In Bill and Melinda Gates’ first major retrospective since 2009 on their education giving, the couple acknowledged that trying to improve the nation’s schools has proved more complex than finding a cure for malaria.

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Working on reforming the U.S. education system is the hardest job they’ve ever tackled, Bill and Melinda Gates said Wednesday — even more difficult and complex than trying to find a cure for malaria.

In the first major address assessing their educational-philanthropy work in seven years, the couple that lead the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation acknowledged that many issues surrounding education have become politicized.

But they said they think they are on the right track by focusing on teacher training as the key to improving education, defended the use of testing as one way to measure teacher and student performance, and said the Common Core state standards are starting to show results.

Each spoke at length during a Gates Foundation-sponsored event,a two-day conference in downtown Bellevue that is bringing together about 250 national education leaders and politicians. The forum marks the 15th year the foundation has been involved in U.S. education philanthropy.

In 2009, at a similar event, the foundation launched the Empowering Effective Teachers initiative, an attempt to help school districts identify and reward their best teachers, help all teachers improve and weed out the worst.

By 2013, according to an Education Week analysis, the Gates Foundation had spent nearly $700 million on its teacher-quality agenda.

Bill Gates acknowledged Wednesday that the foundation is still learning how it can help move the needle on improving the American education system. But he said he believed “we are working on the right problems” — that all students should meet high standards, that they should be taught by great teachers and that learning should be customized to meet each individual student’s needs.

The couple didn’t say how much they expected to spend in the coming years on their education work, nor did they describe specific ways the money would be spent.

From the beginning, the Effective Teachers initiative was controversial, in part because of efforts to tie teacher performance to test scores. Many teachers were suspicious, fearing they would be ranked on a standard that many argue isn’t a good or reliable measure of teachers’ work.

Although he believes teacher training is key to improving the nation’s schools, Bill Gates expressed concern about whether the foundation’s teacher initiative will ultimately have an impact. “A majority of teachers are in systems that don’t really help them improve all that much,” he said.

He said he’s been surprised that education work can actually “go backward,” saying that if teachers don’t trust new evaluation systems, then they might opt for saying they don’t want any feedback at all.

That’s quite different from the foundation’s global-health work, where there’s been steady progress.

“If we come up with a new malaria drug, a new malaria vaccine, nobody votes to uninvent our malaria vaccine,” said Gates, to laughter from the audience.

The foundation’s work to advance the Common Core — a set of learning standards that 42 states are now using — has also met with fierce resistance. Bill Gates acknowledged that the foundation was taken aback by the pushback on Common Core.

Melinda Gates said she believes a few states moved too fast into Common Core, particularly in introducing new tests, which upset parents. “At the political level, there’s a lot of noise,” she said. “But if you go out and survey teachers, they are for the Common Core.”

Kentucky — the first state to implement Common Core — is starting to see significant improvement in student achievement, she said. Before the standards were adopted, about 34 percent of Kentucky high-school graduates were academically prepared for college; today, 62 percent are ready.

Bill Gates said he thought Common Core became mixed up with issues of overtesting, a concern that the federal government was playing too heavy a hand in local education, and what he sees as Internet-fed myths about the difficulty of the subjects.

The Effective Teachers initiative is a national effort using evaluations, feedback and tools to help improve teaching. There’s been a particular focus on three school districts (in Tampa, Fla.; Pittsburgh and Memphis, Tenn.), and one consortium of charter-school operators. Those districts created new evaluation systems and rewarded effective teachers with bonuses.

But in Florida, the effort cost the Hillsborough County school district far more than officials projected. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the foundation is spending $20 million less than expected. (The Gates Foundation disputes that figure, and says the grant is still ongoing.) The paper’s report says few teachers were fired, and there’s little evidence the system boosted student achievement.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the foundation at one point threatened to pull its grant funding after the district and teachers could not immediately come to an agreement over teacher-evaluation standards. That issue has since been resolved.

In order to work, Bill Gates said, evaluation systems must be balanced, embraced by teachers, include data that teachers trust and have resources behind it to drive improvement.

“This is where we’re focused,” he said. “Over the next decade, we hope to see incredible progress in this.

Related video: An interview with Melinda Gates

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“I hope that teachers will demand systems that help them improve,” he added. “In the long run, that’s absolutely the only things that will sustain these systems. “

Randy Dorn, the state’s schools chief, said he detected a softer tone from the foundation, and an embrace of ideas such as social-emotional learning and the importance of students feeling safe at school. The foundation had focused on getting rid of bad teachers, he said; now its emphasis is on improving skills of all teachers.

Mary Jean Ryan, director of the Road Map Project, which works with Seattle Public Schools and six South King County school districts to improve student learning, said she was struck by the Gateses’ recognition that finding solutions to America’s education woes is even more difficult than solving global-health issues. (The Road Map Project receives Gates funding.)

“They’re saying they’ve tried a lot of different tactics, and there is no silver bullet,” Ryan said. To her, that part “really rang true.”

(Note: The Gates Foundation provides financial support for The Seattle Times’ Education Lab project, which focuses on promising approaches to address the biggest challenges in education.)