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National Charter Schools Conference

June 29, 2010
Remarks by Bill Gates, Co-chair and Trustee

Well thank you Nelson for all your great leadership over the last five years. I’m excited to be here. I’m a big believer in the work you do. When I was trying to picture the audience and what it would be like I decided, “Well, you’re involved in charters,” and I tried to imagine that everybody here was like Don Shalvey. Don is a pioneer of the movement and now he’s part of the brain trust at our foundation. So, you know, if you’re like him I was confident we’d connect through our mutual admiration. But then I realized it would be pretty unusual to have 4,000 Don Shalvey ’s all together. The room might just explode with all the energy. So there’s only one that I should say, “Thank you Don for everything you’ve done to help students seize their opportunities.”

This whole movement is making great progress. You should feel great about your dedication to innovation that helps young people achieve their opportunity. Our foundation admires the work you do. We’ve made the primary focus of our education’s work here in the United States helping with education. And it’s a big challenge but a very, very important challenge.

When I speak about our foundation’s work in education one of the questions I get all the time and sometimes even in sort of an excusatory tone is, “Is it true that you support charter schools?” Well, I love that question because I like to answer, “Yes. We are guilty as charged.”

I’ve had a chance to visit a number of charter schools. One of the most memorable visits was a few years ago in Houston, Texas where Melinda and I got to see both KIP and YES work there. And we were amazed by what we saw. We agreed those schools were good enough that we’d feel great sending our kids to those schools as much as any school private or public in the country.

The results that high performing charters like KIP and YES are getting are astounding; especially when you compare them to the schools nearby. The graduation rate in Houston Independent School District is under 70% but at these charter schools over 95% graduate and over 90% go on to four-year college.

Sitting in the KIP classroom and YES classroom showed me that the statistics alone don’t capture the magic of what’s going on. The atmosphere was totally different than what I’d experienced in my high school years or in any classroom I’d been in. The teacher was constantly on the move—scanning the room for students who weren’t engaged. He was finding creative ways to get everyone to participate. There was a very high level of energy. At times I felt like I was in a pep rally instead of in a math class. At the end of the day I asked one of the teachers what they liked about their work. And he said the key thing was that by teaching there he could be sure his students had…all teachers were effective…all teachers cared about that student and in the future grades, particularly there, where there was a charter high school that throughout their education everything that that teacher worked on would be reinforced and so that his hard work would end up making a difference in those students lives. It’s seeing examples like that that reinforce the essential role that you’re playing and make us want to allow all students to have an experience of that quality.

Charter schools are especially important right now because they are the only schools that have the full opportunity to innovate. The way we educate students in this country hasn’t changed in generations and it isn’t meeting the needs of today’s fast changing society. A college degree is now almost a requirement for most well paying jobs and yet a third of students never graduate from high school and half of those who do graduate have to go on to take remedial courses with very high dropout rates. And of course if we look at these statistics or the inner cities or minorities or low income we see the inequity jumps out in an even stronger way.

Now these poor results are despite the fact that over the last 30 years society has invested substantially more in schools. There’s been an increase in the average salary, there’s been an increase in the number of adults and so it’s very disappointing that on balance the public schools with those additional resources have not been able to get better results. So our school system is desperately in need of brand new approaches and actually testing and improving those approaches out. And that’s one thing that charter schools do best. For example, if you want to try doing something that’s heavily online, if you want to try something thematic that draws students in in a cross disciplinary way, across something unusual like construction or aeronautics or outward bound, if you want to do something that blurs the boundary between high school and college all of these things are possible in the charter environment. If you want to extend the school day or even the year, if you want to enroll boys only or girls only, if you want to try out novel ideas for how you evaluate teachers and help them improve and how they work together, those things can be done in charter schools. This notion of trying new things out in education makes a lot of people uncomfortable and I can understand why, you know, they’re worried about, “Will the new system fail?” And nobody wants to either be a teacher or have students at a school that doesn’t work well. But the fact is the majority of children in the country are attending schools that don’t work for them. So it’s imperative that we take the risk to make change. Not just small changes at the market, but dramatic changes that are centered around the student. And that is the only way we’ll get a system that prepares all students to continue their education beyond high school.

