Gates Foundation Places Big Bet on Teacher Agenda
Critics fear outsized influence of philanthropy
When Harvard professor Thomas Kane co-wrote a paper in 2006 on teacher quality, he did not expect that it would carry an import far beyond the insular world of Washington policy wonks.
Mr. Kane later got a big surprise: a summons to meet with one of the richest men in the world to talk about the paper, which showed that teachers' on-the-job performance varied widely and had little to do with their credentials. At that 2007 meeting in New York City's posh Pierre Hotel, he got still another surprise: Almost every inch of Bill Gates' copy was covered with handwritten notes.
"Bill got really excited," Mr. Kane said. "He was really interested in figuring out what these great teachers were doing, and in the idea that one of the most powerful things he could do would be to provide school districts with better ways of identifying their best teachers."
It would prove a decisive moment for the $38 billion private philanthropy that bears the Gates name. Six years later, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent nearly $700 million on its teacher-quality agenda, according to an Education Week analysis.
The foundation is widely seen as the most influential independent actor in a period of nationwide—and deeply contested—experimentation with the fundamentals of the teaching profession. What its spending has wrought, however, and whether it will have the desired effect, remain the subject of heated debate.
"It concerns me when one foundation has so much money," said Helen F. Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, in Durham, N.C. "Teachers are obviously important, but school principals are equally important, and perhaps more important. To focus only on what individual teachers do in the classroom I think is a mistake."
The Gates largess covers the development of teacher-evaluation systems, district initiatives experimenting with new ways of training and paying teachers, and related research projects. It also has fueled advocacy groups that back the idea that boosting instructional quality is the key to erasing achievement gaps.
Many of the ideas the Seattle-based foundation has spurred, such as the use of test-score algorithms as part of teachers' ratings, have become a mainstream part of K-12 education policy; some 40 states now factor student achievement into teachers' evaluations, up from 15 in 2009, even as those policies have sparked a sharp rebuke from many teachers and their unions.
"Gates is in an almost untenable situation, because for all the good work that it tries to do, that good work gets eclipsed by the mistrust among teachers that it itself has sown," said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has received some $11 million from the foundation.
The hundreds of millions that Gates has spent on its teacher agenda, observers say, is the largest nongovernmental investment in K-12 teacher policy and a large sum even by the foundation's standards: It's a substantial chunk of the $2 billion the philanthropy has spent on U.S. education since 2008, a total that far outpaces giving by any other foundation.
Framed another way, though, it's about one-tenth of 1 percent of the roughly $600 billion in public dollars spent on K-12 education each year.
"We could take the entire bolus, every dollar that's in the foundation today, and spend it out in the state of California in two years and be out of business," the co-chairwoman, Melinda Gates, said in a sit-down interview last month in New York City.
As the philanthropy's interest in K-12 education has matured, so has the sophistication of its strategy. With its teacher-quality spending, it appears to have heeded the lessons that so frustrated philanthropies in the 1980s and 1990s, when many underwrote projects that died as soon as the spigot dried up.
The Gates Foundation has provided grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week. The newspaper retains sole editorial control over coverage. See disclosure.
Gates "has profoundly shifted the direction of the policy debate and has fundamentally changed how states and the feds are talking about teacher quality and teacher evaluation," said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education initiatives at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, which has received $3.7 million from the foundation since 2008 for education initiatives. (Mr. Hess also writes an opinion blog on edweek.org.)
By far the bulk of Gates' teacher-quality spending has been on "deep dive" grants given to three districts and one consortium of charter school operators to try out new evaluation systems that include consideration of students' test scores and policies linked to them.
But it has also ramped up efforts to support that work through advocacy, spending more than $50 million to back groups that have made the case, particularly among state legislators, for revamped teacher evaluations.
Finally, the foundation has financed news media outlets covering education, among them Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit organization that publishes Education Week. That giving has generated criticism from some readers.
Many observers consider Gates' Measures of Effective Teaching research to be the foundation's most influential investment by far.
