School & District Management

Humble Origins, Influential Posts Shape Views of New Gates Chief

September 04, 2007 7 min read
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Vicki L. Phillips has seen the education system from a variety of vantage points—classroom teacher, nonprofit leader helping overhaul the Philadelphia school system, state secretary of education in Pennsylvania, and district superintendent twice over.

Now, she has stepped up to her farthest-reaching perch. In August, Ms. Phillips became the new education chief at the nation’s largest philanthropy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed about $1.7 billion since 1999 to its agenda for improving high schools and increasing graduation rates.

Ms. Phillips is no stranger to Gates. The foundation has provided millions to help fuel education changes in the two districts she ran, in Lancaster, Pa., and, most recently, in Portland, Ore. (The foundation also provides support for Education Week’s annual Diplomas Count report.)

Tom Vander Ark, who resigned last December as the Seattle-based philanthropy’s top education official, said he’s long been impressed with Ms. Phillips’ work.

“Vicki just has a terrific résumé for this job,” said Mr. Vander Ark, now the president of the X Prize Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif. “She’s seen this work from enough angles and come at it from enough different directions that she has a great knowledge and experience base to draw from.”

Instructional Focus

Ms. Phillips, 49, is often described as a decisive leader with a deep understanding of education and the political savvy to advance an agenda.

Observers say she brings a background steeped in the work of systemic reform: broad-based efforts centered on high standards with aligned assessments, accountability, and a variety of supports and public outreach. One element of her approach to school change that’s been a hallmark, some people suggest, is her focus on the need for high-quality instruction in all classrooms.

Friends and admirers say Ms. Phillips’ humble beginnings—raised in a poor, rural community—have profoundly shaped her philosophy.

“Vicki is very focused on creating opportunities for all kids, and reaching out to less advantaged populations,” said Sandra McDonough, who heads the Portland Business Alliance, which advocates for the city’s business community. “It’s in her DNA.”

Yet, with the high-profile posts she’s held, Ms. Phillips has acquired plenty of critics.

Jeff S. Miller, the president of the Portland Association of Teachers, an affiliate of the National Education Association, attacked some of her actions during her three years in the Oregon district, including efforts to more closely align instruction across schools and merge some schools into K-8 campuses.

He described her approach to education reform as “trendy and shallow.” Mr. Miller also contends that she liked to talk about collaboration, but rarely delivered.

“She would pay lip service … to the importance of engaging us in consultation on district initiatives,” he said. “More often, it turned out to be lip service and nothing more.”

Rural Roots

By background, Ms. Phillips seems cut out for a job advancing Gates’ initiatives to help students, especially the disadvantaged, reach college and find success.

She grew up on a small tobacco farm in western Kentucky, in a house without an indoor bathroom. She’s described her family and public school as never having encouraged college. Her stepfather was initially dead-set against it, she has said.

“In my entire high school career, not one adult talked to me about going to college—no teacher, no counselor, not the principal,” she recalled in a biographical sketch she provided for a book, When You Were Fifteen: An Anthology About Why Adults Matter to Children, published in 2006. “I had straight A’s, … but they thought that because I was from Falls of Rough, I would never go to college.”

Vicki L. Phillips


Simpson County (Ky.) Public Schools
Teacher, middle and high school, 1981-85

Kentucky Department of Education
Various posts, including exceptional-child consultant and chief executive assistant to Kentucky’s commissioner of education, 1986-93

U.S. Department of Education
Special assistant to the director, division of assistance to states, 1989

National Alliance for Restructuring Education
Deputy director/chief of staff, 1993-95

Children Achieving Challenge
Executive director Greater Philadelphia First Partnership for Reform Director, 1995-98

Lancaster (Pa.) Public Schools
Superintendent, 1998-2003

Pennsylvania Department of Education
Secretary of education, 2003-04

Portland (Ore.) Public Schools
Superintendent, 2004-07

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Director, education initiative, 2007


• B.S. in elementary and special education, Western Kentucky University, 1980

• M.A. in school psychology, Western Kentucky University, 1987

• Ed.D. in educational leadership and management University of Lincoln, England, 2002

SOURCE: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Gates Foundation declined Education Week’s requests to speak with Ms. Phillips, saying she is not granting media interviews during her first months on the job.

