04/16/2013 03:51 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2013

Improving Our Children's Education Through Collaboration


Working together in new ways can make a big difference in how our kids learn.

That's the message from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), two unusual allies -- and strong partners of United Way -- who have come together around a common passion: struggling students.

Every year, 1.2 million students drop out of high school. Among those who do graduate, one-third need remedial courses in college and far too few actually earn a degree. Many national organizations, including United Way, are focused on changing these odds, and one of the keys to success is to support effective teaching. In fact, students who have the benefit of effective teaching can learn up to an entire grade level more each year than their counterparts.

So how do we make sure every child has that opportunity?

One lightning rod has been the system in place to define and evaluate effective teaching. Critics have called it rigid, punishing and sorely lacking in ways to improve performance. As is often the case with lightning rods, there has also been a lot of heat, wind and electricity.

So it's particularly heartening to see the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the AFT, two highly recognized authorities on teacher evaluation, come together for the betterment of student learning.

In a co-authored article in the New Republic, the two say "students have a right to effective instruction" and that "evaluation systems are not just a stamp of approval or disapproval but a means of improvement." Effective evaluation systems are one of the best ways to encourage teacher and student learning, they say. The article includes six practical recommendations to implement high-quality teacher development and evaluation systems, informed by extensive research. Anyone who cares about kids getting a good education should take these to heart. The collaboration behind these ideas is just as inspiring as the content.

Why does it matter to United Way? Because across the country, most of our 1,200 United Ways are supporting education, many working with partners such as educators, employers, parents and faith leaders to fuel major community change built around better education outcomes.

We put a stake in the ground in 2008 and issued a challenge to America by setting benchmarks of long-term success. Our ambitious 10-year goals are to:
• Cut by half the number of young people who drop out of high school;
• Cut by half the number of low-wage families who are financially unstable; and
• Increase by one-third the number of youth and adults who are healthy and avoid risky behaviors.

United Way focuses on education, income and health because those are building blocks of a good quality of life -- and the pathway to opportunity.

Although the high school graduation rate is the highest it's been since 1976 with significant gains by students of color, we have a long way to go.

In 2009, United Way set out to better understand how our national network could help struggling students through boosting effective teaching. Over two years, we engaged 14 communities in Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee to identify strategies to support and enhance effective teaching at every grade level. With support from the Gates Foundation, United Ways brought together thousands to talk about the issue by hosting hundreds of listening sessions. Educators, parents, young people, faith leaders, high school dropouts, law enforcement, employers and others tackled this issue together -- often for the first time, many crossing long-standing divides.

Those conversations sparked good ideas and local innovation, and they sowed the seeds for broader, deeper partnerships on cradle-to-career education reforms that are now in full swing and producing results. They also served as a reminder that improving education takes all of us working together (and sometimes getting over old battles to do it). This principle was echoed by the AFT and the Gates Foundation in the New Republic article: "Teacher development and evaluation must be a vehicle to achieve the mission of public schooling," where teacher evaluation "reflects the sophistication and importance of their work."

I could not agree more.