A Funder That's Training STEM Teachers, With an Eye on Also Making Bigger Changes to K-12

Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

Investing in teachers isn’t a new idea. If you want bang for your buck in education, teaching the teachers—to raise the quality and impact of classroom instruction—is one good way to get it.

And although some of those efforts, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s investment of $212 million in the Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching initiative, have not panned out, leveraging impact by investing in teachers remains an appealing strategy. Which is why the Gates Foundation is still in the teacher improvement game, joined by other big-name operations such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

As we’ve reported, a handful of funders are also focusing specifically on boosting teaching in the STEM fields, including math, biology and physics. These are subject areas in which students often struggle, but where a good teacher can make all the difference. The Carnegie Corporation has been one of the biggest backers of improved science education in recent years, supporting 100Kin10, a now-independent organization working to add 100,000 more STEM teachers to classrooms by 2021, and more recently launching OpenSciEd. The James S. McDonnell Foundation, a funder best known for supporting research on the brain, is another player in this niche, recently putting up big money to study how teachers learn and change.


And then there’s the Knowles Teacher Initiative. Based in Morristown, New Jersey, Knowles supports the development of new teachers in STEM fields through financial support, mentorship and coaching.

The initiative is 20 years old, and was founded by C. Harry Knowles, who the organization describes as, “among the nation’s most prolific living inventors” and the holder of nearly 400 patents. Over the years, Knowles has given generously to his namesake foundation, allowing 379 teachers so far to receive the benefits of its flagship effort, the Knowles Teaching Fellows Program, which offers five years of intensive support to early-career math and science teachers.

Recently, Knowles decided to double down on his investment in teachers with a new, multi-year pledge and gift valued at $30 million. The gift is from Knowles and his wife and foundation trustee, Lucy Balian Rorke-Adams. “Lucy and I are honored to be able to pay it forward by supporting beginning math and science teachers through this gift to the Knowles Teacher Initiative,” he said in a statement issued by the foundation.   

Like other funders in the teacher training space, Knowles focuses its teacher support on professional development, bolstering their competency through several phases of support over five years. But the foundation also has a Senior Fellows Program with larger ambitions, supporting “a national network of teachers who have the capacity and drive to be primary agents of educational improvement.” The idea here is to mobilize teachers who’ve completed Knowles’ five-year fellowship to have broader impact.

The foundation says it “strives to create an educational system led by the teachers who are equipped to solve difficult problems and respond to local challenges.”   

“Whether you have politicians or leaders from outside the education sphere, they think they understand what is best for the teachers,” said Scott Murphy, a physics teacher and 2008 Knowles Fellow. But he said it’s best to “give the expertise to the teachers, allow them to drive the changes, and then they’re going to be even more invested in making sure everything works.”

While Knowles’ main focus remains teacher training, the impact it has through leadership development could prove even more significant over time. Just look at the leading teacher training organization in the U.S., Teach for America, which has produced a long list of education leaders, with many focused on building up the charter school movement.

Knowles estimates that its fellows have reached nearly 200,000 U.S. students in their classrooms.