The Gates Foundation and Early College High Schools

Though certainly not the only major foundation currently active in public education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is by far the largest in terms of dollars granted. Several aspects of the Gates Foundation’s history and approach serve as examples both of a shift in the nature of education giving over the last decade and of some strategies for public education investment.

In 1999, the Gates Foundation committed $1.4 billion to scholarships for college and graduate education for minority students and to training principals and teachers to use technology. By 2002, however, the Foundation changed tactics—having determined that improving high schools should be the priority, rather than funding scholarships. Between 2002 and 2005, the Gates Foundation invested $1.2 billion in establishing new high schools (Early College High Schools) and reforming existing high schools with the goals of increasing high school and college graduation rates and reducing the need for college remediation. Subsequently, based on ongoing data analysis, the Foundation determined that the new high schools were producing better outcomes than the reformed schools and changed tactics again — eliminating work reforming existing district schools from its portfolio.

Gates’s approach focused on identifying successful models, replicating those models, and then measuring impact through rigorous data collection and evaluation and adapting the approach accordingly. Further, the Foundation identified aspects of the public policy and school environment that were critical for success. Gates limited its investments to education ecosystems that had these critical elements but also expanded its mission to include research and advocacy to support and expand these policies to more communities.

The contrast of the Gates example with much historic philanthropic investment in public education is that rather than support ongoing practices, the Gates Foundation focused on identifying innovative models and replicating them. The Gates example illustrates both aspects of high-leverage approaches — first through its successful creation of new models for high schools to influence the institutions through which public funds flow and then through its research and advocacy efforts to replicate policy environments conducive to those reform strategies.

Back to Chapter