Grantmaking Guidelines: Request for Proposal on Networks for School Improvement

What is a Network for School Improvement?

A Network for School Improvement (NSI) is defined as a group of secondary schools working both collectively and individually with an Intermediary to use a continuous improvement process to improve outcomes for Black, Latino, and low-income students. The Intermediary and a network of secondary schools tackle a problem of practice that is common across the network of schools and that was identified using indicators predictive of students’ learning, progress, and postsecondary success.

For important information on the characteristics of NSIs and the indicators that focus their work, please visit the glossary. This information is very important for your application.

What Ideas Underpin the Networks for School Improvement the Foundation is Interested in Funding?

The ideas that underpin Networks for School Improvement (NSIs) are not new. They come from a variety of fields and sources, including what we and our partners have learned in the past and the 278 responses we received to the Request for Information we released last fall. We also know there is still much to learn about how networks of secondary schools come together to increase outcomes for Black, Latino, and low-income students.

In this section, we highlight several of the key ideas that underpin our vision of NSIs.

A commitment to equity

The data are unequivocal: there exists a clear disparity in opportunities, achievement, and postsecondary success for Black, Latino, and low-income students. Research by Stanford professor Sean Reardon shows that the average within-district White-Black and White-Latino achievement gaps are roughly 2.0 and 1.5 grade levels, respectively. This analysis also reveals that students in many of the most socioeconomically advantaged school districts have test scores that are more than four grade levels above those of students in the most disadvantaged districts.

The foundation is committed to ensuring that Black, Latino, and low-income students have equal access to a great public education that prepares them for adulthood. To that end, the foundation seeks to fund Intermediaries supporting network schools that directly serve a student population of which at least 50% are Black, Latino, and low-income.

A focus on networks of secondary schools that use continuous improvement

Good schools make a difference in students’ lives. Effective school and teacher leaders cultivate school communities where students are supported to engage in ambitious and relevant academic work, where families and communities are central partners in the school’s work, and where faculty and staff are empowered with the knowledge, tools, and practices to solve problems together and continually improve.

Many secondary school educators and building leaders have begun harnessing the learning power of a network, teaming up with other schools and partnering with intermediaries outside of their own buildings to use continuous improvement to get better at getting better collectively. Continuous improvement is a process for addressing a specific problem of practice by developing, testing, and refining promising solutions.

We believe, and have read from RFI responses, that when teams of educators within schools and across schools work collaboratively to solve common and complex problems using a continuous improvement process with support from district/CMO leaders, student outcomes are likely to change more quickly and endure.

A focus on implementing locally-determined and evidence-based solutions

A significant part of any continuous improvement process entails developing, testing, and refining promising solutions that address the root cause of a specific problem of practice. Solutions that NSIs test will likely range in size and scope depending on the problem and aim that focus a network’s improvement efforts as well as the systems, processes, routines, and resources already in place in NSI schools. For example, some NSIs will likely test small changes that refine an existing system routine while others may implement changes that are larger in scope, such as adopting a collaborative inquiry process to support curriculum implementation, or reallocating resources to support large-scale interventions that fundamentally change how a school is organized to serve the needs of its most vulnerable students.

The foundation does not propose to mandate specific solutions. Instead, we rely on the applicants’ expertise, drawn from the wisdom of practitioners and Intermediaries, to select solutions that take into account schools’ local contexts and that are anchored in research-based and/or practice-based evidence related to the specific problem of practice and its root cause.

A focus on predictive on-track indicators leading to improved outcomes

Evidence suggests there are predictable times and transitions within a student’s school journey that are critical, particularly for student populations at risk of school failure. For an individual student, successfully navigating the middle school-to-high school and the high school-to-postsecondary transitions are critical for long-term success. Student-level “on-track” indicators can provide schools with visibility into whether an individual student is being equipped with the knowledge, skills, and agency to succeed in upcoming transitions and enable those schools to intervene. They are also a way to assess if a school’s underlying infrastructure is sufficient to meet the diverse needs of all students.

By monitoring student-level on-track indicators, schools can identify students who are off-track early and intervene where appropriate to remove barriers or provide new or existing services to support students. On-track indicators are important periodic benchmarks for continuous improvement cycles.

The foundation seeks to build these indicators and outcomes into practice and will work with NSIs to collect and use these data for both formative and summative measurement.

Networks for School Improvement Grant Opportunity

What is involved in the NSI grant application process?

The grant application process involves moving successfully through multiple stages that begin with a written response to this RFP and culminate with a set of Intermediary organizations being invited to complete a full grant proposal, detailed budget, and measurement plan in partnership with the foundation. We will use the information applicants provide at each stage to determine which applicants advance to the next stage in the process.

No funding will be awarded solely on a written RFP response.

