Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

5 Takeaways from Our First U.S. Education Learning Forum

October 29, 2015

“The work we're doing in education is the hardest work that we do," Melinda Gates said —and I agree. The Gates Foundation recently brought together education leaders and practitioners for the U.S. Education Learning Forum in Bellevue, WA to look back on 15 years of work. While it was an opportunity to celebrate our progress, our more important task was to identify gaps where we can collectively do better to help students achieve and discuss our collective plans for the future. We heard from teachers, students, advocates, policymakers, and other trailblazers from across the education continuum. We talked about academic progress made, teacher feedback and assessment challenges we have yet to fully overcome, and potential solutions to some of the most pressing issues in education today.

I left the forum feeling inspired, as I hope others did, by all that we can accomplish to increase educational opportunities for young people—and I wanted to share what I view as some of the biggest takeaways from the forum.

1.      Education is the bridge to opportunity.

As I shared in my remarks, inequality is a big problem in this country—but it isn’t intractable, and it’s not inevitable. At the foundation we really believe that, which is why we speak so often about education as America’s great equalizer.

Bill and Melinda touched on this concept during their conversation with PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill, and Melinda stressed in her keynote that all students deserve access to a quality education. This is rooted, of course, in our core belief that all lives have equal value.

Many participants talked at length about using education to bridge the gap caused by social inequity, but I was struck by something Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said on the second day of the forum. “Will children born in poverty die in poverty?” he asked. “That’s what concerns me.”

2.      Listen to the people that education affects most.

Nobody knows education like those who see it first-hand, every day. That’s why we heard from many individuals on the front lines of education—students, teachers, a parent and a college advisor—about the need for change in education.

Our student speakers felt strongly that their voices should be heard. In his speech and a post he wrote for Impatient Optimists, Carlos Chavez—who came to the U.S. as an undocumented child unable to speak a word of English—discussed the need for students to be heard, and to receive the support and information they need to navigate an often-complicated schooling system. Andrew Brennen, a student at UNC Chapel Hill, also noted: “Turns out, informed students can be excellent advocates.” I couldn’t agree more.

During a session on teacher effectiveness, Kelly Zunkiewicz, a high school teacher in Florida, told the crowd that the most important thing for everyone to take away from her speech was this: talk to teachers, because what they have to say matters. Teachers are the individuals responsible for implementing education policies in the classroom every day; so why shouldn’t they have a say in how to shape those policies? Later, Tara Smith, a sixth grade teacher in Glen Rock, New Jersey, shared the same message. “Teacher voices need to be heard,” she said. “Teachers should be encouraged to speak out and ask for the tools, feedback and development opportunities we need for our students to succeed.”

3.      To be great, teachers need feedback.

All around the world, a great education starts with great teachers. “Good teachers believe in every child, every day,” said Cicely Woodard, a middle school teacher in Nashville, TN. She went on to note that educators “motivate kids to be better than their best selves.” She is absolutely right. Effective teachers boost student achievement, but in order to be effective, teachers need strong feedback and improvement systems. I love this quote from Bill during his keynote address: “Every teacher has the right to ask of every evaluation: ‘How will this help me get better?’ That needs to be the first purpose of every effort to evaluate a teacher.”

4.      It’s time to transform higher education.

As my colleague Dan Greenstein, Director of our Postsecondary Success Program, noted in a session on higher education, the vast majority of today’s students has a very different college experience than most of us had in the past. Today’s college students are less apt to take the traditional, four-year route to graduation. And for them, the stakes are high: obtaining a college credential is considered “a ticket into the middle class.”

It’s time to transform higher education, through financial aid reform and the development of more digital learning options, among other things, so that it can meet the needs of our new student majority. Today’s colleges and universities need bold, innovative and creative leaders to guide them into the 21st century and serve the students who make up our new majority before higher education becomes a “wedge between the haves and have nots.”

5.      Pay more attention to early learning.

Early learning can make a big difference in a child’s education. It lays the foundation for future success in school and life. For this reason, we need to support kids from an early age with effective teachers, authentic relationships, play-filled learning environments, and encouragement.

As Sherrie Belt—a parent and early learning educator who spoke at the forum—noted in a recent post for Impatient Optimists, “a quality education matters—starting from an early age, taught by someone who cares.” Marquita Davis, the Executive Director of Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity, also spoke at length about the topic, noting that “early childhood environments should be engaging and interactive.”

Our Early Learning Initiative is one way we are trying to help young children start strong, so that they enter kindergarten prepared to thrive in elementary school and beyond.


The Education Learning Forum let us share experiences and expertise, and celebrate the foundation’s 15 years of work on education issues. Even so, we know the hard work lies ahead. I look forward to hearing from you about the opportunities and challenges you feel will shape the future of education in this country—and how we can work together to meet them head-on.

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