"Everyone does programs and everyone does advocacy. What Gates did is put money into research," said Tim Daly, the president of TNTP, an influential advocate for teacher evaluation, which has received $20.5 million in Gates funding. "Even if they never invest another nickel in education, they'll still go down as one of the most influential foundations of all time. It's that important."
Mr. Kane was given a $45 million budget to investigate different ways of gauging information on teaching quality. The study included an experiment to test whether the measures held up when students were randomly assigned to teachers deemed most effective. The short answer: They did. But debate persists about how to interpret and use the data.
With states and districts already busily crafting their own evaluation systems in response to federal incentives, the study fueled interest in using value-added measures, which purport to isolate teachers' contributions to students' learning as measured by test scores, and student surveys as components of teacher evaluations.
By contrast, results from the foundation's district-level experiments—the Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching—are less clear, and interviews with site leaders paint different pictures of the results.
The 197,000-student Hillsborough County, Fla., district, which was awarded $100 million, has met all its milestones, according to the partnership's assessment director, Anna Brown.
The biggest success in the view of the district's teachers' union president, Jean Clements, is a mentoring program for novices based on the same observation framework used for teacher evaluation.
But teacher evaluations, the two agree, have been a somewhat harder lift. Ms. Clements sees nuance in teachers' reaction: Many see improvements because of the evaluation system, but that doesn't mean they like its pressures.
"I've heard a lot of teachers and principals say, 'This is nerve-wracking, this is stressful, this is time-consuming,' " she said, "but many teachers and principals do believe that they are seeing better teaching and learning."
That said, the $40 million Pittsburgh project has faced some delays and disappointments.
"I think we've done amazingly well, but not as well as I would have liked, frankly, in implementing this expansive project," said Nina Esposito-Visgitis, who in 2011 became the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.
Some pieces, such as a new career-ladder system that gives expert teachers more roles and a schoolwide reward program, have come to fruition. But budget problems led to the scrapping of a district-run program for preparing new teachers, a component outlined in the plan, and to disagreements over whether or not the new data gathered on teacher performance should be factored into layoffs in the 26,000-student district.
Other issues loom: The union and the district don't agree on where to set the score benchmarks on the evaluations. "I'm worried, because I really want it to be fair," Ms. Esposito-Visgitis said. "I think this is going to be a telling year."
If the Gates projects are built on a coherent theory of action—that improved focus on teacher performance will pay dividends for students—only a few studies seem to support that conclusion. The Gates projects could provide more proof, but so far, the foundation hasn't released any independent audits.
A team from the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp. is conducting a $15 million evaluation of the intensive-partnership sites, including implementation of the plans, their impact on academic achievement, and whether the plans can be replicated.
Even so, scholars note that the results will be messy. Florida alone has revised its testing program several times over the course of the Hillsborough grant, making outcomes data hard to analyze.
"They're not going to get an evaluation that says [the grants] worked or they didn't," said Dan Goldhaber, a research professor at the University of Washington's Bothell campus. "Implementation matters, and it's not clear that it went well in a lot of places." (A research center to which Mr. Goldhaber has contributed has received $770,000 from the foundation.)
In one respect in particular, the Gates Foundation has taken a much different tack from that of several fellow philanthropies: engaging with the two national teachers' unions, including giving them, their local affiliates, or union networks roughly $20 million in all.
Gates officials paint the unions as important partners: The Measures of Effective Teaching study and intensive partnerships could not have occurred without their cooperation. But the decision to woo the unions necessitated some trade-offs, according to sources who requested anonymity because of their ties to Gates.
The foundation appears to have made a strategic decision not to subsidize teacher-quality projects associated with Michelle A. Rhee, the former District of Columbia superintendent, who is widely abhorred by teachers' unions.
The Gates Foundation did not join other philanthropies in financing a performance-pay program tied to evaluations in the nation's capital, nor has it donated to Ms. Rhee's StudentsFirst advocacy group, records show.
Still, unions were outraged at the foundation's promotional support for "Waiting for 'Superman,' " a documentary critics said oversimplified debates about charter school performance and teachers' unions. And Gates' funding of groups to elevate teachers' voices in policy discussions independently of the unions has stoked criticism.