I believe the seeds of that new approach are being sewn at your schools. We need the breakthroughs and your charters are showing that breakthroughs are possible.

One area that’s particularly ripe right now is the use of technology in the classroom. So far technologies had a very modest effect despite pronouncements about TV or drill software, it hasn’t been integrated. But the possibilities are stronger than ever and I’m confident that there is a real opportunity here and charters can be at the forefront of this. An example is what’s being done at Rocketship Education in San Jose, California. They run two schools where it’s…they’re pioneering hybrid schooling. The leaders divide the curriculum up—one is a critical thinking component, which is done in a more traditional way, collaborative learning, project-based activities, but the second complimentary piece that’s done in parallel is the basic skills component, which is done with an online learning lab using educational software. Software that assesses the student, shows them exactly what they should learn and therefore lets them proceed at their own pace. And that software shows the teacher exactly where that student is. It gives that student encouragement. This is just in an early stage and there’s a lot of learning software development to be done. But the early results show great promise. The students are scoring higher than on tests in the wealthy neighboring districts like Palo Alto even though 80% of these students are coming from low income families and many don’t speak English at home. Also the hybrid has the promise of being more efficient. It can save money. By using these online learning labs they’re able to reduce the size of the teaching core for those basic skill components. And this approach results in an over half million dollar savings per school and they can invest that money in improving the program.

The fact that technology can be cost effective is especially relevant at this point. There’s a lot of news about the funding crisis facing school districts across the country. And unfortunately those crises are not going to come to a quick end. The complexities of state budgets in terms of medical costs and pension costs and various other costs that are going up faster than tax collections has meant that schools are being squeezed. So more schools are going to find themselves in the difficult position that you’ve all had to deal with for years—having to do more with somewhat less. But technology being pioneered at schools like Rocketship does offer a path forward. Even when the technology isn’t about fundamentally changing the school day it can help teachers do a lot better. Take for example coaching. In the past that’s meant, you know, the principal or a lot of people come into the back of the classroom. It happens fairly regularly. But today with web cams it can be done on a fairly passive, non obtrusive basis. In fact, keeping a video of the entire class activity is very straight forward. It hardly costs anything. So if a teacher has a part of their classroom where they think they didn’t explain a concept well or a student was disruptive and they want advice on how to deal with that, just remembering what time that was and having colleagues able to look that up and give advice is very straight forward. If they feel they did something very well, very important that they’d like to share, sending a pointer to that is very easy. There are some charters like Aspire who are using technology to give real time feedback. A master teacher at the back of the class can whisper and give advice and thoughts to the teacher up in front. More and more there are great educational materials showing up online. I’ll be the first to admit it’s not very well organized today. Finding something that’s high quality that really fits is still quite difficult. But if we looked at pioneers, if we looked at some of the college introductory courses on sites like academicearth.org, if we looked at some of the things that are showing up on YouTube; things like [inaudible] Academy, we can see the promise of having very, very high quality material—material that you use when a student is behind, material that you use if a student is ahead, material that you use to motivate why is a concept interesting. How can it be applied? Materials for projects and experiments and things. And so online, although very disorganized today, our foundation and others are going to play a role to make that a much stronger set of resources. Why not have videos of teachers teaching in the very best way possible that are accessible to both students and teachers to learn from or to assign? And there’s a lot of energy coming in around this including stuff that will be online and free. And when somebody’s going to go off and take a placement test there should be things online where they can assess their knowledge in advance and not never be surprised. They should know where they are weak, where they are good, and certainly software development should be able to provide that.

