This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.” These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.
Allan C. Golston, president of the United States Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, leads the foundation’s efforts to ensure that all students receive a high-quality education that leads to success in college and their career. He oversees the U.S. Program’s major areas of investment—Education, Pacific Northwest, Special Initiatives, and Advocacy.
In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?
I believe that our investments reveal that the next generation is obviously the future. Our future depends on how well we prepare our students, regardless of their background. Demographic population in this country is shifting in dramatic ways – the next generation will need to be socially mobile and solve the world problems of the future and do it with fundamental skill sets—think critically, solve problems, and apply knowledge in complex ways. One way that we believe this is possible, is through high quality education. High quality education only happens if it’s supported by great teachers. Fundamentally, this is why we invest in education : access to a high quality education that prepares young people for their future- career or post-secondary studies and then career— we think that is mission critical.
The Gates Foundation’s education strategies are prioritized and focus heavily on the investment in professional development. We would frame that in our work as feedback on teacher effectiveness. What’s clear from our experiences and the research is that, what happens between a teacher and student in the classroom is one of the most important investments that you can make that drives student outcomes. Once you say that, then that means that you have to focus on instruction. If you focus on instruction, how do you dramatically improve and sustain high quality instruction so that it benefits all kids ? That means : feedback for teachers, and personalized PD for teachers that helps them improve their practice. If you look at the foundations’ investments, that is one of the critical paths and one of our top three education priorities.
During your opening at the US Education Learning Forum, you spoke eloquently about the education caste system that you experienced in your Denver high school. Do you think that it’s possible to eliminate that in the US and if so, what change does that require?
I do think it’s possible. Several reasons that I know it’s possible, is that we see it working in certain places and that gives us a lot of confidence that we can do this. If you think about education as an equalizer, but then access to high quality education isn’t accesible to all, then education itself becomes a cause of inequity. Education for too many of our young people depends on zip codes and parent income levels. It’s a huge problem and yet we know what it takes to solve it. If you look at where it’s working across the country, students are thriving and achieving. The four things that we believe makes it possible :
- high expectations for all students, coupled with
- great teaching that is sustainable for all teachers and all kids,
- more personalized education for all students, and
- where students and educators are at the core, driving the learning.
After a recent learning trip in eastern rural Kentucky, a resource-limited area further devastated by the decline of the coal industry, these principles were borne out in clear ways. What I was struck by most was seeing the fourth principle in action. Educators in this community were at the core of the work and they were unwavering in their responsibilities to students. I contrasted this with many visits to urban resource-limited areas, where often times you hear educators say that they don’t believe all kids can learn. They list a litany of realities (poverty, hunger, parent absenteeism), that almost fall in the conversation as excuses. Yet in eastern Kentucky, down to the individual stakeholder, everyone refused to accept those same conditions as excuses and demonstrated the « whatever it takes » attitude : data-driven, iterating with students, deeply involved in student growth and incremental growth and support. These are things that I think are extraordinary—they know the students’ social struggles and still ensure that that family has access to food and can get basic needs met/get back on their feet, all without lowering expectations for student achievement.
I think that in rural areas, there is a sense of community that you don’t see in urban settings. It’s [more] natural based on the small size of their communities—everyone knows each other. The geographic dimensions create community urgency and agency that can be very difficult to duplicate in an urban setting. I also think that when you are in a resource-constrained environment, often you have to figure out how to get things done when you know that there are no additional resources coming. In rural areas, there is no hope of resources dramatically increasing — there won’t be a better contract or more taxes – so, in those areas, educators have to think differently. Their mindset for how to get things done more quickly takes on a different dimension.
We tend to think of urban as a monolith as opposed to sum of the parts. I’ve seen in some urban areas that, when they break down their geographic footprint into smaller footprints, they can duplicate the culture of community that exists more organically in rural settings—knowing all the students and ways to come close to rural community in urban settings. I believe it’s possible.
Allan’s One Good Question: Given the importance that we place on education and that we know what it takes to provide high quality education for all children, why haven’t we solved it for all children ? That’s what this country has to wrestle with.