We welcome applications from Intermediaries that can demonstrate alignment to our Networks for School Grantmaking Eligibility and Guidelines. Intermediaries need not have responded to the RFI to respond to this RFP.

What is the scope of NSI grants?

The foundation anticipates making at least two types of investment in Intermediaries in support of NSIs through this RFP. The duration and funding amounts will depend on several factors, including: the scope of a network’s improvement project; the number of schools in a network; an Intermediary’s expertise and/or potential for growth in continuous improvement, network facilitation, and the specific network problem of practice; and the level of planning required to launch the network. Intermediaries and the foundation will work collaboratively to determine the amount and duration of NSI grants.

Through this RFP, we plan to fund at least two different types of NSI investments as outlined below.

Type 1: These grants are reserved for Intermediaries that have demonstrated capacity and experience in the following areas: continuous improvement methods; data collection and analysis; network facilitation; school-level leadership development; improving outcomes for Black, Latino, and low-income students; and knowledge management.

These Intermediaries:

  • have successfully facilitated a network of schools or districts that used a continuous improvement process to improve one or more predictive student outcomes or indicators for Black, Latino, and low-income students, and
  • are (or will be with planning funds) ready to launch an NSI in 2018 or early 2019 that aims to increase the number of  Black, Latino, and low-income students who make progress against a predictive student outcome or indicator in 10-50 schools.

Type 1 grants are multi-year awards (three to five years) for a small number of networks. We anticipate making only three to five Type 1 investments in 2018 and predict that number will increase over the next three years.

The size of Type 1 grant awards will be determined based on the number of schools in the network and will include additional capacity building for Intermediaries.  Based on an average network size of 20-40 schools for 3-5 years, we envision investments ranging from $1-$4M per year.  This financial information and average network size is preliminary and should be used as general guidance. Detailed budgeting will be part of the grant creation process that successful applicants will undergo with a Gates Foundation Program Officer.  

Type 2 grants are reserved for Intermediaries that have demonstrated experience in some, but not all, of the following areas: continuous improvement methods; data collection and analysis; network facilitation; school-level leadership development; improving outcomes for Black, Latino, and low-income students; and knowledge management.

Intermediaries that apply for Type 2 grants are developing their capacity to facilitate an NSI. As such, these grants are generally smaller in scope and duration.

The purpose of the Type 2 investment is to support Intermediaries to lead a specific improvement project that seeks to improve a student predictive indicator while simultaneously building an Intermediary’s capacity and potential to apply for a Type 1 grant in future years.

We anticipate funding 10-15 Type 2 NSIs in this first year. Each grant will fund a 12-24 month improvement project aligned to the NSI strategy and appropriate for the applicant’s context.  Award sizes (up to $500,000 total for 12-24 months) will be determined based on project specifics, including the scope and duration of the investment and number of schools involved in the network.

Grants will be awarded directly to Intermediaries. Successful applicants will be notified of the status of their award by August 2018. Subsequent payment is contingent upon satisfactory grant progress. In the case of higher risk investments, grants may be terminated at agreed-upon inflection points if progress stalls.

Grantmaking timeline and process

Applications must be received by 5pm PST on Feb 21, 2018.  

Intermediaries that successfully pass the initial paper screening will be invited to a video interview with foundation program officers in late March or early April. In April or early May, foundation staff will conduct a short site visit to applicants who advance from the interview stage. During this site visit we will meet with the Intermediary team and visit potential NSI schools if they have been identified. Following the site visit, the foundation will select a subset of these applicants to develop a formal grant proposal for either a Type 1 or Type 2 grant. This proposal must adhere to our Data Stewardship Principles and include a detailed plan to conduct necessary data analysis and onboard schools to the network.

*Because this RFP is open to the public, it is difficult to predict how many applications we will receive. We therefore reserve the right to modify the review timeline slightly to ensure all applications receive appropriate consideration. If it becomes necessary to change the timeline, we will notify all applicants by March 16 and provide details of the updated timeline by email.

Maximum number of applications

Each Intermediary organization may submit no more than two applications in response to this RFP.

If you choose to submit two applications, you must be capable of simultaneously sustaining both NSIs, financially and with appropriate human capital, if both proposals are approved.

Please note that each application must be associated with a different email address because we use the email address as the unique identifier for the application.

Disclosure Notice

To help the foundation with its review of RFP responses, the foundation may disclose proposals, documents, communications, and associated materials submitted to the foundation in response to this RFP (collectively, “Submission Materials”) to its employees, contingent workers, consultants, independent subject matter experts, and potential co-funders. Please carefully consider the information included in the Submission Materials. If you (the “Applicant”) have any doubts about the wisdom of disclosure of confidential or proprietary information, the foundation recommends you consult with your legal counsel and take any steps you deem necessary to protect your intellectual property. You may wish to consider whether such information is critical for evaluating the submission or if more general, non-confidential information may be adequate as an alternative for these purposes.

