Chat Wrap-Up: Educational Policy Influence

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On Dec. 20, 2006, Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and Christopher B. Swanson, the director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, answered readers’ questions concerning the center’s recent report “Influence: A Study of the Factors Shaping Education Policy,” released in December. Below are excerpts from the discussion:

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Question: Why is it that Bill Gates is considered so influential? Isn’t the money he gives what is making the impact? Or is he dictating what is to be done with it, and, by so doing, influencing education based on his own agenda, whatever that may be?

Swanson: There were a couple findings from the study that I think were both obvious (at least in hindsight) and surprising. One of those was Bill Gates’ first-place finish as the most influential person in education policy during the last 10 years. Further, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ranked third in the influential-organizations category. My sense is that a lot of people make a strong connection between Mr. Gates and the foundation.

On the one hand, it’s not surprising that Mr. Gates would come out on top. He’s the richest person in the world, the foundation is the world’s most well-endowed philanthropy, and he has invested over a billion dollars in education reform to date. So, just in terms of the sheer size of the investments he is able to make in education, one would expect Mr. Gates and the foundation to be viewed as highly influential.

On the other hand, just think back 10 years. What kind of profile did Bill Gates have in education circles then? Not a very prominent one, at least nothing compared to the present. The speed of Mr. Gates’ and his foundation’s rise is particularly striking. In addition, I think the foundation’s domestic work in education is also characterized by a high level of focus. With billions and billions of dollars to spend, a foundation might very well decide to cover all its bases. Instead, the Gates Foundation has invested heavily in a relatively small number of areas, with high school reform at the top of the list.

We can chalk up Mr. Gates’ ranking to a combination of the extraordinary resources at his disposal and his strategy of investing in a few high-leverage areas.

Question: I didn’t see any schools of education on the influential-organizations list. In light of Arthur E. Levine’s recent comments on the state of teacher education in the United States, should we be concerned?

Finn: Darn right! Not only are most of them mediocre (per Mr. Levine), they also lack influence. (Though I suppose that’s better than being simultaneously mediocre and influential.) In most places, however, they continue to enjoy a near-monopoly on the preparation of public school educators. That’s what, in my view, we should be most concerned about. If there was ever a place for trust-busting in education, it’s here!

Question: What of those quiet influences who conduct research, write letters to the government, or ask provocative questions that travel down the pike to someone who is in a position to eventually effect change? Aren’t the most influential among us sometimes those who are the least well-known? Isn’t it true that the smallest of us can often have the greatest impact?

Haycock: You are exactly right. Lists like those in the report at best identify one kind of leader, but they miss individuals who exert huge influence in their particular domains—a classroom, a school, a neighborhood. We need leadership of all sorts; the problems we face as a nation are too tough to be seen as just certain people’s responsibility. As we like to say at the Education Trust, “There is no small role in big change.”

Vol. 26, Issue 19, Page 31

Published in Print: January 17, 2007, as Chat Wrap-Up: Educational Policy Influence
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