SEATTLE -- Melinda Gates, one of the most influential women in American education, said this week she gives the U.S. public school system a C-plus, but adds there are spots of improvement that give her optimism for the future.
Gates said she bases her assessment on international comparisons of student achievement and on the fact that only a fraction of American high school students are ready for college when they complete their studies.
"I see pockets of improvements. The neat thing about the pockets of improvements is they're getting larger all the time and they're across the nation," she told The Associated Press during an interview this week in her Seattle office overlooking the Space Needle at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Those pockets are growing in places like New Orleans and in Florida, New York, New Orleans and Colorado, Gates added, because districts are talking to each other and sharing their best practices.
For the past decade, the Gates Foundation has studied education, influenced public policy and spent billions of dollars toward improving student outcomes by supporting education reform and demanding better results. Since 2000, the foundation has spent about $5 billion on education grants and scholarships.
Their focus has influenced the national agenda, as the U.S. Department of Education has pushed for similar reforms such as adoption of the national academic standards known as the common core, as well as insisting on improvement in state teacher-evaluation systems.
The foundation has given some states money and assistance to prepare their applications for federal grant programs and some top officials in Washington, D.C., are former employees at the foundation in Washington state.
Some see the foundation as a critic of American teachers because of their emphasis on teacher evaluations, but Gates said that impression is wrong. She hopes teachers see the foundation as partners in figuring out how to help them do their jobs.
"We fundamentally believe in teachers. My gosh, they're incredible," she said, after a day listening to 110 teachers from around the nation compare notes and talk about what they need to improve at a gathering at the Seattle foundation.
At a forum for teachers and foundation staff on Tuesday morning, educators talked about needing more time outside the classroom for training and collaboration.
"Time is a great barrier to the many innovative things we would all like to do as teachers," said JoAnn Miller, a biology teacher in Oconto Falls, Wis., who was one of three educators sitting on the podium with Gates.
The relatively new teacher, who came into the classroom seven years ago after serving in the U.S. Navy, would like to see protracted mentorship programs for teachers and more time to work together on self-evaluations.
Gates said the foundation is conducting experiments in Fresno, Calif., and Bridgeport, Conn., to see how districts can give teachers more planning and training time.
She said teachers need some of that time for learning about the new national academic standards known as the common core, which have been adopted by 45 states and are considered by Gates to be one of the most important education initiatives right now.
Also on the top of the foundation's agenda is improving teacher evaluation systems and professional development. The foundation's third main education initiative involves helping teachers use technology to support their work, such as online forums for sharing lesson plans.
"I know the difference a great teacher can make," said Gates, who has three children, one each in elementary, middle and high school.
One of the foundation's first big education initiatives focused on creating smaller schools out of large comprehensive high schools.
The widespread and expensive experiment was considered mostly a failure by education experts, but Gates said the small schools initiative helped the foundation learn what was really important: the teacher at the front of the classroom.
That's what led to years of research on what makes a great teacher and how schools can use various evaluation methods to study teachers and help them improve. That initiative is now influencing many states in redesigning their teacher evaluation systems, at the insistence of the federal government.
The foundation also has invested money into charter school networks and continues to support charter schools as laboratories for innovation, Gates said.
"You get these pinpoints of light from charter schools," she said, adding that parents can evaluate their own children's schools by looking for successful reforms first tried in charter schools.
Gates said she is very excited to see charter schools finally coming to her home state. Last November, Washington voters approved adding up to 40 of the independent public schools within five years.