The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Tuesday unveiled ambitious new plans to expand its education initiatives, including working to double the number of low-income students who complete some kind of college or post-high school degree and spending at least $500 million to improve teaching.

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A year and a half ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation asked itself a question: What else, besides the foundation’s work in education, should it do to increase opportunity in the United States?

It looked at health care, housing, poverty and financial services for the poor, said Hilary Pennington, hired to help answer that question. It considered what other foundations were doing and where the Gates Foundation could fill gaps and have a substantial impact.

In the end, it circled back to schools.

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On Tuesday, before an invited audience of many big names in American education, the Gates Foundation unveiled a long list of ambitious new education initiatives that build on its previous work in high schools and expand into higher education.

As usual, the foundation’s goals are bigger than it alone can achieve, even as the world’s largest philanthropy. By 2025, it wants to double the number of low-income students in the U.S. who graduate from college or some kind of post high-school program. It wants 80 percent of low-income and minority students to leave high school prepared to go to college, compared to 22 percent today, according to the foundation.

“That’s unacceptable,” Bill Gates said in his remarks to the group, which included superintendents from cities such as New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., plus advisers to President-elect Barack Obama, and leaders of the nation’s two large teachers unions.

The foundation also wants to help lead efforts to create a national set of high-school learning standards, which will be shorter, tougher and clearer than states now have. And it intends to figure out how to identify and spread effective teaching, spending as much as $500 million during the next five years to improve teacher quality in a handful of districts.

“Doctors aren’t left alone in their offices to try to design and test new medicines,” Gates said. “They’re supported by a huge medical-research industry. Teachers need the same kind of support.”

He also made a strong pitch to pay teachers based on how well they perform, one area that will be controversial with teachers unions.

Gates said he was “astonished” that school districts can’t pay more for high-performing teachers.

“That’s almost like saying teacher performance doesn’t matter, and that’s basically saying students don’t matter,” he said.

The foundation’s education giving is expected to grow, although it’s not clear by how much. In the past eight years, the foundation’s donations totaled about $4 billion — half on college scholarships and half on its work to reinvent high schools.

On Tuesday, Vicki Phillips, the foundation’s education director, said in addition to the money for improving teacher quality, another $500 million will be spent on other research and data. Washington state likely will get some of the grants, but no specific grants will be announced for at least a month or so.

This is the second wave of the foundation’s education giving. The first started in 2000 with a three-year, $350 million gift. At the time, it was the second biggest gift ever to American education.

Many of the results were disappointing, Gates said Tuesday. He acknowledged that the effort to break up big schools into smaller units did not lead to the hoped-for gains in achievement, or an increase in the numbers of students who went on to college.

The foundation still will support small high schools, but now plans to put most of its efforts into, as Phillips said, “filling schools with effective teachers and putting good tools in their hands.”

In higher education, Pennington, who is leading the post-high-school initiative, said the foundation will spend the next few years focused on community colleges, where it sees great potential to help many more students complete their degrees. Then it will regroup and decide what to do next.

The idea is to find a variety of ways to increase the number of people who earn some kind of post-high-school degree, she said.

The foundation intends, for example, to look at ways to reform financial aid so students have more incentives to stay in school and schools have more incentives to keep students in the classroom.

Melinda Gates said that the U.S. used to be first in the world in college-completion rates. Now it’s 10th.

“America’s long history of upward mobility is in danger,” she said. “A postsecondary credential is the best bridge between poor kids and good jobs.”

The foundation also will put a strong emphasis on generating better data about what works and explore how technology can help create “next-generation” schools.

The Gateses however, don’t plan to broaden their mission into elementary or middle schools, or expand what they’re already doing in early-learning efforts. It’s not that those efforts aren’t important, they said, but they have to make choices.

The initial reaction was largely positive, perhaps because many people in the room have received grants from the foundation in the past and are close associates.

But some certainly will be controversial — especially the idea of creating national learning standards, which goes against traditional local control of schools and paying teachers based on performance rather than their level of education and seniority.

The foundation wants to craft proposals that teachers can support. One of the union leaders in attendance, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, said she was willing to listen. But if it turns out that effectiveness will be defined by a test score, “that’s where the conversation stops,” she said.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or

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