Top union officials have faced internal rebukes for taking foundation cash. Ms. Weingarten especially, who hosted Mr. Gates at the AFT's 2010 convention, has publicly sought to distinguish her union's relationship from other Gates-financed teacher groups, noting that the foundation's support amounts to just 1 percent of the AFT's annual budget.
Nevertheless, she conceded, "At one point or another, maybe the pressure will be so great we won't be able to do it anymore."
The sharpest critiques have come from education historian-cum-advocate Diane Ravitch, who had Mr. Gates and his foundation squarely in mind when she formulated the phrase "billionaire boys' club" in a 2011 book. She accuses philanthropies and other "reformers" of overstating school failure to pave the way for an ill-conceived market takeover of education.
"Then, the Gates foundation decided that the 'problem' was teacher quality and not having metrics in place to drive improvements in teacher quality. They made this decision based on lousy research," she wrote last week on her popular blog.
Many grantees dispute charges of heavy-handedness, however.
"I wish that our state and the federal government were as trusting of us and as flexible as the Gates Foundation has always been," said Ms. Clements of Hillsborough County. "They did not script what we had to include in our grant proposal."
Gates officials suggested, for instance, that the teacher-evaluation system incorporate student surveys. But Hillsborough demurred and has not faced penalties, Ms. Clements said.
Some observers' concerns center on Gates' intense focus on teacher quality more than the actual projects.
"It's setting a direction for a policy, even if they don't dictate it," said Ken Libby, a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied Gates' tax filings as part of his doctoral research. "When you have lots of people pointing in the same direction, other things can get ignored."
The amount of funding has obliquely made it harder to advance thoughtful criticisms of Gates' work, some say. No one wants to scuttle a chance at a grant, said Mr. Hess of the AEI.
"Frankly, I'm sure there are some people in organizations across the board, right and left, who bite their tongues at times, who go off the record because they don't think it's a good use of their political capital to pick these fights," he said.
Even so, the scope of Gates giving does not guarantee that the changes it has promoted will be long lasting or successful. That's a point underscored by Jay P.Greene, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville who has studied education philanthropy and is generally critical of the Gates Foundation.
"Who exactly advocates for teacher-pay reform or new evaluation systems? Who are the constituencies who want those from the bottom up?" Mr. Greene said. "Gates is doing a 'reverse Al Shanker,' saying some nice things to teachers to distract them from things they will dislike," he said, referring to the late AFT president. "The difference is that Shanker had to charm a few people easily charmed by flattery. Millions of teachers are not so easily fooled."
Some of the foundation's projects to build such constituencies supportive of its work haven't succeeded. A $3.5 million grant to establish Communities for Teaching Excellence, a group designed to build community support in the intensive-partnership districts, shut its doors just a year into operation.
Teachers continue to view the Gates efforts with suspicion, said Ms. Weingarten. "It's hard to convince people that the foundation wants anything other than a ranking system of schools, students, and teachers," she said.
Vicki L. Phillips, the director of college-ready grants for the Gates Foundation, doesn't dispute the critique.
"We left a lot of people thinking we were only about evaluation, or the dismissal part of evaluation, and nothing could be further from the truth," she said. "We can get caught up with what's happening in the moment and forget to talk about the rest."
A look at the foundation's most recent grants suggests it's taken the message to heart. It has increased spending on professional development and tools, including $15 million to three districts to investigate better ways of providing teachers with on-the-job support.
Six years after his initial meeting with Mr. Gates, Mr. Kane of Harvard believes the foundation's spending has on the whole benefited K-12 education.
"It's not like we've figured out what the ideal system looks like yet, but at least now we're talking about it, and lots of places are trying to do a better job," he said. "I'm really proud of the role we played in that."
Yet, for all the Gates Foundation's focus on judging success based on higher student test scores, it remains to be seen whether its expensive teacher-quality campaign will deliver by such measures.
"Six or seven years from now, has student learning improved because of their investments?" Mr. Kane said. "I sure hope the answer is yes."
Vol. 33, Issue 11, Pages 1, 16, 18-20Published in Print: November 6, 2013, as Gates Foundation Places Big Bet on Its Teacher Agenda