Back in 2009, I happened to be at a meeting at the U.S. Department of Education, where Arne Duncan’s newly appointed staff were outlining the direction the Obama administration would pursue in education. Jim Shelton caught my attention that day. Shelton spoke what sounded to me like a foreign language, and he proposed to take the department someplace it had never been. He was the Department’s new head of the Office of Innovation and Improvement, and he led the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) as well as Promise Neighborhoods, the program that said it would replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone. He led work on evaluating teachers and building school choice and learning technology. And he rose during his tenure, that ended with his retirement at the end of 2014, to become deputy secretary, second in command to Arne Duncan.
I started thinking about Jim Shelton last week because I saw a new piece written by Shelton himself and published by EdSurge, a letter in which Shelton announces his plans for the next phase of his career: “I will be joining the leadership team at 2U, Inc. as its first Chief Impact Officer. For those not in the ed tech space, 2U is a rapidly growing provider of technology and technology-enabled services that enables leading nonprofit colleges and universities to deliver their high-quality degree programs online. Some of its partner programs include UNC’s MBA, USC’s master’s of social work, and Georgetown’s master’s of nursing programs.” Training social workers and nurses online? Shelton continues: “At the outset, some would have claimed 2U’s business model unlikely to succeed at all let alone produce one of the few ‘unicorns’ in the education arena. However… the better leaders recognize that moving into this space requires not only significant technological capability but also agility, ongoing resources and experienced change management capacity… 2U is building the culture and core capabilities of a next generation learning company with emphasis on results, data, transparency, student and faculty experience and value to student and employer. The underlying systems and processes are robust and have the potential to provide a sustained advantage.”
Shelton is one of the people who brought the language and ideas of business and technocracy to Arne Duncan’s Department of Education along with the methodology of philanthropy as a replacement for the style and substance of government.
According to a Department of Education biography, Shelton majored in computer science at Morehouse and subsequently earned two master’s degrees from Stanford in business administration and education. He developed computer systems, then joined McKinsey & Company in 1993 before moving to the education conglomerate founded by Mike and Lowell Milken, Knowledge Universe, Inc. In 1999, he founded LearnNow, later acquired by Edison Schools and then worked for Joel Klein to develop and launch his school strategy in New York City that closed public schools and opened charter schools and based it all on test score data. He became a partner for the NewSchools Venture Fund and then in 2003 joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the program director for its education division. To be hired at the U.S. Department of Education, Shelton had to be waivered from a federal law that bans people from moving into governmental positions in which they will work directly with their former employer. In Shelton’s case, the danger was not that he would shower his former employer with federal government largesse, but instead that he would import the priorities and practices of his former employer directly into government. At the time, in a blog called Schools Matter, Kenneth Libby worried about that: “Considering the Gates Foundation does not have a profit motive and is fantastically wealthy, it is unlikely a former Gates Foundation employee would use their new position to funnel money to their former employer. They could, however, show favoritism towards projects supported (either currently or in the future) by the Gates Foundation, a kind of meld that does not necessarily serve the best interest of the public. This is particularly relevant because the Office of Innovation and Improvement directs competitive grants instead of simply formula-driven funding streams.”
And education policy copying the foundation model is exactly what Duncan’s Department of Education began creating—with guidance not only from Jim Shelton but also from Margot Rogers, Duncan’s chief of staff, who also received a waiver to come directly from the Gates Foundation. Joanne Weiss who later replaced Rogers came directly from the NewSchools Venture Fund. The style and substance of the policies that came with these new “thought leaders” at the Department of Education became the huge grant competitions—Race to the Top and i3, competitions for money that had once been part of the Title I formula that awarded funds to school districts according to the number of children in poverty and additionally their concentration in particular districts due to segregation by race and class.
In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch describes the symbiosis that developed between Arne Duncan’s Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “Now that the ideas promoted by the venture philanthropies were securely lodged at the highest levels of the Obama administration, policymakers and journalists listened carefully to Bill Gates. In a 2009 interview with Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, Gates signaled a new direction for his foundation. Hiatt wrote, ‘You might call it the Obama-Duncan-Gates-Rhee philosophy of education reform.’ It was also the Bloomberg-Klein-Broad philosophy of education reform. Gates said that his foundation intended to help successful charter organizations such as KIPP replicate as quickly as possible and to invest in improving teacher effectiveness. Gates asserted that there was no connection between teacher quality and such things as experience, certification, advanced degrees, or even deep knowledge of one’s subject matter (at least below tenth grade).” (p 219)
Innovation at the U.S. Department of Education under Jim Shelton also came to promote the methodology of philanthropy by which the government would grant funds competitively to states, school districts and nonprofit organizations to help them address educational problems. In 2009, in a piece called The Innovation Administration, Dana Goldstein explained that Obama’s federal stimulus package designed to address the economic collapse in 2008 was a model of social innovation: “At its core, social innovation refers to the belief that for-profit institutions should be the model for nonprofit ones, and that nonprofits, in turn, can be more effective protectors of social welfare than government.” Goldstein had reservations at the time: “But it’s entirely possible that social innovation is little more than a federal foray into a B-school fad that may be, during an economic crisis, insufficient to addressing the scale of the social problems facing the American public.”
