning skills, the climate and culture of the school, and they work with their schools to understand what is the data telling us, where are we seeing challenges, and what are some of the innovations or solutions that we can put in place to address those challenges. While they’re earlier and there’s not enough data or sufficient data to report on how it’s going, the intention and the process and the structure that they’re going through together to learn from each other is quite powerful.

These are two very different examples and very different models, but the thing they have in common is they bring these systems together, whether it’s districts supporting schools or schools themselves within a district. They use data as the key. They’re very much student-outcome-focused, so they pick critical indicators that represent a student’s on-track or off-track status. They bring their systems’ principals, teachers together to come up with solutions.

It also represents the local context that exists in our public education system, which means schools are not a monolithic system. They exist in different geographical dimensions, they exist in different political dimensions, and this idea recognizes that local context and allows schools to come together, meet their students where they are, and to engage in an improvement cycle based on where they are, not necessarily where we would like them to be as a country. I think that’s pretty powerful as well.

Gates also addressed curriculum development and professional development. How well are schools doing when it comes to finding research-based practices for these areas, and how does the foundation support that work?

On the curriculum side, we are really excited that most states have recognized that high expectations for what we expect students to be able to know and do at each grade level is important. That has allowed for a set of curriculum materials that help teachers and students drive that learning in their schools. We think there’s still an opportunity in the curriculum market space to make sure that districts, schools, and teachers have high-quality curricular material that’s aligned to these high expectations or these standards.

We’re going to continue to invest in supporting the marketplace to develop high-quality curricular material, and help make sure that people know the degree that they’re aligned or not to the standards, and then make sure that we do our part to help systems select the ones that are high-quality.

There’s been a lot of work done in both school leader and teacher preparation. We’ve been part of those investments, particularly on the teacher prep side, and we want to continue to invest in that. Helping teachers get prepared for the classrooms they’re going to face and the diversity of students they’ll have in their classrooms, and have access and be prepared on the best pedagogies. There’s been a lot of innovation in teacher prep programs, and we want to see how these things can scale, where they make sense, and we’ll continue to invest in that.

On leadership prep, which is a fairly new space for us, there’s a lot of innovation and work that has been done from organizations that have invested in it, like the Wallace Foundation, and we’re going to want to partner and build on that knowledge to figure out how do you take the next step to help school leaders have access to the preparation that they need to lead viable, effective schools across the country.

Allan Golston, president of the U.S. Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, visits with faculty and students at Brooklyn Lab Charter School in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 3, 2017. (Photo credit: Gates Foundation)

Gates highlighted a continued focus on charter schools, specifically in their work serving special education students. Charters have sometimes been criticized for their lack of attention toward these students. Could you explain how you see charter schools’ role?

We will continue to support high-quality charters in their growth, but, as we have heard from districts, from parents, from communities, from high-quality charter operators, one of the common themes is how do you serve the needs of special-needs students, and how do you do it at a scale and a consistency that meets the needs of our students and our country. As we had these conversations, we came to the conclusion that there hasn’t been enough support to help develop models for how charters can do a better, consistent job at meeting the needs of special-needs students. We want to identify charters that are looking at this and to be able to support them to develop both models, but then also codify those practices and share those practices more broadly, so that other charters can adapt.

What was behind the decision to move further away from investing in new initiatives based on teacher evaluations?

We know a lot about what makes an effective teacher. It was clear from the beginning — and we said this — that an evaluation system is not enough, that it has to be coupled with an effective and robust professional development system. Where we learned from the best professional development practices in schools and districts, it occurred in the school. It occurred when teachers were coming together, working on real, concrete challenges of practice that were relevant to their school. We think this is the next stage.

Evaluation is never going to be the silver bullet, but when you combine that with professional development that’s relevant for teachers, that can be a powerful combination.

How does your foundation define personalized learning, and what research and best practices have shown what is working or not working in the field?

