Teacher 'Voice' Amplified by Series of Gates Grants

Middle school teacher Kylene Young, right—a policy fellow with a Gates-backed initiative—works with high-fiving students Angel Hernandez and Samuel Santillon at Pulaski International School of Chicago.
Middle school teacher Kylene Young, right—a policy fellow with a Gates-backed initiative—works with high-fiving students Angel Hernandez and Samuel Santillon at Pulaski International School of Chicago.
—John Zich for Education Week

Groups target policymakers

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When Kylene Young, a fresh-faced middle school teacher in Chicago, joined a policy-fellows program through Teach Plus last fall, she was excited to meet with prominent individuals, like Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

She enjoyed helping design professional-development opportunities for other teachers on the district's teacher-observation framework. And she got the chance to develop her public voice by writing op-eds.

But, as Ms. Young is now quick to say, she was naive about how her participation in the fellowship with Teach Plus, a teacher-advocacy group, would be perceived by her colleagues. A handful of nasty exchanges on Twitter quickly clued her in that support the group receives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was one sticking point.

"People would say things like, 'You get Gates money. Quit Teach Plus, and then we'll talk,' " said Ms. Young, who teaches special education at the Pulaski International School.


Her situation is representative of a Catch-22 of the Gates Foundation's efforts to engage teachers as it advances changes to their profession. The Seattle-based foundation has put $22 million behind several organizations that, like Teach Plus, aim to elevate teachers' voices in policy discussions. But those groups are frequently viewed with suspicion by teachers' unions and have been depicted as "AstroTurf" organizations set up to support Gates' favored policies.

"On the one hand, it's been a huge problem that teachers haven't had any mechanisms for making their voice heard in these debates. It's an incredibly good thing that we have these groups taking root," noted Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank that receives Gates funding. "But if the only folks with the resources to support and fund these groups are the major foundations pushing forward on the teacher-reform agenda, then it puts the groups in a challenging spot in terms of appearances." (Mr. Hess also writes an opinion blog for edweek.org.)

Despite similar goals, the groups do diverge in how they operate. Teach Plus (subsidized at $9.6 million by Gates) organizes teachers into topical groups, such as evaluation or preparation. The VIVA Project (whose parent organization, New Voice Strategies, has received $860,000 from the foundation) tends to be less directive, with its teachers sharing ideas online and then organizing themselves into writing teams to produce reports aimed at the public and policymakers.

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All of the groups have managed to get their teachers' ideas in front of policymakers in various forums. Teachers in Educators 4 Excellence (with $4 million in Gates aid), for instance, have been influential in encouraging Los Angeles and New York City officials to work test scores into evaluation policies, while VIVA teachers concluded that their evaluations shouldn't be based heavily on test scores and delivered that message to Vicki L. Phillips, the director of Gates' college-ready grantmaking. A fourth group, the Center for Teaching Quality, has received $5.6 million in Gates support for teacher-leadership opportunities.

"These groups do have different points of view, so it's clear the Gates Foundation isn't saying that you absolutely must favor certain sorts of policies all the time," said Ken Libby, a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder, who has studied Gates' teacher-quality philanthropy.

Making Choices

Some of the groups' leaders welcome the conversation about what "teacher voice" really means.

"As an organization, you have to make the choice of amplifying the voices of people who agree with you, or the spectrum of voices, " said Xian Barrett, the national program director for the VIVA Project. "And even then, how you gather people and what the culture of the organization is can affect the results."

Teach Plus, for instance, has an application process and requires policy fellows to have completed between two and ten years of teaching; Educators 4 Excellence teachers are expected to endorse a statement of beliefs, including the need for changes to seniority rules and the tenure milestone. Such requirements ultimately influence who participates.

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For her part, Ms. Young's opinions do not fall on either side of the so-called "education reform" wars in K-12 policy. She is, for instance, skeptical of alternative-certification routes, despite having come into the profession through one, and has reservations about whether Chicago's teacher-evaluation model will be fair for fellow special educators. At the same time, she felt deeply conflicted about last year's seven-day teachers' strike in the Windy City.

"I've learned that there are many different ways you can look at things," Ms. Young said. "Teach Plus encouraged me to listen to individuals, to sit down and talk to people, rather than read articles and posts and take them at face value."

Moving forward, Ms. Young said she is far less interested in national education policy than in addressing issues closer to home, such as what she described as Chicago's "horrible high school application process." As her Teach Plus fellowship ends, she plans to explore solutions through the VIVA group.

Vol. 33, Issue 11, Page 19

Published in Print: November 6, 2013, as Teacher 'Voice' Amplified by Series of Grants
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