Bill Gates presented the keynote at the U.S. Education Learning Forum, an event this week described by Education Week‘s Alyson Klein as “meant to mark the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s 15th year playing in the education field.” In his remarks Bill Gates is reported by Liana Heitin of Education Week to have, “recommitted the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to its current work in supporting the use of high academic standards and helping teachers improve through evaluation systems that provide useful feedback… Test scores should be a part of teacher evaluation systems, Gates said, but just a part.” We can breathe one sigh of relief. The Gates Foundation is not launching another new and different social experiment on our public schools.
It is reassuring to have Education Week‘s reporter parse Gates’ words, which are a little more flowery and not quite so transparent. Gates explains the Foundation’s priorities: “I believe we are on the right track. For today, and for the coming years, this is our vision: Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal. And all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests. This is the combination of advances we are backing that we believe will transform America’s schools—and at the center of it all is an effective teacher.”
In other words, the Gates Foundation will continue to support implementation of the Common Core, to support teacher effectiveness through evaluations that incorporate students’ test scores, and to support what the Foundation calls ‘personalized’ learning that involves computers.
Gates confesses that his foundation’s work has been experimental: “Early on, we thought smaller schools were the way to drive up college-ready rates. We set out to build the model of a successful school by breaking large high schools into new, smaller ones. Those efforts did raise graduation rates. But only some of the smaller schools also raised college-readiness rates—and the ones that did put a huge focus on training skilled teachers. So we weren’t going to reach our goals simply by changing the size of the school. We needed to look much closer at what happens inside the classroom…. A growing body of evidence told us that teacher effectiveness is the single most important in-school factor in student achievement….” Hence the foundation’s decision by 2008 to abandon its support for breaking up big high schools into smaller schools and to shift focus.
Notice that Gates seems to understand the consequences as pertinent to the research experiment; he pays less attention to the impact on the students, the teachers, the school, and the community. Not so much thinking about the expense for school districts when high-paid principals and assistant-principals of several small schools were located into one building. Not so much thinking here about the students whose futures were affected by the inevitably diminished curricula in the small schools that, because they had lost their economies of scale, could no longer afford so many advanced classes or enrichments. Not much thinking about the politics that would arise around the undoing of the Foundation’s experiment, as communities and teachers who had become loyal to their small schools struggled to come back together as comprehensive high schools were reconstructed.
Why does one philanthropy’s choice of priorities matter so much? It matters in this case because the Gates Foundation has spent billions of dollars promoting its priorities over the years — so much money that its goals have been driving policy in the U.S. Department of Education, which Arne Duncan filled with staffers directly from the Gates Foundation. It matters because huge Gates Foundation grants have “incentivized” states and school districts to adopt the Foundation’s strategies. Diane Ravitch reported in The Death And Life of the Great American School System that the Gates Foundation invested approximately $2 billion into its initiative to break comprehensive high schools into smaller schools between 2000 and 2008. (p. 205). Even though foundations cannot explicitly lobby, the Gates Foundation has wielded its power by investing in academic research to support its priorities through such think tanks as the Center on Reinventing Public Education. It endorsed federal programs through the quarter-million dollar grants it made to states to hire grant writers to prepare Race to the Top applications, for example. It has sponsored publicity and media presentations that favor Gates priorities such as its partnership with NBC to produce that network’s Education Nation series and to help produce the film Waiting or Superman. It has supported not-for-profits that promote Gates’ priorities; Joanne Barkan has exposed the way Gates dollars supported a group called Learn-NY to promote mayoral governance in New York City, for example.
In his keynote address this week, Bill Gates devotes a lot of time to describing the research the Gates Foundation has recently invested to identify “the best lever for raising student achievement.” Gates explains that: “Our work is grounded in the findings of our Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, which we launched in 2009.” “(T)he field did not have a clear view on the characteristics of great teaching. Is it all about how a teacher manages the classroom? Is it all about how a teacher asks questions or leads a discussion? We didn’t know and neither did anyone else. That made it almost impossible to create a great system for giving feedback to teachers that helps them improve. So we set out to learn… First: Everything we have seen in the past seven years tells us that the strategy we settled on in 2008 remains the best lever for raising student achievement. Effective teachers raise student achievement, and strong teacher feedback and improvement systems help create and support effective teachers.” So what did the Foundation discover and what is the strategy it is promoting? “It turns out that they (good programs to improve teaching) excel at supporting teachers. They use multiple measures of effectiveness that are backed by evidence. They train and certify classroom observers. They provide teachers with instructional tools aligned to the Common Core standards. And—this is crucial—they focus their feedback and evaluations on activities that help the teacher get better in the classroom. For example, Denver uses a measure that combines teacher observations, student perception surveys, and evidence of how much students are learning.” That evidence is provided, of course, by test scores, a long priority of the Gates Foundation.
