My Word of the Year for 2020: Transformation

Taking a page out of Melinda Gates’s book (figuratively, I mean…but if you haven’t read Melinda’s book, The Moment of Lift, you should), I’ve decided that instead of a resolution for 2020 I’m going to focus on a word for the year. Choosing a word for the year, Melinda says, is “another way to start each year with new resolve.” With that in mind, my word for 2020 is this: transformation.

Now, I’m not talking about personal or lifestyle transformation. I’m talking about the aspiration that drives my work and the work of our team in the United States Program at the Gates Foundation. We’re focused on transforming education systems and institutions in the United States so that things like race and income are no longer predictors of student outcomes. That is a high bar — and “transformation” may seem like a rather grandiose word — but it is an appropriate term if we’re going to meet that bar. Because when a white adult is twice as likely as a Hispanic adult to have at least an associate’s degree, and when a high-income student is five times more likely than a low-income student to have a bachelor’s degree by age 24, minor adjustments won’t do — we need transformation.

Twenty years of investing in U.S. education have taught us some key lessons about what works and why, and many of the best examples we’ve seen in the field are the ones where schools, colleges, and universities commit to transforming the way they work in order to better serve their students.

For example, in 2011 we funded the Completion by Design initiative, where select community colleges committed to long-term, large-scale change to better serve their students. That work began with college faculty, staff, administrators, and students coming together to identify barriers to student achievement and come up with interventions to help remove those barriers. They were then connected to other like-minded colleges through a supporting organization so they could more effectively share insights, knowledge, and support each other on their journey of transformation.

By focusing on things like stronger student advising, using data to drive decision-making, and building a culture of continuous improvement, these institutions were able to hit their targets years earlier than expected. This meant significantly increasing the number of students passing their gateway math and English courses in their first year, earning first-year credits that point towards a concentration or major, and ultimately receiving a degree or certificate. Institutions like Lorain County Community College point to that experience as something that helped them build a permanent mindset of continually transforming itself to meet the evolving needs of their students, all while increasing the percentage of students receiving a degree or certificate by nearly 80 percent since 2011.

This approach of thinking in terms of student-centered transformation has continued with our Frontier Set of partners, which expanded the work to include four-year institutions and state higher education systems. It’s also a theme that runs across our K-12 Networks for School Improvement, which now include 30 networks of middle and high schools serving more than 700 schools across more than 20 states. These networks are solving common problems by using data and continuous improvement to test new ideas, rethink their assumptions, and transform systems and instruction with their schools. It’s early in this work, but we’re already seeing promising signs that make us optimistic about how these efforts will benefit students over time.

And earlier this week we announced an expansion of our postsecondary partnerships to engage more institutions in the work of transformation and reach more students. Our Intermediaries for Scale will begin working with at least 300 additional institutions over the next several years to build their capacity to transform in ways that eliminate gaps by race and income. Building on what we’ve learned from years of experience with this model, these intermediaries will connect institutions to learn from each other, develop shared tools and resources, and support the culture shifts necessary to put student success and interests above all else.

We have always believed that collectively we can go further together than we can alone, and the need to build on this work and reach more students is more urgent than ever. As the child of parents who, through hard work and education, were able to climb to the middle class, my own life was transformed through access to a quality education. We owe all students that opportunity, and it will take nothing short of transformation to reach that goal. That’s what I’m committed to, in 2020 and beyond.

President, U.S. Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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