In choosing the former superintendent, the foundation has emphasized her background, her knowledge base, and what it calls her “strong track record” improving schools.

“She’s very impatient with the status quo,” Allan C. Golston, the president of the U.S. program at Gates, told Education Week in April when she was named.

He and other Gates officials caution, however, that the leadership change should not be viewed as signalling a shift in the philanthropy’s approach.

Ms. Phillips got her initiation in policy in Kentucky, where she helped the state education agency overhaul the K-12 system. A 1990 state law, enacted in response to a state supreme court ruling, spurred vast changes, including a new system of standards and assessments and many other initiatives.

“She understood [systemic reform] at a depth that not many other people understood,” said David W. Hornbeck, who was deeply involved in the work and later was the superintendent in Philadelphia. “The power of the change arises from the synergy of the various pieces.”

Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington research and advocacy group that worked with Ms. Phillips in Lancaster and Portland, said she’s been especially struck by the former superintendent’s efforts to improve classroom teaching.

“She’s as focused as they come around instruction,” she said.

Ms. Haycock, whose organization receives support from the Gates Foundation, predicts that Ms. Phillips will push the philanthropy to go further in helping school systems bolster curriculum and instruction, work the foundation—best known for promoting smaller learning environments— has begun to get more involved in.

As Portland’s superintendent, Ms. Phillips moved to shore up the district’s finances and repaired relations with the state legislature and business community, observers say. She worked to close eight schools amid declining enrollment, and to convert many others into K-8 campuses.

She also took steps toward developing a core curriculum for the district and ensuring better instruction across the system.

Ms. Phillips’ supporters in Portland say she was a strong, inclusive leader who showed a genuine devotion to raising the achievement of low-income and minority students. Critics say she moved too fast and didn’t do enough to ensure community buy-in.

Martin M. Gonzalez, the president of the Portland Schools Alliance, an advocacy group for parents and educators, said that Ms. Phillips didn’t take public input seriously, and that she left without seeing her plans through. “She didn’t stick around to see if it worked,” he said of her agenda.

But some parent activists say they believe Ms. Phillips did what needed to be done.

“She’s very action-oriented,” said Doug A.Wells, the president of Community and Parents for Public Schools, the Portland chapter of Parents for Public Schools, a national grassroots organization. “I personally found her style refreshing. … When it started happening, some found it challenging.”

An April editorial by The Oregonian newspaper titled “A Job Left Undone” offered much praise for Ms. Phillips mixed with some complaints, especially her decision to leave after just three years.

“[T]he community is much better off because of her capable leadership,” it said, but ultimately the superintendent left “work undone and major educational reforms barely started.”

As Ms. Phillips starts at Gates, some analysts see her as bringing a conventional approach that they view as a missed opportunity.

Eugene W. Hickok, a former deputy U.S. secretary of education under President Bush, praised her support of high standards and accountability, but said he doubts she’ll really push the envelope.

“At Gates, she has a chance to help redefine what we all think of as education,” said Mr. Hickok, a former Pennsylvania education secretary. “I don’t think she’s a dramatically different thinker.”

‘In the Box’ Thinker?

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Bethesda, Md.-based research and advocacy group for charter schools and vouchers, said she hasn’t seen evidence that Ms. Phillips is enthusiastic about expanding charters and other such educational options. “She’s pretty much ‘in the box’ and representing a conventional way of thinking,” Ms. Allen contended.

But others say that Ms. Phillips brings a powerful vision for change, and that her experience is just what the Gates Foundation needs. “If you look at Vicki’s various jobs, they’ve all been about change,” said Thomas C. Boysen, a senior vice president with the Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., who first knew Ms. Phillips when he was Kentucky’s schools chief.

“Vicki brings a deep understanding of how to push systems and, if necessary, transform them,” said Warren Simmons, the executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, based at Brown University in Providence, R.I. “[Gates] has an abundance of individuals … whose primary experience has been outside traditional systems. This brings a refreshing balance.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2007 edition of Education Week


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