It’s a field that is continuing to emerge. What is important is that the field continues to recognize that students show up in different places, and you need to have effective personalized learning strategies to meet the needs of students. That’s very difficult to do when you are one teacher, trying to meet the needs of 20 to 30 students that are in very different places.

If you look at the field, there are multiple approaches that are being tried, and I think the one that we are pretty excited about is where you use technology to personalize educational experiences for students, and you use that same innovation of technology to help teachers understand where their students are and to better personalize their own teaching to meet the needs of a broader group of students.

There are different models about how districts — whether it’s charter schools or others — are trying those personalized strategies, but we’re really excited that that work continues to unfold and get momentum, and that other funders, some of our partners like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, have a real deep passion for it.

You wrote some articles about visiting different schools. Can you could share some stories about schools the foundation has visited and identified as having promising solutions for fighting inequity, and those that could be scaled across the U.S.?

One that is pretty near and dear is Solorio Academy, which is part of the Chicago Public Schools system. One of the items I wrote was a discussion with the principal, Victor Iturralde. He has this incredibly diverse student population in his school, and has led the school to incredible results. He has a relentless focus on equity. If you look at the demographics of his school, you’ll see that — and he, with the teachers in his school, built this incredible culture around shared leadership, where he shares leadership with his whole faculty and staff at the school. They have this strong focus on high expectations of their students, coupled with great teaching. They use data relentlessly, in a way that’s quite extraordinary and exemplary for what we at the foundation believe is both possible but also necessary for other schools to be able to do effectively to drive school improvement. You see the power of this in terms of impact, in terms of student engagement, student outcomes, both social-emotional and academic outcomes, and you think, “All right, this is an example of what greatness looks like, and we can do this for every single school in America.”

That’s our aspiration, to take these great schools and figure out, how do you support our public system to be able to do this at a scale so that it’s accessible to every kid in this country? That’s pretty inspirational and pretty bold, but it’s also very, very do-able. If we want this for our schools and our kids, we can have it, and we believe that and want to do our part to help support systems to make that happen.

Why is fighting inequity in education important to you?

It’s because particularly in education, that my family, my parents and I, have benefited from the power of education and its role in the American Dream. My parents both grew up poor, lifted themselves out of poverty largely through education and hard work. Education was a central focus, and they were very much insistent that my brothers and I both have access to [and] focus on getting the benefits of what an education can do. I observed the inequity of how students show up with very different needs and capabilities but aren’t all served in the same way to allow those students to realize their full potential.

I realized that while I had academic abilities, in many ways I was also very lucky. I was born to the right parents and, in some ways, the right ZIP code, and that was a big determinant of my access to a quality education. We shouldn’t accept a society where luck — the ZIP code you were born in and how much money your parents make — is the determinant of your future, the primary determinant. That’s what’s true when I was in school, and it’s true today.

That doesn’t have to be the case here in this country. You see these school leaders and teachers and districts and systems breaking that cycle. This is possible for every kid in America, and so I’m passionate about and excited that the foundation is taking this really hard, hard problem on, and it’s a privilege to be a part of that.

I have an energy and a passion for it, and I’m just grateful I was able to benefit from it, but also, still, why was I lucky, and why should luck be the determining factor? This should be fundamental to our public systems, and it’s exciting to be able to do this work.

All the state ESSA plans have been submitted. Do you see the foundation’s work changing as states re-evaluate their compliance with the new federal law?

States have been given this opportunity to craft the framework both for progress and accountability that they want to have, and that meets the needs for their state, and we see it as an opportunity. As we think about this next stage of our work in K-12, there are some things that I think will be clear:

One, policy matters. Now the state role is bigger and more important than ever before, so we will continue to help states identify the best practices, to learn from each other, and to support their capacity to deliver on this incredible opportunity.

Two, there is this idea of how do you take the exemplary states and connect them with other states to make sure that we’re highlighting the best practices, and those that want to be best in class have the ability to learn? We’ve done that in the past with ESSA development, and I think we’ll continue to do that.