There is surely nothing wrong with the Gates Foundation’s sponsoring research to explore how to evaluate and support teachers. There are several things, however, that ought to catch our attention in Bill Gates’ analysis of the Foundation’s work. First there is the assumption that the Gates Foundation has discovered, through research it funds, a single method—a lever—for evaluating and supporting teachers that is superior to what continues to be suggested by the professionals in the nation’s colleges of education, who would also endorse observing teachers in the classroom and helping them be more effective. Then there is the ever-present, but quiet inclusion of students’ standardized test scores in the evaluations, despite that extensive research including a major report from the American Statistical Association has discredited the use of Value Added Modeling as too unstable to be reliable. Gates does at least admit that the MET teaching project confirmed, “that growth in test scores tells you something about a teachers’ effectiveness—but far from everything. It has to be balanced by other factors, like classroom observations and student surveys.”
Finally there is something Gates does not mention in his address this week, in which he emphasizes helping teachers improve. In fact the kind of evaluation system he advocates continues to be used to promote the idea that we can fire our way into better student achievement—the teacher-blaming agenda of politicians who, for example, declared that when 70 percent of children failed Common Core tests in New York state, it was the fault of the teachers who must be fired. These politicians neglect to mention that New York’s Commissioner John King and the NY Board of Regents set the cut score at a level where 70 percent of children would fail. Setting cut scores is a political, not a scientific endeavor. Neither does Gates explain where we are going to find the mass of “effective” teachers to replace those who are to be fired for producing low scores among their students.
In his address, Gates endorses the Common Core standards, a long Foundation priority. According to the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton, the Gates Foundation has invested “more than $200 million in a campaign to create the Common Core States Standards and get them adopted by 42 states as well as the District of Columbia.” He also endorses charter schools, particularly those “where teacher feedback systems are driving big student gains.” He concludes: “Building effective teacher feedback and improvement systems everywhere is the most important movement in American education today.”
At least in his big speech, Gates reassures us that the Gates Foundation isn’t changing course to launch a brand new gigantic experiment. Some people had worried about that in recent weeks, especially after what just happened in Florida.
The Tampa Bay Times reported on September 21st that the Gates Foundation has definitely shifted direction in Hillsborough County, Florida, where in 2009 Gates promised $100 million if the district would put up $102 million to pay for a merit pay experiment called “Empowering Effective Teachers.” Marlene Sokol, the Tampa Times reporter, explains: “A seven-year effort to put better teachers in Hillsborough County schools is costing the system millions of dollars more than officials projected. And the district’s partner in the project, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is spending $20 million less than expected.” “Much of the disagreement amounted to a change in Gates’ philosophy.” Anna Brown, manager of the Gates grant for the school district, explains that the Gates Foundation recently told the school district: “After a few years of research they believed there was not enough of a connection between performance bonuses and greater student achievement.” Unfortunately, according to Brown, it is not possible to abandon the project because Florida state law has now made Gates’ former priority, merit pay, part of the state’s system to evaluate teachers: “Enacted a year after Hillsborough launched its project, Senate Bill 736 in the Florida Legislature phased out teacher tenure and tied pay to supervisor evaluations and student test scores.” The reporter continues: “Since 2009, key components of the Gates program (in Hillsborough County) have changed. The original proposal and a 2010 timeline called for the district to fire 5 percent of its teachers each year for poor performance. That would amount to more than 700 teachers. The thinking was they would be replaced by teachers who earned entry level wages, freeing up money to pay the bonuses for those at the top. But the mass firings never happened. While an undetermined number of teachers resign out of dissatisfaction or fear that they will be fired, only a handful of terminations happen because of bad evaluations.”
Anthony Cody, who has studied the role of the Gates Foundation’s investment in public education policy warns: “There ought to be a much higher wall between the influence of philanthropies and our public institutions. School boards and other elected bodies exist to guard the common good, and even in times when money is scarce, ought to be vigilant, and not allow policy to be set by philanthropists with deep pockets and big ideas.”