Notwithstanding the Applicant’s characterization of any information as being confidential, the foundation is under no obligation to treat such information as confidential.


This RFP is not an offer to contract or award grant funds.  The foundation assumes no responsibility for the Applicant’s cost to respond to this RFP. All responses generated by this RFP become the property of the foundation.  

Release and Verification

In exchange for the opportunity to be awarded a grant, the Applicant agrees that the foundation may, in its sole discretion:  (1) amend or cancel the RFP, in whole or in part, at any time; (2) extend the deadline for submitting responses; (3) determine whether a response does or does not substantially comply with the requirements of the RFP; (4) waive any minor irregularity, informality or nonconformance with the provisions or procedures of the RFP; (5) issue multiple awards; (6) share responses generated by this RFP with foundation staff, consultants, contingent workers, subject matter experts, and potential co-funders; and (7) copy the responses.

Applicant agrees not to bring a legal challenge of any kind against the foundation relating to the foundation’s selection and award of a grant arising from this RFP.

Applicant represents that it has responded to the RFP with complete honesty and accuracy.  If facts provided in Applicant’s response change, Applicant will supplement its response in writing with any deletions, additions or changes within 10 days of the changes.  Applicant will do this, as necessary, throughout the selection process.  Applicant understands that any material misrepresentation, including omissions, may disqualify it from consideration for a grant award.

By responding to this RFP, you are representing: (i) that you have authority to bind the named Applicant to the terms and conditions set forth above, without amendment; and (ii) that you agree to be bound by them.

Grantmaking Eligibility and Guidelines

No preferential treatment will be given to organizations on account of previous relationships with the the Gates Foundation or current status as grantees. The diversity of leaders and employees working in NSIs is important and we are excited to have Intermediaries whose teams reflect the school populations with whom they aspire to work.

School composition and selection

To qualify as a Network for School Improvement, network schools working with the Intermediary must meet the following criteria:

  • Schools cohere around a common problem and aim related to improving the percentage of Black, Latino, and low-income students who make progress against an outcome or indicator(s) that is predictive of high school graduation or postsecondary success.
  • Schools serve students in grades 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and/or 12. Schools may focus on one or more grades depending on the network’s aim and theory of how to reach that aim.
  • At least 50% of students who are served across the network schools are Black, Latino, and low-income students. Low-income students are students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.
  • Schools are represented by teams that include leaders, relevant administrators, and/or teachers with the time, expertise, ambition, and trust to solve the problem at hand. Depending on the nature of the problem, school teams might also include district staff. School teams share leadership, accountability, and decision making.
  • Schools have the commitment and support of district/CMO leadership. Support might include providing release time, access to data, and flexibility regarding district or CMO mandates.
  • Schools have the authority and autonomy needed to address the problem of practice. School team members have the support and time needed to participate in the network learning and convenings.

We believe Intermediaries are best positioned to determine the number of schools in a given NSI by considering such factors as the capacity of individual teams and the complexity of the network problem of practice. The foundation will look to Intermediaries to state the optimal number of schools in their network, although all must work with 10-50 member schools to be classified as an NSI. Please review the scope of NSI grants for more information on the types of NSI investments we are funding.   

Intermediary traits and competencies

We believe that Intermediaries that exhibit the following traits and competencies are best positioned to lead an NSI. We will, however, accept applications from Intermediaries that are still building their capacity in these areas.   

  • Commitment and demonstrated capacity in improving outcomes for Black, Latino, and low-income students.    
  • Credibility and experience working with secondary (6-12) school leaders and teachers.       
  • Credibility with education leaders and organizations in the geographic area where the Intermediary proposes to work.       
  • Potential to influence field and policy knowledge beyond the local level.       
  • Strong organizational leadership.
  • A well-defined theory of action.       
  • Staff experienced in facilitating networks of schools.
  • Capacity and coaching experience in the following areas:
    • assessing and navigating data infrastructure in K-12 school systems;
    • using data for continuous improvement;
    • leadership development, specifically building the capacity of school leaders and teacher leaders to support continuous improvement efforts;
    • NSI problem of practice and aim;
    • guiding schools to identify evidence-based solution(s) and to implement these in short cycles;
    • connecting and convening schools or districts;
    • progress monitoring and accountability; and  
    • creating effective knowledge management systems.

We expect Intermediaries we fund to be transparent with us and the field about what they are learning, share their candid reflections on their own performance and identify their own growth areas whenever possible; this transparency gives us opportunities to support grantees and continue to learn from the field about the challenges inherent in facilitating an NSI.

