Teaching Profession

For Gates, Same Agenda Draws Support, Critiques

By Liana Loewus — October 13, 2015 7 min read
Bill Gates gives his keynote address at the U.S. Education Learning Forum put on by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Bellevue, Wash.

With the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation vowing to double down on its current efforts to raise academic standards and improve teacher quality, educators here and around the country have retreated to their usual camps—some supporting the group for its steadfastness and others freshly condemning it.

The foundation announced its plans to stay the course during a two-day forum last week that gathered grant recipients from across the country. The teacher-focused panels and speeches at the event seemed to hammer home the message as well: That teachers—as well as measures to support them and hold them accountable—lie at the center of the foundation’s plan for improving the U.S. education system.

The conference here served somewhat as a celebration of Gates’ 15 years in the education-funding business. “I believe we are on the right track,” Bill Gates said in a keynote speech at the U.S. Learning Forum Oct. 7. “For today, and for the coming years, this is our vision: Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal.”

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank and Gates grantee, said continuing the current work is not a bad idea for the Gates foundation.

“American education has far more faddism and short-term bandwagon-jumping than it needs,” said Hess, who did not attend the forum.

However, Hess also said that he hopes that “part of staying the course is backing away from grandiose efforts to make everybody do this right now the same way.”

Elsewhere beyond the Bellevue gathering, some educators and advocates were more sharply critical about the past and future direction of the foundation. They said that the group is trying to fix teachers when poverty is the problem. And that Gates, in concert with the federal government, has pushed too many changes too quickly.

“The Gates reforms of [Common Core State Standards] plus testing plus teacher evaluation based on test scores has been a disaster in New York,” said Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education and a vocal Gates critic. “They’ve done a lot more damage than good.” Burris was previously a principal in the Rockville Center school district in New York.

Improving Teaching

Gates first laid out the foundation’s teacher-effectiveness strategy during a similar speech seven years ago. Since then, the foundation has been involved in a variety of projects related to teacher quality and professional development, including the Measures of Effective Teaching project. Between 2008 and 2013, the group spent nearly $700 million on teacher-related initiatives. (Education Week has received several grants from the Gates Foundation over the past decade, most recently for coverage of implementation of college- and career-ready standards.)

While there’s no shift in direction, there will be more even more emphasis on professional learning and support, said Vicki Phillips, the director of the foundation’s college-readiness program. And in terms of teacher evaluations, “we need to put our shoulder into making sure the feedback teachers get is actionable.”

Perhaps the most controversial of Gates’ efforts has been its focus on linking test scores to teacher evaluations. In his keynote, Gates acknowledged that debate and emphasized that student growth should be just one piece of an evaluation. He pointed to Denver’s teacher evaluation system, which combines observations, student surveys, and test scores, as a model.

“This isn’t a system for sorting teachers into groups; it’s a framework for moving up the learning line together,” Gates said. “The principal can visit the class, discuss it with the teacher, and decide together where the teacher stands. If they’re not satisfied, they can settle on a plan for getting better, including coaching from fellow teachers.”

Promise and Pitfall

Conference attendee Dean Marolla-Turner, a principal at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, part of a Los Angeles charter network, offered a view of both the potential and the pitfalls of Gates’ theory of action regarding teachers.

Under a Gates grant, his school has moved from basing salary on seniority to a performance-based pay system, he said. Coaches help teachers pinpoint weaknesses and improve on them—and Marolla-Turner says he’s seen classrooms change as a result.

“I walk into classrooms where students used to be afraid to ask questions, and now they’re stopping the teacher to say, ‘Wait, I don’t understand,’ ” he said.

That doesn’t mean implementation has been easy, though—some teachers have pushed back on the system, which incorporates student-growth scores. “They think there are too many things for them to work on, too many components,” Marolla-Turner said. “I’m concerned. … Teachers are wanting to move away from [the model].”

Linking test scores to evaluations has been especially problematic in New York, according to Burris. “There’s a reason that over 220,000 students opted out of the common-core exams,” she said. “If you talk to parents in the opt-out movement ... what they say universally is they do not want their teachers evaluated by test scores because they understand that when they are, there’s a hyper-focus on teaching to the test.”

Gates is living in “an echo chamber,” Melissa Westbrook, a public education advocate in Washington state, said in an email. “He says he was surprised at the pushback and outcry over common core and testing and yet seems to want to forge on in that direction. Yet, all around the country, the dominoes are falling in a line against a focus on those two issues.”

The kinds of changes the Gates Foundation has pushed over the years are still subject to swings in public perception, Gates acknowledged in a discussion with Gwen Ifill, co-anchor of the PBS NewsHour. The most disappointing part of working on U.S. education is that “the work can go backwards,” he said. “Nobody votes to un-invent our malaria vaccine,” he added, in reference to the group’s global health work.

The foundation’s investments in teacher effectiveness will continue to fall into several categories, Phillips said. Those include professional learning, teacher tools and supports, increased time for planning and collaboration, and teacher voice. “The No. 1 thing teachers tell us they need is time. We’re figuring out how they can get more time to collaborate,” she said.

Phillips declined to offer financial details on future grantmaking, except to say, “We set our priorities and invest around that. ... We’re still investing healthy numbers as we have been doing.” She did say that the foundation is waiting on the results from a RAND study on personalized learning, due in November, that could affect funding priorities.

Common Core

As for the common-core standards, which the foundation has backed since conception, Gates praised them again in his speech. “It’s unfortunate that many of the attacks about the common core have drowned out the facts—and the fact is, the standards are starting to work for students and teachers.” He said the standards have made it easier for teachers to find materials online that meet their needs, and have given educators a common taxonomy.

Overall, the event made clear that teacher effectiveness will remain a priority for the foundation for many years to come. Thelma Jackson, co-founder of the Black Education Strategy Roundtable in Washington, which has received about $350,000 in grant funding from Gates, said that’s a good thing.

Bill & Melinda Gates “are portrayed ... as having a sinister agenda,” said Jackson. “But their agenda is my agenda. … They’re working for equity and ridding the system of disproportionality. They’re deliberate about it.”

Teachers’ unions are among those concerned that the focus on teacher performance could distract from factors like poverty and opportunity.

Andrea Prejean, director of teacher quality for the National Education Foundation, said in a statement, “Mr. Gates’ comments center on in-school factors, but we believe that we must discuss these issues as part of a system where all students have what they need both inside and outside the school building.” The group has received Gates funding in the past but does not now.

The other national teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, which stopped taking Gates money for its innovation fund in 2013, declined to comment on the speech.

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as Gates’ Plan to Stay the Course Draws Support, Criticism

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