Memphis receives $90 million grant from Gates Foundation - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis receives $90 million grant from Gates Foundation

MEMPHIS, TN (AP) - Three school districts and a coalition of charter schools have agreed to be test kitchens for some radical ideas for improving teacher quality - from paying new teachers to spend another year practicing before getting their own class to letting student test scores affect teacher pay.

In exchange, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is handing them the biggest pile of cash it has spent on education reform in about a decade.

The foundation announced $290 million in grants to the four groups on Thursday, plus another $45 million for education research aimed at uncovering what exactly is an effective teacher.

The grants $90 million to Memphis City Schools.

Vicki Phillips, director of the foundation's K-12 education program, said the investment is big, the ideas are bold and she hopes the impact could rock every school and every district in the nation.

Foundation co-chair Melinda Gates said she and her husband, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, consider education reform one of the toughest issues the foundation has taken on. The foundation is best known for its work fighting diseases like AIDS and malaria worldwide.

"Any time you're trying to change a system and really have some innovative approaches, it's going to take some long-term work," Melinda Gates said.

The foundation purposely picked four diverse organizations to work with: from the four corners of the U.S., of a variety of sizes and ethnic mixes, all with existing problems and some successes meeting the educational needs of their students.

A fifth district was in line to join the others, but Omaha Public Schools dropped out at the last minute after decided it could not meet the matching requirement of the grant during these tough economic times.

Smaller grants to other districts will be announced later, Phillips said.

The various reform projects have a number of central themes.

They will focus on teacher training, put the best teachers in the most challenging classrooms, give the best teachers new roles as mentors and coaches while keeping them in front of children, make tenure a meaningful milestone, get rid of ineffective teachers, and use money to motivate people and schools to move toward these goals.

"If you could boil what we know in education down to one sentence, it truly would be, 'Nothing is as important as an effective teacher,"' Phillips said.

The school districts worked closely with local and national teachers unions in crafting their proposals. One of the first organizations to send out a congratulatory note to the grant recipients was the American Federation of Teachers.

"These Gates Intensive Partnership grants will show that when dedicated adults engage in true collaboration, the real winners are the students," said AFT President Randi Weingarten.

Kriner Cash, superintendent in Memphis, expects to be watched very closely by everyone who cares about equal opportunity. In his district, 86 percent of the 108,915 students are African American and 83 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

"All professionals involved in guiding and educating children have a stake in this work," Cash said.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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