So charter schools and their ability to innovate are a key part of our foundation’s education strategy. Now the way that we’re working with charter schools has changed. I’m sure people have heard that the way we’re funding charter schools is different. And it’s true. We are looking at helping the charter movement in new ways. Over the last decade we invested in increasing the number of charter management organizations that had proven they could scale. Charter schools were still a new idea and it was very important that this idea of high quality replication really being proven out and so that we would have many significant large networks of successful schools. Now there are a number of those and they have got strong track records and it’s very important that we get both the government and local philanthropic support so that financial constraints are not holding back the expansion. When we have great charters that feel that they can develop additional capacity nothing should stand in the way of that—not charter limits, not facilities problems, not financial restrictions. And so given how important that is we will be strong advocates in helping in new ways. Certainly on the political front getting rid of the caps where there has been good progress, making sure the funding, which has not been equal that that is changed, and finally that there are facilities that are available and that doesn’t become this huge distraction and a problem that holds charters back.

On the facilities issues there, you know, are many solutions. Often there are buildings that should be made available. In some cases new buildings need to be created. And so we’ve gotten involved in helping on the financing end so charter that schools can get larger loans at significantly better rates. And so that support in terms of allowing full speed growth is still very important to us. But our key strategy has shifted and it’s now a major focus on effective teaching. We’re focused on making sure that the very best practices that are out there, because there are a lot of really amazing teachers, that those are understood and those best practices are spread. And that means better methods in terms of recruiting, trading, evaluating and giving people a chance to improve throughout their career.

We’re also focusing on rigorous standards, curricula and assessments that will help teachers focus students on what they need to learn. And we’re very involved in helping to think through these next generation models. Where once you have great online materials at different levels of school what does that mean? What does it mean to be technology enabled? The technology alone can’t motivate the student, can’t bring them into the right type of learning environment. But it can play a very important role particularly as you’re getting to the higher grades and particularly as you’ve got the student understanding why they should learn and they are motivated. The role of that material can become stronger and stronger.

So you’re critical partners in piloting and scaling these things. One example of an effort on teacher effectiveness is the partnership we have in Los Angeles called the College Ready Promise. This includes 85 schools belonging to 5 different charter organizations. And they’re rethinking how they evaluate teachers and help them improve. And we believe this is a very challenging and important area. Sometimes when people think of evaluation they think of the extremes – if your test scores aren’t good you lose your job, or the other extreme if you just compute your seniority and no matter how well you’re doing your job you know exactly what you’re going to get paid and there is simply nothing in your personnel file about your strengths and weaknesses and a plan to remediate where you do have weaknesses. What we have to find is through a variety of things; where test scores are a part, video observation, peers helping out, even getting feedback from students about, “Was the material relevant? Is the time used well in the classroom?” Bringing these different data points together and understanding that the people who do these things best, that’s really the way forward. And so this College Ready Promise is part of an overall strategy. It includes a career ladder so that the master teachers can feel a sense of achievement independent of their specific seniority and that they are incented to help other teachers to do what they do so well. And so we expect this which is one of four intense locations where we’re working on teacher effectiveness. We expect a lot of good lessons to come out of this. And it’s very important that the teachers involved in these projects, that they really feel it did help them improve because, you know, when it comes to evaluation systems and improvement systems the great unknown makes a lot of teachers reluctant to get involved. And only by having these examples that have worked well, where they were not capricious, where the overhead was modest, where you could tell that the teachers were getting better, only by having those examples and teachers talking openly about those will we be able to spread that throughout the field and not just the charter field throughout all schools.

So I really think that charters have the potential to revolutionize the way students are educated. But to deliver on this promise it’s very important that the movement do even more to hold itself accountable for low performing charters. We know from the studies there’s a lot of incredible A plus charters. We know that many of these are the charters that are replicating and growing. We know that these schools do take on the inner city kids and make sure that they develop their English skills and get incorporated so that they can be treated in a mainstream way. But we also know there are charters that don’t meet that test. In fact, charters that fall below the average of the public school performance even when you adjust for the students they are taking in and that really is a problem. It’s a huge problem where people look at those statistics and they don’t see an overall difference. And so the deal that allowed for the autonomy really has to be a real deal—that the freedom to perform in new ways meant that if you don’t perform that things are shut down after being given a chance. I was pleased to see that the agencies that oversee charter schools are doing more; where 14% of the charters came up were revoked. But if you look at this on a state-by-state basis it is still very uneven. And it’s a tough thing, it’s not an easy thing, but it’s absolutely critical in a world of finite resources where we’re trying to have the excellence show through. This will be more necessary than ever. And of course there is no single charter school sector. There’s incredible variety out there. But we have to have…have it show through and it simply is not happening in the strong way that it can. It’s really in a sense cancelling out the lessons from the effective charter.