For more information on the traits and competencies of an Intermediary, visit the glossary. Please read this information carefully before deciding whether to apply for funding.

Continuous improvement

NSIs are expected to use a continuous improvement process that supports teams to use multiple and varied data to address a specific problem of practice by developing, testing, and refining promising solutions. Continuous improvement as defined in this RFP is a specific process anchored in improvement science; it is not a general description of ongoing efforts to improve.

The foundation believes that schools and Intermediaries are best equipped to determine which continuous improvement process an NSI will use to guide its work as long as the process meets the criteria outlined here. Please read this information carefully before deciding whether to apply for funding.

Predictive outcomes and indicators

An NSI’s aim should be related to one or more of the student indicators or outcomes listed in the glossary.

Reporting, measurement, supports, and evaluation

The foundation is focusing on a set of student outcomes and indicators that, when increasing or achieved, are predictive of students successfully completing high school, enrolling in postsecondary education, and obtaining a credential with labor-market value. Therefore an NSI’s aim, while jointly developed by the Intermediary and network schools, must be related to one or more of the indicators listed here. The outcome(s) will be the measure of progress monitored across the network and reported on periodically and at the end of the grant period.  

We will also require NSIs to measure and report on both the outcome associated with the target grade-span as well as the outcome associated with the subsequent scholastic period. For example, a network focusing on improving middle school math and ELA would measure and report on Middle-School On-Track as well as 9th Grade On-Track. Measuring outcomes across the continuum of predictors in the table here is critical to giving schools insight into whether NSIs are leading to ultimate success for students in the long-run, not just improvements in the short-term on specific outcomes.

We understand that each Intermediary will work with networks that operate in unique contexts which will impact exactly how these indicators are measured. As such, we will work closely with the Intermediary during proposal development on defining the measures required and appropriate for their NSI’s context. The foundation has developed a set of recommended measures for the indicators to facilitate these conversations and a Program Officer will approve each Intermediary’s measurement plan. For consistency and quality of in-network reporting, all schools in a single NSI must always measure the NSI’s targeted indicator(s) and outcome(s) in the same way, regardless of whether it is the foundation’s preferred method or a different, agreed-upon method.

Please refer to the glossary for the set of predictive outcomes and indicators, along with recommended measures.

System elements and network health

To better serve the needs of Black, Latino, and low-income students, we believe that schools in an NSI may need to change workflow or reallocate resources in pursuit of systemic solutions, rather than simply introduce new interventions. We will therefore require that schools administer some sort of “diagnostic” assessment to gauge the state of different systems in schools. One possible approach is what the Chicago Consortium for School Research has labeled “essential elements” including strong distributed leadership, coherent instructional systems, high performing faculty, student centered learning climate, and family-community-school ties. The foundation prefers to measure systems health using the 5 Essentials Survey (plus select items from the NETTS Survey), but is willing to accept other instruments if they are already in use by schools in the network and meet the alignment criteria specified by the foundation at the time of measurement plan development.

Finally, we will require measurement of network health, most likely through a survey. The measurement instrument will capture critical information about the functioning of the network itself, about the types of supports the Intermediary and foundation provide, and could also provide data for networks to guide work with evidence-based interventions/solutions. The content of the survey will include (a) a set of measures required to be included by all funded Intermediaries and (b) a set of measures that the Intermediary believes are important to measure according to its own theory of change.

Evaluation and reporting

Fundamental to this effort is a learning agenda which allows schools, systems of schools, Intermediaries, and the foundation to learn from one another about what works well and what does not in the development of NSIs. To that end, we will engage an evaluation partner to work with NSIs from the beginning of the first NSI cohort. We expect that all NSIs will be willing participants in all evaluation activities, which will be designed to leverage data already being collected and will strive to limit burden on Intermediaries, networks, and schools. The evaluation will give the foundation, NSIs, and other interested audiences a wealth of information about factors contributing to NSIs’ individual, comparative, and collective success, while simultaneously providing NSIs with ongoing self-evaluation and improvement mindsets, methods, and tools.


We recognize the complexity in collecting and reporting these data and commit to providing supports to facilitate, streamline, and ease the burden on Intermediaries and schools. To facilitate FERPA compliance, the foundation will provide project management supports and technical assistance to help NSIs securely collect and report data to their various stakeholders, including the foundation. We will never ask grantees for data that identifies individual students. We will also consider funding improvements in both Intermediary and schools’ data capacity as part of the investment.

Additional RFP Resources

More Info on the RFP

Learn more about the Request for Proposal on Networks for School Improvement.

RFP Glossary

A glossary to clarify terms that we may use differently in this RFP from how they are commonly used in the field.


Questions? Please read the Frequently Asked Questions page for more information on the RFP process.