The programs that made up the federal stimulus package were competitive: Race to the Top created losing states as well as winning states by redirecting funds that had been previously distributed across all fifty state school systems to the select states that provided the best applications. The i3 program was a competition for nonprofit organizations that promised to partner with schools to promote what were thought to be promising innovations; as a competition, it also created losers as well as winners. And from the very beginning, these programs involved the foundations.
Joanne Barkan describes what happened with the launch of Race to the Top: “The ‘stimulus package’ included $4.3 billion for education, but for the first time, states didn’t simply receive grants; they had to compete for RTTT money with a comprehensive, statewide proposal for education reform. It is no exaggeration to say that the criteria for selecting the winners came straight from the foundation’s playbook…. To start, any state that didn’t allow student test scores to determine (at least in part) teacher and principal evaluations was not eligible to compete. After clarifying this, the 103-page application form laid out a list of detailed criteria and then additional priorities for each criterion… But they still faced the immense tasks of designing a proposal that touched on all aspects of K-12 education and then writing an application, which the DOE requested (but did not require) be limited to 350 pages. What state has resources to gamble on such a venture? Enter the Gates Foundation. It reviewed the prospects for reform in every state, picked fifteen favorites, and, in July 2009, offered each up to $250,000 to hire consultants to write the application. Gates even prepared a list of recommended consulting firms. Understandably, the other states cried foul; so did the National Conference of State Legislatures: Gates was giving some states an unfair advantage; it was, in effect, picking winners and losers for a government program. After some weeks of reflection, Gates offered the application money to any state that met the foundation’s eight criteria… Who says the foundations (and Gates, in particular) don’t set government policy?”
Jim Shelton’s i3 innovation grant competition modeled the kind of program that patched together government and philanthropic dollars to support not-for-profit organizations working with schools to implement particular reforms. In her 2013 book, Follow the Money, Sarah Reckhow explains how the i3 application process worked: “The i3 program required a 20 percent private grant match for any federal funds awarded. To facilitate matching, the Department of Education coordinated directly with philanthropies for funding the i3 program. Initially, 12 foundations—including Gates, Carnegie, Ford, Wallace, and Walton—committed $500 million to ‘aligned investments’ with the i3 program. These foundations created an online Foundation Registry for the i3 program, which grew to 40 participating foundations. All of the applicants selected by the Department of Education for i3 grants were able to secure private matching funds.” (p. 152)
Then in 2011, after the original i3 grants had been awarded, Arne Duncan and Jim Shelton were the featured speakers at an event held by the Aspen Institute for the losers in the original i3 competition. Alyson Klein in Education Week described the i3 program and the way the Department of Education was scurrying to help the losers: “The competition, intended to help districts and nonprofit groups scale up promising practices, attracted 1,698 applications. Just 49 winners were awarded grants…. That left a lot of prominent runners-up, including some well-known education nonprofit organizations, such as NewLeaders for New Schools, a New York City-based group that trains principals….” So Aspen convened the losers at a conference with potential funders. “For its part, the U.S. Department of Education isn’t playing a direct matchmaking role between the almost-winners and philanthropies, said Suzanne Immerman, the department’s director of philanthropic engagement. But it has encouraged philanthropies and other funders to take a second look at all of the proposals that didn’t ultimately receive federal dollars through i3. It has posted applications for the i3 program online, as well as those for the Promise Neighborhoods initiative…. The department also worked with philanthropies to create an online i3 registry, which is meant to connect funders and applicants… Aspen invited 212 nonprofits, school districts and other i3 applicants who nearly made the cut….”
And what about the rush to try what’s new without any evidence that what we are trying will work? A persistent and unanswered charge about the whole “education reform” movement is that it has been experimental. Despite all the talk about the need for a research base, most of the reforms imposed by the Bush Department of Education under Margaret Spellings and deepened and enhanced by Duncan’s Department of Education lack a substantial basis in research. In a piece published in 2009 by Brookings, Innovation, Motherhood, and Apple Pie, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst worried that the emphasis on innovation at the expense of tested ideas in programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and i3 would undermine education: “Effective innovations enhance a desired outcome, whereas ineffective innovations do not… Most education innovations exist around the midpoint of the effective-ineffective dimension due to lack of evidence, i.e., they have not been evaluated or have not been evaluated with an approach that provides credible evidence. They may work. They may not. We do not know. Unless effectiveness is thought of as a central dimension of innovation, the current innovation zeitgeist will subject the nation to yet another era of fad and fancy in education rather than continuous improvement.”
Jim Shelton’s journey at the the U.S. Department of Education is over, but after a trip, it is a good thing to think about the experience. And it is important to remember how to get home. A well-funded system of public schools remains the best institution to meet the many complicated and diverse needs of the mass of our children and to protect their rights through accountable public institutions. The federal government’s role in this system has historically been to intervene with money and oversight when states have not met their obligation to serve all children. We haven’t heard much about any of that on our recent trip.