Another key challenge I would put to you is taking the best practices that you have and making sure those are shared—shared in the sense that there are evaluations done to really prove out the results. There’s been more of that particularly doing the comparisons of the kids who didn’t get into charters and the kids who did get in. It’s very exciting to see that but we need to do more of that data gathering as we have understandings about works and we need to be involved in spreading those practices not only to other charters but the public schools as well. If you’re rigorous about measuring what works and what doesn’t, and if you’re transparent about this then people will feel the pressure to adopt effective practices. You have to be serious about publicizing things and that will cause broad change. In some cases the relationship should be more direct, not just publishing the results, but also working with these district schools. Part of that, you know, can be a quid pro quo where they’re cooperative on these facilities issues as you’re taking some of your excellence and trying to help them out in areas that they have particular challenges. This type of collaboration is challenging. It requires the districts to participate as well and it takes a shift in perspective, a willingness to not see it as a competitive zero sum game. In a few places where this has happened, notably in New Orleans there have been significant benefits. Since Hurricane Katrina the charter presence in that city has increased by about 60% and the city’s improvement on test scores has grown more than three times faster than the rest of the state. And some of that comes out of the cooperation between the charter sector and the public schools.

So I am optimistic about education. At times when I looked at these budget challenges, I looked at the resistance to change, I often think, “Okay, I need to schedule more time to go out and remind myself by being in your high performance schools how incredible it is when it all comes together." How it forces the teachers to do their best, how it creates amongst the students a sense that disruption is not acceptable and that they’re in it together working together and that they have a bright future because of their education. The goal of scaling up to reach millions is important. And the goal of reaching tens of millions by spreading best practices is equally important. So it is a historic opportunity and I think there are three key things that will help us achieve this. First, as I’ve mentioned, is the issue of identifying and either improving or shutting down low performance schools. Organizations like the alliance absolutely have a role to play. I was very pleased to see the promise of having this three-year goal of reducing the number of these low performing charters in two target states by 30%. That is absolutely fantastic. Another goal to keep in mind is that you need to keep using your autonomy to innovate. Even though many of the schools are very, very good, new things need to be tried and this is a continuous process of evaluation systems, feedback systems, curriculum, technology, there are many ideas that have not been tried out and you are the only place that that will happen in a deep way. Finally, is the challenge of scaling up for broad impact. I talked about publishing the results, I talked about the cooperation, there is a lot more that can be done here. We’ve been involved in some of these district partner compacts of cooperation where there’s a commitment to work together for the benefit of students, there’s a commitment to work together on these evaluation things, there’s specific residency programs involved and we see that as something we want to expand. We’ll announce more about those compacts in the fall and we see a role for our self in helping those things work very well.

So overall I’m delivering a very optimistic message. I’m thanking you for your great work. Many of you have been working on education a lot longer than I have, which is only a decade now, and you know better than I do that this is very hard work and that for every two steps forward there is often one step backward. But whenever I get discouraged I think about those incredible high performance charters. I think about the students there. I think about the teachers there and their incredible commitment. And I think about the importance of this work. If you had one thing that could predict the future of the United States and does it continue to lead and innovate in a strong way, does it continue to be a place where there is equality of opportunity where even a student from a low income background has a chance to go out and make a huge contribution and be very successful. That can only be achieved through great public education. So it’s an important goal and we can give every student, no matter where he or she lives, no matter who their parents are, that kind of opportunity. And when we do achieve that we will have the people here to thank for a lot of the key reasons that happened. We’ll look back, hopefully not more than a decade from now, and see the change that took place and we’ll be able to say that your high performing charters started those changes and made a huge difference.

Thank you.

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