This next question will be, once we get to this stage of plan development and the legislation is all passed, how do you actually concretely make sure that ESSA accrues to the benefit of kids? How do states actually then ensure that they’re moving to have the public education systems that they aspire to have and that we all aspire to have, high-quality public systems? That’s the part that we’ll have to figure out as we all, as a country, learn our way through that.

Research and development in education ranks behind other sectors, like the medical field. How do you see the importance of philanthropy in education?

There’s no question that research and development in public education is low, particularly relative to other sectors. We’re very keenly aware of this, and we’ll continue to assess our role in helping to solve that challenge. One example, a recent example, is invested in the research and development of measures of effective teaching. When we looked at, “Hey, all the research is pointing to the role and primacy of teachers in the classroom in moving student achievement,” then we asked the next logical question, which is, “OK, so what do we know about what makes an effective teacher?” That question was not answered concretely, and so that was an opportunity for philanthropy, and us in particular, to step into that role and support the research, to understand and codify and study rigorously what makes an effective teacher.

This is something that has got to be addressed over the long term. How do you ensure that we have the learning, but also the translation of that learning into classroom practices? It’s at least a two-part challenge. One is just the general research and development, but then also you need to be able to translate those learnings into practices that our public education system can use to drive outcomes. There’s a role, a partnership between philanthropy and government to support that getting better and better over time.

Allan Golston, president of the U.S. Program, and staff from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation meet with students to discuss Teach to One: Math at Nicholas S. LaCorte–Peterstown School No. 3 in Elizabeth, N.J., on Oct. 3, 2017. (Photo credit: Gates Foundation)

Can you reflect on the foundation’s 17 years, and what you have learned over the past several years about what works and doesn’t in education?

Historically, we started out with small schools and learned a lot from that, but the critical lesson was that size can matter, but it’s very difficult politically and financially to scale, because of the political and financial costs of closing schools and opening new schools.

There are schools across the country that are still delivering incredible outcomes for students because they took that step to change their structure, and then do the things that are also necessary within the school to drive student outcomes. We learned that what’s happening in the classroom really matters, and that you have to be able to impact the work that teachers and students do in the classroom as one of the critical elements to drive scaling change, which led to all the work we did around teacher effectiveness.

We learned that what you expect teachers and students should do in the classroom is critically important. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve been supporters of the Common Core. We’ve learned that curriculum materials, even in the toughest classrooms, if you have clear aligned curricular materials, that it can move student outcomes in powerful ways, even when other parts of the system aren’t functioning where they need to be.

I think the über-lesson is there’s no silver bullet in our K-12 system or in public education, that a lot of things have to come together and some critical things have to come together to really move the needle. So you have to have the patience and the rigor and the openness to focus on those critical things, highlight innovation, identify and understand to what degree those innovations really drive outcomes for students, and then figure out and support the system on how to scale it.

That scale dimension is a really important lesson, because at the end, scale depends on the system taking up the innovations that really matter for improvement. There’s no philanthropy or other sector that can force scale of innovation, and so this question then becomes, “What is the role of philanthropy when it comes to scale?” It’s to identify exemplars. It’s to try to codify those exemplars in terms of best practices. It is to make sure to those things are known and available. It is to do your part to reduce the rediscovery costs. And then to provide ideas for how do you do this at a scale that will really matter not just for tens or hundreds of students, but for millions of students?

I think we’ve learned a lot across the past 17 years or so, and I think what’s most important is our goal is the same. It is to significantly increase the number of low-income students and students of color who get access to a high-quality education, and ideally put them on track to get some type of credential with market value. Our goal hasn’t changed. Our learnings have been numerous. There have been some mistakes we’ve made, and we’ve learned a lot from those, but overall I’m really proud of how the field has learned, how we’ve learned, and the work that the field has done to put those learnings to practice.

We’re impatient because it’s slower than we would like, and the thing that’s true in public education is a student doesn’t get to repeat the same grade, and so students are moving through the system, and that in and of itself creates the sense of urgency.

Disclosure: The 74 receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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