Mapping The Terrain: Year 1 Of The Evaluation Of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s National School District And Network Grants Program


Shear, L., & Smerdon, B. (2003, April). Mapping the terrain: Year 1 of the evaluation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s National School District and Network Grants Program. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.


Over the past decade, a number of reform efforts have aimed at reducing the size of the learning communities in the nation’s schools. Although these efforts take multiple forms (e.g., breaking up existing large schools, creating new schools, reducing class size), their common purpose is to provide students with a more personalized environment that addresses their individual needs and learning styles. In a number of jurisdictions across the country, learning communities are being downsized with support from such philanthropic organizations and governmental agencies as the Annenberg Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the California State Legislature. The Annenberg Foundation, for example, committed $500 million to reform urban high schools, emphasizing the importance of reducing school size. One of the Carnegie Foundation’s major goals for middle schools was “to create small communities for learning” (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Developments, 1989, p. 9). In 2000, the U.S. Department of Education awarded nearly $45 million to Local Education Agencies to support its Smaller Learning Communities Program, with substantial increases in funding over the past two years. Further, California has spent roughly $1.5 billion per year for class size reduction in grades K–3 over the past six years, and at least 24 other states also have taken steps to reduce class size (Bohrnstedt and Stecher, 2002).

Although support is mounting for small, effective learning environments, small schools are far from commonly available as educational alternatives for all students. Such schools are currently in short supply, as is knowledge of what it takes to achieve systemic success. In recent years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has developed a reform initiative designed to address both of these needs through its National School District and Network Grants Program, a $350 million initiative to improve America’s high schools. The foundation’s grantees are taking a twopronged approach to reform: grantee organizations are supporting the design of new, small high schools and/or the conversion of large high schools into smaller learning communities. Additionally, the foundation funds a number of K–12 district initiatives and organizations that provide technical assistance to school reformers, as well as organizations that advocate for policy environments supportive of school reform. Through this program the foundation hopes to increase the supply of successful small school alternatives, particularly for students who are currently most underserved. In addition, by studying the varied approaches and contexts in which the program operates, the foundation hopes to offer insights into what works in practice as reformers seek to enact fundamental improvements in the system of American high school education.

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