School & District Management Commentary

Chat Wrap-Up: Educational Policy Influence

January 17, 2007 3 min read

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:

Read the full transcript of this chat.

Read more chat transcripts.

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.”

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2007 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Educational Policy Influence


Early Childhood Live Online Discussion The Impact of the Coronavirus on Early-Childhood Learning
Join Peter DeWitt and his guests on A Seat at the Table as they discuss the implications of coronavirus on early-childhood learning.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Recruiting and Retaining a More Diverse Teaching Workforce
We discuss the importance of workforce diversity and learn strategies to recruit and retain teachers from diverse backgrounds.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
Student Well-Being Webinar Boosting Teacher and Student Motivation During the Pandemic: What It Takes
Join Alyson Klein and her expert guests for practical tips and discussion on how to keep students and teachers motivated as the pandemic drags on.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Michigan Data Coach- (MGLVA)
Michigan, United States
K12 Inc.
Program Manager, State Solution Delivery
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association
Director of Education
Lexington, Kentucky
Lexington Public Library
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools

Read Next

School & District Management Superintendent Who Led During COVID-19 School Shutdowns Gets Top Honors
Michelle Reid of Washington state's Northshore district, one of the very first to close schools last March, was named National Superintendent of the Year.
3 min read
Michelle Reid, superintendent of the Northshore district in Washington
Michelle Reid, the superintendent of the Northshore district in Washington, was named National Superintendent of the Year.
courtesy of AASA, the School Superintendents Association
School & District Management Is Lunchtime the 'Weak Link' in School Reopening Plans?
It's risky when students are inside and unmasked, experts say. Here are five ways to mitigate that risk and make in-school meals safer.
11 min read
Elementary students in Brownsville, Texas, eat a socially distanced lunch in the school cafeteria. Experts say there are ways to mitigate the risk of contracting COVID-19 even when kids take their masks off to eat.
Elementary students in Brownsville, Texas, eat a socially distanced lunch in the school cafeteria. Experts say there are ways to mitigate the risk of contracting COVID-19 when kids take their masks off to eat.
Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP
School & District Management Los Angeles Unified Shrinks Police Budget. Money Will Support Black Student Achievement
The board overseeing the Los Angeles Unified School District has cut $25 million from the budget for school police and will use the money to help fund an achievement plan for Black students.
1 min read
Demonstrators holds signs during a protest to demand the defunding of the Los Angeles school district police outside of the school board headquarters on June 23, 2020, in Los Angeles.
Demonstrators holds signs during a protest to demand the defunding of the Los Angeles school district police outside of the school board headquarters on June 23, 2020, in Los Angeles.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
School & District Management 6 Big Questions Superintendents Are Asking About the CDC Guidance
School leaders' queries show the challenges and concerns they face over resuming in-person teaching.
7 min read
President Joe Biden speaks during a visit to National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. on Feb. 11, 2021. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, Feb. 12, released long-awaited guidance telling schools what measures are needed to teach in-person during the pandemic. Biden requested the updated guidance in response to complaints that the CDC’s school guidelines under the Trump administration were unclear and inconsistent.
A teacher works with a student behind plexi-glass in Chicago. Superintendents asked CDC officials this week whether using plexi-glass would allow them to shorten social distances in classrooms.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP