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College Board Steals Stefanie Sanford from Gates

By Rick Hess — December 05, 2012 4 min read
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A few years back, when the Gates Foundation started recruiting a slew of super smart, extraordinarily influential people away from their old jobs, I observed that Gates had become the New York Yankees (or, less charitably, the Washington Redskins) of education. Well, now, after Common Core impresario David Coleman took the helm of the College Board a few weeks back, he has quickly made it clear that, if Gates is the Yankees, he’s ready to be the big-spending Boston Red Sox. In the first of what I suspect will be a series of attention-grabbing hires, he’s recruited policy/advocacy rock star Stefanie Sanford away from Gates to serve as the College Board’s chief of policy, advocacy, and government relations.

This is big news. At Gates, Sanford operates mostly under the radar (it’s kind of the job description and all.) Of her role, she says, “I am a behind-the-scenes operator. I’m very close to my grandmother, and she taught me you should never talk about yourself.” But, over the course of more than a decade, Sanford has earned enormous sway at Gates when it comes to policy and government affairs, eventually rising to director of policy and advocacy for US programs. She’s the one who takes Bill Gates around Capitol Hill and is the face of the Gates Foundation in Washington. And she’s a serious policy thinker in her own right, earning a Ph.D. from UT-Austin and penning the terrific book Civic Life in the Information Age: Politics, Technology, and Generation X.

Sanford will depart Gates in mid-January and start at the College Board on March 1. She’ll remain in DC and continue to operate at the hub of many networks and much activity. Her occasional intimate dinners, with their lineups of influentials from the world of schooling and beyond, will continue to be the site of crucial conversations and arguments.

Asked about her new role, Sanford says much of it is still to be defined. She says she’s not sure how big her team will be or what new hires she might be making. She says her focus will include promoting transparency, collaborating with states, and exploring “how you make assessment useful” for students and teachers. She says, “I’m really excited about the vision that David has for the role of the College Board and his insistence that excellence and equity are complementary, when we sometimes see them as conflicting.” She says she’s looking forward to being more involved in operations, and that, “Being a funder is interesting and great, but you’re somewhat removed from the work.”

She notes that the College Board started a policy and advocacy center a few years back and that it’s done some reports and held some convenings, but that she hopes to make that presence “more robust and strategic.” She says she wants to imitate the “kinds of partnerships that we built at Gates, where I’ve learned how to create those kinds of really diverse partnerships... and the ways you get people together around ideas.”

As for leaving her old gig, she recalls Gates had just 200 employees when she started more than a decade ago, and “125 of those were library trainers and computer installers.” Of her proudest accomplishments at Gates, she says, “One was the grad[uate] rate compact. That was a big deal. Before that, people just didn’t understand what was going on with high school graduation rates. One state was just measuring how many kids started and finished twelfth grade. You had people confused all over the country... We used the power of data to really shine a light on the problem and do something.” She also cites the Common Core, saying, “For all the talk of the Common Core being an overnight success, there were a lot of staff and advisers and researchers working on college readiness since 2003.” Now, in heading to the College Board, she says, “We’ll be focusing on the Common Core as a means, rather than an end. I’m excited about that opportunity.”

Regarding the Common Core, it’s a sure bet that opponents will, with some cause, point to this as another example of why they think of the whole exercise as having been pushed by a small band of interlocking influentials at places like Gates, the Obama administration, and (now) the College Board. For proponents who insist this is a state-led effort, having the chief of advocacy for Gates head to the College Board where she’ll help Coleman promote the Core does complicate their messaging. Nonetheless, despite any short-term p.r. turbulence, Sanford’s move is a serious win for Common Core enthusiasts. She’s smart, serious, informed, and connected, and brings a whole lot of know-how and gravitas. In her new role, she says that one of her priorities is to push back against the notion that “we adopt the Common Core and then the magic happens.”

Personally, I’m sad to see Sanford leave Gates. She was a crucial go-to when those of us outside the emerald city wanted to share concerns about groupthink or missteps. With her unassuming Texas demeanor, Sanford listens hard even to concerns about her most cherished initiatives. That’s rare at any foundation, and especially one as outsized as Gates. Indeed, Sanford notes that foundation staff can get starved for honest feedback and says, “You’ve got to ask for feedback. And building relationships, building trust, makes it easier for people to tell the truth.”

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