A Top Gates Foundation Official Leaving for NewSchools Venture Fund

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Stacey Childress, who has helped direct the flow of many millions of dollars in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to school projects nationwide, is leaving that post to join a well-known investment philanthropy focused on education.

Childress will become the chief executive officer of the NewSchools Venture Fund, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that raises capital from institutions and individuals to support education entrepreneurs.

She will take over the post from Ted Mitchell, a former president of the California state board of education who was recently confirmed as undersecretary of education at the U.S. Department of Education.

At Gates, Childress is the deputy director of education and leads the foundation’s investments in K-12 Next Generation Learning, which included support for projects focused on the redesign of schools, and promoting innovation in schools through technology, among other priorities. From 2010 to 2014, the portfolio of grants overseen by that section of the foundation was nearly $300 million, money that supported 200 technology and school entrepreneurs, according to the philanthropy.

Founded in 1998, the NewSchools Venture Fund says it has raised and invested more than $200 million in entrepreneurial programs, including charter management organizations, ed-tech companies, and teacher-preparation programs. Childress, who is expected to begin work at NewSchools in late July, said NewSchools’ mission fit her views of how wise investment can help schools.

“It’s always looked for opportunities, and to have an impact,” Childress told EdWeek, of her new employer. Support for bold ideas, she said, “has been a hallmark” of the organization. 

Dave Goldberg, the CEO of SurveyMonkey, a web-based survey company, and a board member at NewSchools, said that when the organization began taking initial steps toward searching for a successor to Mitchell, much of the advice it heard was the same—that it should pursue Childress.

Goldberg, in an interview, said Childress was an especially strong fit for the position, given the parallel interests of NewSchools’ and Gates’ work. He said Childress’ direct experience working with K-12 entrepreneurs also appealed to NewSchools.

“She has an incredible vision for about where education should go,” Goldberg said, and her skills “fit what NewSchools is” as an organization. 

The Gates foundation’s overall influence in the K-12 arena is vast. It has supported charter schools, efforts to improve teacher quality, and the development of the common-core standards, to cite a few examples of its giving that have received attention recently. (It has also backed the NewSchools Venture fund and has previously supported editorial coverage at Education Week.)

The organization’s influence has also drawn objections from some camps in the K-12 arena. Critics of the common standards, charter schools, and efforts to tie teacher-evaluation to student test scores, for instance, say Gates’ money has helped drive what they see as a misguided agenda in those areas.

Childress said some of that resistance was inevitable. A philanthropy that aspires to bring deep changes in education has to “take bold risks,” Childress said.  “Sometimes, those ideas, because they’re new and not well-understood, have generated criticism,” she said.

Childress’ division at Gates has also shown an interest in encouraging ed-tech developers to create tools that are more closely aligned with educators’ specific classroom needs. A national surveyfunded by Gates’ Next Generation Learning team and unveiled at a recent gathering of K-12 investors, revealed that teachers have doubts about the value of many of the products sent their way.

With all “the innovations going on in technology, we still have a lot of figuring out of what to do, in terms of what are the best strategies,” Childress said. There’s a “real opportunity for product developers to address the needs of educators.”

One of the philanthropy’s recent, controversial investments in ed-tech products was its support for inBloom, a data-management company backed with $100 million in funding from Gates and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. InBloom sought to make cutting-edge improvements in states’ and districts’ use of data, but its work drew strong objections from some parents, leading to an erosion of support among policymakers. In the face of that opposition, inBloom recently announced plans to phase out its operations over time. 

Extensive planning went into inBloom, beginning with the organization that preceded it, called the Shared Learning Collaborative, Childress told EdWeek. (The learning collaborative consisted of representatives from Gates, Carnegie, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, among others.) A design team overseen by the learning collaborative, which also included consultants with expertise in education technology, worked for about 18 months laying the groundwork for what would become inBloom, she said.

But while that team tried to anticipate the needs of the organization and the schools it was designed to serve, not enough planning went into how to talk with parents about the technology and its benefits to schools, creating a disconnect that Childress described as a major oversight.

It was critical to have “engaged with parents more directly,” particularly those “with little prior knowledge” of inBloom’s goals and how it would work in states and school districts, she said. “That was a really big miss.”

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